POLICY ALERT: Rising Powers Explore Prospects for Peace in Colombia
On October 2, voters in Colombia narrowly rejected a negotiated peace deal between the government and rebel forces that would have ended a five decade long conflict. After four years of talks, President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an agreement in late-September to disarm the rebels and integrate them into the political system. The referendum was widely expected to pass, but voters who considered the truce too lenient on FARC surprised everyone and defeated the deal by a margin of 50.21 percent for “No” to 49.78 percent for “Sí.” While leaders promised to return to the negotiating table to work out a new deal, rising powers were left wondering whether violence would break out again. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea on the breakdown of the peace deal and its future prospects in Colombia.
The Brazilian media shared the widespread disappointment with the outcome of the Colombian vote to ratify the peace agreement between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC revolutionary forces. The media also applauded President Santos’ efforts and the recognition provided by the Nobel Peace Prize committee. This focus included both the sentiments of Brazilian President Michel Temer as well as governments and political leaders around the world.
Much of the media drew attention to the very small winning margin for the “No” vote and the concurrent high voter abstention rate to call into question whether the ballot result was truly representative of the sentiments of a majority of Colombians.
- Globo, the major Rio de Janeiro daily and multimedia news outlet, asked how it was possible a country suffering from a half a century of armed conflict at the cost of more than 200,000 lives could reject negotiated peace agreement? The report emphasized the very close vote totals and, even more importantly, the historically large abstention rate at 63 percent. Globo quoted journalist Ana Cristina Restrepo Jiménez that the Colombian voter was motivated by “fear” and just could not take the next step toward peace.
- Folha de São Paulo also noted the high abstention rate but focused on the arguments of the “No” campaign. The São Paulo daily newspaper quoted the leader of the “No” campaign and former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe saying “our national democracy overcame the government’s efforts to impose a “yes” vote for the peace agreement.”
- The Porto Alegre daily Zero Hora reported on the international repercussions of the failure to ratify the peace agreement. The coverage also included a joint press conference between the presidents of Argentina and Brazil in Buenos Aires where Argentine President Mauricio Macri argued the slim vote margin indicated many Colombians support peace and efforts should be made to find a solution. Temer added that the abstention rate was so high as to encourage further efforts to reach an acceptable peace agreement.
- The weekly Exame conveyed the economic implications of the vote against ratification.
- Brasil de Fato provided detailed coverage of the peace process in Colombia and focused on the FARC’s reaction to the winning “No” vote. This media outlet quoted FARC leader, Timelón Jiménez, who criticized the hatred expressed by the winning voters, but also reaffirmed his organization’s dedication to return to civilian politics.
When the deal was announced in August, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang congratulated the parties in Colombia on reaching a peace deal after four years of negotiations. In response to the ‘no’ vote, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “China supports Colombia’s peace process and respects the choice made by the Colombian people.” He argued an end to war in the country is an “irresistible trend and the expectation of the people” and that China hopes the parties “find a path to realize ultimate peace.”
China’s official media outlets were generally quiet on the referendum vote – partially due to the National Day holiday celebrations – but some commentators expressed hope for the peace deal and disappointment in its final result.
- Xinhua reported the referendum failed because voters thought “the hard-negotiated deal” was “too lenient on the rebels.” The paper compared the peace agreement vote to this year’s Brexit vote for the U.K. to leave the European Union.
- Xinhua also reported the role of former Colombian president and current senator Alvaro Uribe in rallying voters against the referendum. The paper also published a detailed chronology of the peace process.
- Han Han, a general secretary at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, observed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s recent travel to Latin America “deepens Chinese ties” to the region and praised Cuba’s role as intermediary between the Colombian government and FARC.
- Jairo Muñoz, a researcher at the Andean Institute for Political Studies with a degree from Peking University, argued the peace deal could have transformed Colombia into “a country open to diplomacy and foreign investment” that “leaves a window open for China” to be an “active partner in developing Colombia’s economy and infrastructure.”
- Since former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Latin America in 2004, China has tried to make inroads into the region as to trade Chinese manufactured goods and Latin American commodities. China is Colombia’s second largest trading partner and second only to the United States.
- This arrangement has greatly benefited the region (except for Paraguay, which recognizes Taiwan), but as China’s economy slowed in recent years, countries such as Brazil and Colombia have felt the pinch of lower Chinese demand.
India was closely watching the referendum vote and the peace process as it has expanded its commercial ties with the country in recent years. In 2013, for example, Colombia exports to India stood at $4.29 billion and at least 30 Indian businesses have investments in the country. Colombia’s ambassador to India, Monica Lanzetta Mutis, believed the Latin American country’s GDP could grow at double its current pace should the peace deal succeed.
Commentators in India welcomed the peace deal when it was announced and warned against voters rejecting it.
- When the deal was announced, The Indian Express praised the “historic treaty” as disarming FARC and ending the 52-year old conflict. The paper questioned why FARC decided to “quit its jungle life and try capitalism’s stolid delights,” suggesting it might have been because of Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar “who visited Colombia to spread his healing touch.”
