South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
When the UK voted “Brexit”, much of the world felt disbelief. Faced with the prospect of Donald Trump becoming US president, people across the globe have reacted with dread. And as more bombs fall on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, many have become so dulled by the horrific onslaught that they no longer know what to feel.
So Colombia’s peace accord this week provided a rare moment of hope. The agreement, signed by the government and the country’s largest Marxist rebel group, brings down the curtain on guerrilla-inspired revolutionary movements in Latin America and runs parallel to hopes of change in communist Cuba. Moreover, if violent Colombia can end its conflict — the western hemisphere’s oldest — that gives hope that the seemingly endless crisis in neighbouring Venezuela can also be resolved.
In a world beset by division and rancour, here — surely — is something to feel good about.
If only it was so simple.
Most Colombians are deeply ambivalent about what the rest of the world so enthusiastically supports. Their feelings will be revealed this Sunday in a national referendum that will either ratify or reject the peace accord — and the mood before the vote recalls much of the campaigning before the UK’s poll on whether to leave the EU.
The similarities are striking. As with the Remain campaign in the UK, the Yes campaign in Colombia has sometimes treated the No vote with metropolitan condescension. How can you possibly be against peace, runs this bien pensantsubtext? “Easily”, comes the response: the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, are “narco-terrorists” who can never be trusted.
The Colombian No campaign has also played on fear, much as the Brexit campaign did. While Brexiters suggested the UK would be overrun by refugee immigrants if it remained in the EU, Colombia’s No side suggests that allowing Farc members to surrender their arms and become politicians will lead to a Venezuelan-style “Castro-Chavismo” subversion of the country.
As in the UK, the Colombian government has tapped the opinions of foreign “experts” and world leaders, from the Pope to Barack Obama, to bolster the Yes case. One implicit message, as in the UK, is that a No vote will diminish the country’s international image — as it surely would. There are worries in business circles that a No vote would sap investor confidence and cause a collapse in the currency — as in the UK.
Nonetheless, much of the No campaign is carrying on regardless. The greater the international support for a Yes vote, the greater its sense of being condescended to — and the greater the vigour of its arguments that the complexities of Colombian history are being ignored. This somewhat recalls Brexit campaigners’ arguments for British exceptionalism in the face of near-universal international support for the UK to Remain.
It was moving to stand in the public square in Cartagena on Monday, where the signing of the peace accord took place. Everyone wore white. Much of the audience was absorbed by private memories of the conflict, and what its resolution might mean. To my left, a woman wept quietly. To my right, a businessman wiped away his tears. Behind me, a police captain comforted his wife. Yet few of Colombia’s 50m people will vote with such deep emotion.
Every peace agreement, like every international treaty or trade deal, is a compromise. So if there was a “Yes. But” option on the ballot, it would easily win. Yet there are only two options: No and Yes. Polls suggest the Yes vote will prevail. But who, after Brexit, trusts polls any more?
Much like the UK, Colombians will vote with their consciences this Sunday irrespective of either campaign. Certainly, talking to Colombians across the social spectrum, I am yet to meet an enthusiastic Yes voter. More say they will vote No — if they bother to vote at all. An unpleasant surprise is certainly possible. Those fearing a Trump presidency will take it as a bad omen for the US election in November.