Colombia’s referendum to end a 50 years Cold War

by Lucía Gonzalez-Marin

© Felipe Chica Jimenez
© Felipe Chica Jimenez

Colombia has lived an internal conflict for more than 50 years. Since 2012, peace dialogues with FARC, the largest ongoing guerrilla movement in Colombia, have been held in Cuba. On October 2 of this year, after almost 4 years of peace dialogues, Colombian people were asked, through a “yes” or “no” referendum, if they approved the peace agreement that resulted from the peace dialogue process. Polls about Colombians’ voting intentions showed that 60% of the population agreed with the peace agreements. However, the results of the referendum showed otherwise: 50,2% of the voters rejected the peace agreements, against 49,8% supporting them. International news coverage has portrayed the former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez as the biggest obstacle to peace in Colombia. I can understand why some would think this, as he was the main person that campaigned against the peace agreements and he has a widespread electoral support, which is why he is now a senator and has his own political party. Nonetheless, this statement seems to overlook other aspects of the results, most of all, the ideologically informed urban perception of the conflict in Colombia, an artifact of Cold War discourse and practice.

The fact that the agreement with the communist FARC guerrillas was rejected a month ago can be partially explained by the strong influence of anticommunist and counterinsurgent discourse during the Cold War, traces of which can still be found today. This ideological framing is vividly illustrated in the US-promoted military policy of the Colombian government to defeat them. “Them” refers to the insurgency, the drug traffickers, the terrorists; the labels vary depending of the moment you refer to and the context to which they are trying to give meaning. The objective, nonetheless, remains to be the same: maintain a political and economic model in Colombia that guarantees control over its military actions, market and natural resources.

The objective of defeating the other is pursued at the same time that a construction of “what ought to be defeated” is made. This construction of the other is made in such a way that it justifies the decision of killing them instead of listening them. The government has pursued a policy of denying their citizenship, their humanity and indeed killing them. The way we name those killings – “dar de baja” (‘casualties’) – shows how we define them and justify our acts. The criminalization and demonization of communists that comes from the Cold War, in this case directed towards guerillas, is still present. This can be seen in the following shocking data on urban Colombians’ perceptions of the conflict.

© 2013 Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. p.36

According to the report made by the Centre of Historic Memory (2013), of the 1.982 massacres committed between 1980 and 2012, paramilitaries were responsible for 1.166 (58,9%) and the guerrillas were responsible of 343 (17,3%). However, urban population’s perspectives are very different. A survey conducted in urban areas in Colombia in 2012 showed that 32% of the population surveyed thought guerrillas had the primary responsibility for the violence Colombia has lived through during the last years, while just 6% of the population blamed the paramilitaries (right-wing illegal armed groups). This echoes the way the internal conflict is reported by the Colombian press; Marrugo’s analysis of news coverage concludes that “while guerrilla violence is highlighted and strongly condemned, paramilitary violence tends to be muted through well-defined patterns of lexicogrammatical selections” (2013, p. 192). This last analysis is especially important as people who live in urban areas don’t experience the conflict at the same rate the rural population has and thus, their experience is constructed primarily through the news.

So peace in Colombia is not about a very popular person, a former president, who happens to defend a position that asks for longer and more severe sentences for guerrilleros and rejects the peace agreements, while having lead a demobilization process with the paramilitaries, for whom the highest sentence was of 8 years. It is not about him; it is about an important part of Colombians that have lived in a country where anything other than a strong right-wing policy is considered evil, an abomination, something that should be destroyed, at best. This idea has been built at a national and at an international level. Mr. Uribe represents that idea, but that is not due to himself, but to a broader construction of otherness that has a long history in Colombian society.

The difference in the referendum results was clear. I would like to think that means that an increasing number of Colombians are daring to see the other as a human we can talk to. We’ll see.

Lucía Gonzalez-Marin is a visiting student at the University of Sussex, studying MA Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden.


Graph: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (2013) [Online] Available from: [Last Accessed 29 Nov 2016]

Feature Image: © Felipe Chica Jimenez

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