- The Pioneer, which tends to favor the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, urged Colombian voters to “say no to the ‘La Violencia’ once and for all” by accepting the truce, but it predicted a “thorny” road ahead for the government with the referendum. If FARC feels it is being left aside, the paper thought the rebel group “may get back to violent struggle.”
- Hari Seshasayee, Latin America specialist at the Confederation of Indian Industry, wrote an article for the India-based think tank Gateway House thought the “comprehensive” peace deal negotiated over “half a century” could “herald the end of era” in the country. If the treaty was rejected, Seshasayee though “both parties are unlikely to get back to the negotiation table.”
- Writing in The Times of India, journalist Shantanu Guha Ray praised the role of India and Shankar in the negotiation process. Colombia’ s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle thanked Shankar for his role, saying “the best way to end the war is sitting down to discuss the peace and this was possible because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar travelled all the way from India to explain the benefits of living peacefully.”
- Last year, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi commended Shankar for his peace efforts in Colombia.
After the referendum failed to pass, Indian media and experts expressed their disappointment.
- “Colombia has missed, narrowly, an opportunity to end its five-decade-long civil war,” wrote the left leaning newspaper The Hindu. While the editorial sympathized with “popular anger against FARC,” it concluded the deal was “the best opportunity in decades to end” the conflict, and that “it is not clear what options they have but to renegotiate a fresh deal and put it to another referendum.”
- After the vote, Shankar urged FARC to not return to violence and instead “follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence” as the public takes the time to understand the benefits of the peace deal.
During meetings at the United Nation last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe praised Santos on “reaching a historic peace agreement” with FARC and that Japanese businesses were eager to seek opportunities in Colombia. Abe signaled the two countries were in a “final stage” on a bilateral free trade agreement.
The Japanese press closely followed the Colombian peace process and republished many Reuters and AP pieces. In general, the Japanese newspapers themselves indicated some mixed expectations with regards to the peace process.
- When the deal was announced, The Japan Times stated “while approval is not guaranteed – there is great bitterness among parts of Colombian society – the agreement should be passed. It is long past time to end this bitter struggle.” However, it also speculated that “while Colombians are weary of war, passage is by no means guaranteed,” and that “even approval does not guarantee peace.”
- After Colombian President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, some expressed a glimmer of hope for the peace process in Colombia. Asahi Shimbun, the second largest Japanese daily circulation, thought “the decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Colombia’s leader should breathe new, vigorous life into the faltering peace process to end the long-running civil war in the country.”
- In a similar manner, Mainichi, the third ranked Japanese daily circulation, deemed that the Nobel Peace Prize “has sent a strong message, urging the world to support the country’s efforts to achieve peace.”
While media outlets in South Korea did not cover the peace deal on its editorial pages, several newspapers republished commentary from outside the country, including op-eds by the Chicago Tribune, a professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin, and by Colombian Air Force Commander Tito Saul Pinilla Pinilla, which expressed a range of views from early optimism in the truce to disappointment after the referendum failed to pass. A free trade pact between South Korea and Colombia entered into force in July with Korean businesses looking to sell cars and auto parts to the Latin American nation and gain access to Colombia’s coffee and oil exports. Felipe Jaramillo, president of Colombia’s export promotion agency, said the deal with South Korea was a means to pull his country’s economy out of its slump by diversifying its trade partners.
When the peace deal was announced, the Foreign Ministry voiced it was “in favor of peace settlement of the years-long domestic armed conflict in friendly Colombia in the interests of further socio-economic development of that Latin American country.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov applauded Colombia and pledged to be ready to “help with the implementation process” on “on the international stage and also to further advance bilateral relations, including in light of new opportunities during the post-conflict reforms in Colombia.”
- Just before the peace deal was signed, Russia Today, also known as RT, released its documentary – Fine Art of ReConciliation – on the Colombian civil war, why the rebels fight, and why parties were seeking peace.
- RT reporting on the truce also accused the CIA of funding the 52-year old conflict and that the spy agency “may need to find another enemy in Colombia.”
- Similarly, a feature in Sputnik News blamed U.S. foreign policy for creating FARC and “social divide in Colombia” that threatens the peace deal.
- Vladimir Sudarev, deputy director of the Institute of Latin America of the Russian Academy of Sciences, saw the referendum going down in defeat since he doubted the Colombian pubic would approve the deal nor could the former guerrillas transition to civilian life. He reasoned “the key problem is how to convince an ordinary Colombian that his or her neighbor who has been fighting for the last 50 years is innocent.”
- Looking ahead, Sudarev questioned whether the renewed peace talks would result in a different outcome in Colombia despite the support of neighboring states.
- Russia-Direct blamed deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations over Ukraine and the Middle East as reasons the international community will struggle to support peace efforts in Colombia.