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.
by: Andres Schipani in La Macarena and John Paul Rathbone in Barranquilla
Jorge Enrique Gómez has lived through all of Colombia’s long history of violence. “I have seen all the wars and failed peace attempts,” says the 108-year-old from the stoop of his rickety house in La Macarena. “I can only hope things change this time. But how can one be sure after so much mistrust?”
La Macarena, a small town in the jungled savannahs of southern Colombia, is home to 6,000 members of the security forces. But only a few months ago, Marxist rebels used to demand money from local farmers, among other evils. Now, ahead of Sunday’s referendum to ratify a peace accord signed this week, La Macarena, like the whole country, finds itself at a crossroads over how to end a 52-year conflict that has left more than 260,000 people dead and displaced 7m.
“The signing of the accord was a great emotional moment, but everything is really about October 2,” says a security adviser to Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, who led the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.
For many global leaders, the peace deal signed on Monday between Mr Santos and Farc formally ended the conflict, and was a rare piece of good news in a troubled world. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, praised it for “sending up a bright flare of hope to the rest of the world”.
But just as the Brexit referendum divided the UK, the Colombian vote will either seal or sink the peace accord. It has divided the country into polarised Yes and No camps.
“I don’t think there is a Plan B. If the accord is voted down, the country will plunge into uncertainty,” says Jonathan Powell, the British civil servant who led the Good Friday peace talks in Northern Ireland and advised Colombia on its peace process. He argues Mr Santos was right to put the accord to a popular vote, despite the risks, “because it gives popular support” and democratic legitimacy.
To pass, at least 4.4m voters must vote Yes in the plebiscite. In percentage terms, the latest survey, by Semana magazine and RCN radio, suggests 66 per cent will chose Yes — but the No vote has steadily gained ground.
Pitted against the accord is Álvaro Uribe, the highly popular former president who between 2002 and 2010 led an all-out offensive against the Marxist rebels. He has criticised the accord as being too lenient on Farc, amplifying the fears of those who believe they are unrepentant “narco-terrorists”.
Many Colombians abhor the idea that the deal will spare Farc leaders from prison while also giving some of them seats in Congress. “The No campaign of course has valid points,” notes Rupert Stebbings, a director at Bancolombia. “It is impossible not to feel sympathy but, as per any peace accord, there have to be concessions.”
The divide is particularly clear when comparing bustling cities such as Bogotá, which has not suffered a significant Farc attack in a decade, and the war-ravaged countryside, with the No vote resounding louder in the urban centres.
“The benefits of peace are very evident to the 10 per cent of Colombians who live this war every day,” says Claudia López, a pro-agreement senator. “To most others in urban Colombia, though, this war is like something they watch on television, as if it was something happening in Afghanistan.”
At a recent gathering of pro-Uribe supporters at a private club in plush northern Bogotá, well-heeled men in pinstriped suits with slicked-back hair parked Mercedes-Benz cars and Land Rovers with “I vote No” emblazoned on the windshields.
“I don’t like an agreement that cedes everything to Farc,” says Jairo Ibarra, 65. “I never believe Farc are being sincere. They want to strengthen themselves politically, keep their weapons, continue the cocaine business, all the while making alliances with other leftist parties to take power.”
In La Macarena, many counter that Colombia needs to turn the page and move on. A small business owner in La Macarena, whose son was wounded by a grenade and whose sister was ”disappeared”, agrees. “The accord is a leap of faith. We have suffered a lot. There is uncertainty. But one has to trust we’ll have a better country if we vote Yes.”
Peace is needed to stop the killings, and for distant areas in the country to gain more investment in infrastructure, agriculture, and tourism — sectors especially important now that Colombia’s public accounts have been savaged by the drop in oil prices.
Officials estimate peace will boost long-term economic growth by as much as 1.9 per cent a year. But over the short term, implementing peace will cost perhaps two points of gross domestic product, and an unpopular tax reform to bolster the public finances irks No voters. The budget deficit is estimated at about 4 per cent of GDP, while the current account deficit is a yawning 6 per cent.
Nonetheless, Ms López believes peace is a no-brainer: “We’ve been trying to get this accord for 35 years. If the No vote wins, we’ll enter a state of uncertainty in which the deaths to come will demonstrate that a negotiated accord is the only way to end this war. We’ll only have to return eventually to where we are now.”