Colombia’s Proof That Democracy Doesn’t Work. Martín Caparros

 Reacting to the failed referendum for a peace accord in Cali, Colombia, on Oct. 2. Credit Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Reacting to the failed referendum for a peace accord in Cali, Colombia, on Oct. 2. Credit Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Martín Caparros, periodista argentino

Martín Caparros, 7 octubre 2016 / THE NEW YORK TIMES

MEDELLÍN, Colombia —It’s a sad country,” says a girl with long copper-colored hair and a dazed look as she puts her phone away while holding back tears. “Sad, indeed,” answers a close-to-elderly man. And around them, in this Colombian plaza, in Medellín, many could say the same. There are moments when citizens come across something that they don’t recognize, and then that something turns out to be their country. That discovery, the horror of that discovery — that’s the feeling so many Colombians had last Sunday night.

The plebiscite on the peace agreement had just concluded; among 13 million voters, No had prevailed by almost 54,000 votes, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. Four years of negotiations between the government and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were going up in smoke. Bewilderment was taking over.

NEW YORK TIMESSeven days earlier, in contrast, everything was rejoicing and pomp, with nearly all the major polls predicting a big victory for the agreement. Someday, someone will speak about it as the greatest historical event that never took place: In Cartagena, peace with a capital P was being celebrated with a wealth of speeches, doves, the presence of kings, bishops, children, presidents. Decked out in white, everyone celebrated the signing of an agreement that will never come to pass.

It was the biggest mistake by a politician who has made a mountain of errors. President Juan Manuel Santos (who won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday) could have made the agreement official without the need of a plebiscite, but he yielded to the temptation of obtaining, through this peace accord, the support of his fugitive voters. Juan Domingo Perón, a very astute general who kept Argentina at his feet for half a century, was fond of saying, “The best is usually the enemy of the good.” President Santos didn’t know that, or didn’t abide by it, and now he’s paying the price. And all of his citizens are likewise paying.

The Yes vote won in Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena, and lost in the country’s other big cities. Yes was also the winner by an overwhelming majority in those areas most affected by the war: Chocó, Cauca, Putumayo and Vaupés. In Bojayá, site of the worst massacre carried out by the FARC — in 2002, more than 100 people died inside a church that was bombed by the guerrillas — the Yes for reconciliation won by 96 percent. The Colombian news website La Silla Vacia, citing the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, reported that in 67 of the 81 municipalities most affected by the conflict, Yes was the winner.

Often, war is rejected by those who have experienced it; those who see it from afar can afford the luxury of wanting it to continue.

Many speak about Colombia these days as if it were a country severed in two. But what exists is a country divided into three. Those who voted Yes account for just over 19 percent of the Colombian electorate; those who voted No also account for just over 19 percent; those who did not come out to vote are over 60 percent of Colombians. And that is, in the long term, the biggest problem of all.

The agreement was hailed by some as an extraordinary achievement, the end of an interminable war, an opportunity for the country’s development to take off. Others considered the agreement a cowardly concession, posing the danger of a “Castro-Chavismo” nation, as the double defeat of dishonor. But it was assumed that the plebiscite that would decide the issue would be a great moment for the Colombian people, their chance for true democracy to prevail. Yet 20 million Colombians did not vote.

There’s a segment of the population in which decisions of this nature are debated, are deeply felt, and are apparently acted upon. There are many other Colombians who have decided not to decide, and yet it is they who decided this referendum.

The mechanism of representation doesn’t work. Democracy is in trouble. And not only in Colombia, of course. Voting, to which so many aspired for so long, has become a burden or has been forgotten by so many. There are reasons for this, but there’s a factor that confounds all of them: Those who elect not to elect do so because they don’t think they are actually electing anything. Then they wash their hands of the matter and accept, for a while, being left out. But inevitably, little by little, they will start looking for ways in which they can exert influence. From what we see, democracy is not one of those ways.

This is the problem in the long term. In the short term, the Colombian government will try to persuade the FARC chiefs to reopen a negotiation aimed at getting them to accept terms inferior to the just-rejected peace deal. A disappointed President Santos says he is going to ask the No parties what they want. And everyone knows that above all they want some sort of punishment for the guerrillas. How are the guerrillas going to be persuaded to accept it?

“Let them be punished by serving jail terms, sir. And don’t give them any money. I wake up at 4 o’clock every morning in order to earn 689,000 pesos” — just a little over $200 — “and they were being paid for doing nothing, for committing crimes, because they’re not going to give up vice just like that.” That’s what I was told Sunday by an employee at a gas station here in Medellín, bastion of the No vote and of its hero, Álvaro Uribe, the former president. Resentment was one of the reasons for the No, but, as usual, fear was an even stronger one. How is it possible to accept that those who were always enemies will now become part of us?

No one knows what’s coming next. The scenarios are opening up like the folds of a fan: new negotiations, new battles, new agreements or new failures. It’s clear only that everyone has lost a lot of time and that, after last Sunday, an increasing number of Colombians do not understand other Colombians, and they don’t understand the country they are living in.

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