MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Last Saturday, a team of international bomb experts under United Nations auspices oversaw a controlled detonation of 620 kilograms of explosives owned by the FARC, the most enduring guerrilla army in South America. Everything was running to plan. Peace, it seemed, was at hand. There was even a Flickr page showing the explosion, giving the team’s FARC colleagues a photo credit.
A mere week ago, luminaries, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, had travelled to Cartagena clad head to toe in white to celebrate the imminent peace.
“That was just one of their mistakes. It was very arrogant,” says Favio, who tells me he is 57 but declines to give his last name as we talk in a plaza in the very center of this city. “Still, I was very surprised when ‘No’ won.”
So was most of the rest of the world, because “No” was Colombia’s vote against the peace deal negotiated between President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana after decades of war. Former President Álvaro Uribe had led a campaign claiming the accord gave away too much to the rebels, and when referendum day came on Sunday, that reasoning—along with voter apathy—defeated the agreement.
By the very slimmest of margins—50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, fewer than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million cast—peace went down in defeat. Yet only last month, a poll had shown 62 percent voting for ‘Yes’ and an expectation that half of the 34 million registered to vote would turn out. Then, on D-Day, as the referendum date was called, 21 million of those voters stayed at home.
“Santos conceded everything and he told people in the countryside that if they voted No the war would continue, which is not true,” says Favio, hunched over a cigarette and ignoring the start of the afternoon rain. He does not explain his reasoning, he just says, “People are very ignorant these days. It’s the same in the U.S.”
Around the corner of the same plaza I meet David, a 33-year-old anthropology student. His hair is in a ponytail. He sits next to his friend from Uruguay. She thinks people here are crazy for voting No.
“I worked as an activist for Sí,” he says. In the neighbourhood of Belén, he tells me, priests kicked him out of a church where they gave anti-communist sermons that helped the No vote.
“I wasn’t expecting this result. Everyone on my social networks and all my friends voted for Sí,” David says.
Edwin Andrés, 37, is wiping down his truck in the affluent neighborhood of Poblado. He doesn’t support Uribe, the former president who became the spearhead of the No campaign, but he would have cast his ballot against the agreement anyway, he says, if he had voted. But he didn’t. He says he thought the vote would be rigged.
“I was very surprised by the result. I thought it would be fixed by Santos for Sí, but No won,” said Andrés.
This city, once famous as the stronghold of Pablo Escobar and his cocaine cartel, is far from the battlefields of the coke-fueled insurgency let by the FARC, or, as it’s also called, FARC-EP, the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army. Medellín voted 62 percent No.
So, as I talked to people here, I asked why they think the areas most affected by the war voted overwhelmingly in favor of the peace deal.
Bojayá, a town in troubled Choco state in the interior of the country, was the scene in 2002 of one of the FARC’s most brutal and most remembered attacks. Terrified citizens fled into a church to avoid a gunfight between the FARC and a right-wing paramilitary group, the AUC. More than a hundred people died when a gas cylinder loaded with dynamite exploded. Yet in Bojavá on Sunday 95 percent voted for Sí.
“It’s impossible,” Edwin Andrés tells me. “They must have fixed it.”
I’m a little confused. Didn’t Andrés just say that he thought Santos would rig the election and was surprised he didn’t?
The underlying theory among many of the No-voters and non-voters I talk to seems to be that rural folk in the provinces were corralled, influenced, didn’t understand, or in some other way were coerced into saying yes, while in the cities the vote was scrutinised and there was little or no fraud, hence the heavy No vote. (“I have to give them credit,” Favio says, “I was watching at the polls and it is impossible to cheat.”)
This reasoning has something in common with the other paradoxical rationalization I encounter. Many in Medellín have begun to tell themselves those people in the cities who did vote yes did so because they were not affected by the war, while the people in the countryside who were affected and voted yes were coerced.
“This is just my opinion, but I don’t know if people knew what Sí and No meant,” say Nick. “Maybe they thought No meant no to peace when really it meant no to the agreement.”
Nick, 33, runs his own cab company and knows all sorts. He voted no, but some of his closest friends voted Sí and he takes me to meet them. His friend Vidal moved from Chocó province four years ago because there were special educational scholarships for Afro-Colombians here. He comes from a family of fishermen and grocers. His cousins were killed during the conflict.
“Today I’m worried for my family,” says Vidal. “It’s more than just FARC in Chocó, it is the paramilitaries as well. There could be a crackdown.”
Vidal takes me to ESAP, a school for public and government administration. We interrupt a lesson. Diana sits in the very back corner, wearing a pink fleece and twiddling with a pendant on her necklace.
“The reality is we are the city of No,” she says. “First we have to realize almost everyone on the No committee is a potential presidential candidate in 2018. So it is just posturing. The amount of disinformation was incredible.”
A common refrain was that with the peace agreement Colombia would become like Venezuela, dominated by anti-democratic left-wing demagogues, if, as the agreement would have allowed, the FARC participates in elections.
Maria Elena Alvarez is the chief of the campaign for No in Antioquia, the state with Medellín as its capital. The Venezuela analogy “is not too dramatic a comparison,” she says. “Step by step it can happen. People say they are only being granted a few seats but they could hold the balance of power in a coalition government.”
Sebastián Ramírez-Vidal is an activist and legal representative for the Campaign for No in Antioquia. He wants to tell me about Gramscian infiltration and about how the FARC is already deep in the judiciary, the executive, and so on.
The No campaign, says Ramírez-Vidal, has often been denied its right to assembly here. When I ask him about the vote on the periphery, he explains, “It’s not necessarily direct corruption. But a local mayor can just threaten to hold up public works unless people vote the way he wants. They haven’t given up anything.”
“You have to understand how powerful the FARC was,” Juan Esteban tells me. He works in digital marketing, is in his thirties, and has one leg out of his hammock as we talk. “I voted yes because we have lost enough life already. We will never become like Venezuela. We have our own idiosyncrasies and our economy is totally different.”
Edwin Andrés has been polishing the elbow of his wing mirror while talking to me. He halts for a second and rests his hands on the perpendicular. “What’s going to happen next?” I ask. Most people who voted No say everyone wants peace and it will happen. But he doesn’t seem to believe that line. “In a few years?” I ask.
“The war will return,” he says. Something about his comfort in paradox makes me feel that he might know an uncomfortable, perhaps inevitable truth.