The surprise public vote against a Colombian peace deal with leftist rebels is not only an embarrassment for U.S. and world leaders who took part in an elaborate but premature signing ceremony last week, but it also raises serious foreign-policy questions about what the United States is spending nearly $400 million annually to support.
The vote is a setback for one of President Barack Obama’s priorities in Latin America. Obama promised millions to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to implement a complex peace deal that would have disarmed thousands of rebel fighters and ended an insurgency that has endured for 51 years.
“Are we paying for peace or war or what?” said Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist. “This is the first time ever that the United States doesn’t know what it’s going to pay for.”
On Sunday, Colombians narrowly rejected a peace deal that would have ended more than a half-century of bloody conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, and threw the nation into a political tailspin.
Members of the Obama administration sent stunned text messages across Washington and likely the hemisphere trying to make sense of why Colombians would risk sending their country back into bloody conflict that had already killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
Just a week ago, Secretary of State John Kerry joined Colombian officials, the U.N. secretary general and some 15 heads of state, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, for a signing ceremony that now looks silly.
It’s tough to blame those who were surprised. Reminiscent of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, the Colombian outcome defied popular polls that had found that the peace deal would coast to victory by a double-digit margin.
Secretary of State John Kerry joined Santos, the commander of the FARC, the U.N. secretary-general and some 15 heads of state all dressed in white as a symbol of peace during last Monday’s high-profile signing ceremony, which now looks silly.
Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño have promised to continue working toward a peaceful resolution. Kerry, via his spokesman, pledged the United States’ support to that effort but noted that difficult challenges await.
“The United States commends the government and people of Colombia for the democratic process held yesterday and recognizes that difficult decisions are going to have to be taken in the days ahead,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “democracy can be messy” and that it was important to respect the will of the Colombian people.
“The good news is that all sides, including the voters, I think, are still focused on trying to reach this negotiated peace and that certainly is within the national security of the United States to end this war, and we’re going to encourage all sides to pursue that peace,” Earnest said.
Many Colombians have strong reservations about negotiating with the guerrilla group known for drug trafficking and kidnappings.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who had misgivings about negotiating with a State Department-designated terrorist organization, said the United States must respect the will of the Colombian people.
“The U.S. should continue to support Colombia's efforts to eliminate narcoterrorists and traffickers, but the Obama Administration should not use any of this money to support a peace deal rejected by the Colombian people,” Rubio said.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., applauded Colombians for rejecting what she described as a “weak deal” that many thought let FARC members off easy. The United States has invested too much in Colombia to support a deal that moves the country “backwards by empowering the FARC,” she said.
“FARC members must be held accountable for their horrific crimes and give up the fortune they have accumulated from drug trafficking, extortions and kidnappings,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The outcome of the vote will likely be analyzed for years to come, but Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American dialogue, said Santos may have been hurt by the international fanfare and public display of warmth toward the FARC during the festivities.
Are we paying for peace or war or what?
Gregory Weeks, The Latin Americanist
International support cuts both ways, said Shifter. It can give a campaign a push, but the war is deeply personal for many Colombian families, and they may have not appreciated world leaders weighing in so publicly via the ceremony on what is considered an intimate national decision.
“I wonder to what extent there was this ‘Who are these foreign leaders to tell us how we should vote?’ ” said Shifter. “Having all that international presence may have hurt as much as it helped.”
Colombia, the fourth largest economy in Latin America, is considered a major success story for U.S. foreign policy. Supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence.
The strategy helped cut Colombia’s coca crop and allowed the Colombian government to regain control over wide areas of the country that had been lost to the rebels.
The current administration’s budget includes $390 million to shift to implementing the peace plan, though it originally had sought $450 million.
I have already gotten text messages from members of the administration saying ‘what the hell is going on.’
Michael Shifter, Inter-American Dialogue
The failed vote is a major blow for Santos, who staked his presidency on bringing an end to a conflict, and a huge victory for the influential former President Alvaro Uribe, whose relentless campaign opposing the deal proved influential.
“I will not give up,” Santos said after the vote.
Obama officials applauded the democratic process and said they would continue to back the Colombian people’s desire for a peaceful solution.
But clearly the hope was that Colombian voters would have supported the effort instead of forcing their leaders to start over.