Why People Vote Against Themselves: A Lesson from Colombia

On February 6th, the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest rebel group, released Odín Sánchez, a former congressman they had been holding hostage for the previous nine months. The following day, just outside Quito, Ecuador, the Colombian government began official talks with the ELN. Such momentous steps towards progress have been possible due to the successful peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, back in October when I was about to travel there, a resolution of this ongoing conflict seemed unlikely. A nationwide referendum had just voted against the peace deal. The “No” had taken the day by the stupendously narrow margin of 0.2%. This result was as surprising and unpopular as Brexit and the current US president. So, why do people around the world vote against peace, unity, and progress, against choices that obviously make sense? This question has been plaguing me for many months. And though there isn’t one straightforward answer, learning about the political situation in Colombia gave me a frame of reference to grasp what is going on elsewhere. But first, to understand Colombian politics, we must examine why and how these rebel groups were formed.

Looking at Colombian history as  a whole, one can consider the FARC and the ELN as byproducts of colonialism and the political divide it subsequently produced. Haves have a lot to lose; have-nots have nothing to lose. The large economic gap created a two-party system, with each party at each end and not much middle ground. And through Colombia’s history, the fierce competition between the Liberals and the Conservatives often became bloody, resulting in a succession of civil wars. But it was a single event, the assassination of charismatic Liberal Party leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, that set into motion FARC’s conception.

Ten years of rioting aptly called La Violencia followed, after which the Conservatives and the Liberals agreed to alternate in power regardless of the popular vote. And while the popular vote did not count for anything, the political elites united and began working against the people. In the name of Accelerated Economic Development (AED), the government kicked out small-scale farmers from their land and gave it to those who were willing to mass produce for the purposes of exportation. It was in the backlash of these tragedies that the disenfranchised poor gathered to form the FARC and the ELN.

Just based on its origin, these rebel groups do not seem like the classic villains. They were created specifically to protect the people. But the problem lies in the mismatch of ideology and practice. Their activities – terrorism, kidnapping, distributing drugs, recruiting children as soldiers – have run havoc on many lives. Thus, their dissolution has been something the Colombian government has been trying to achieve since the 1960s. So, I wondered: why would people vote against something that they have been wishing for so long? What I didn’t realize then was that there was another, more pressing question: where would the FARC go after it disbands?

It is a human instinct to protect ourselves from “the others” and whatever danger “the others” may pose, whether real or imagined. But true peril lies in fears based on irrational logic: “Since you are different from me, you must want to harm me”; “Since you come from elsewhere, you must want to take what rightfully belongs to me”.

When I looked at Brexit in a similar frame of mind, I began to understand the motives that led to this confounding decision. Despite the negative effects it would have on the economy and foreign relations, many Brits wanted to leave the European Union in order to keep to themselves – more specifically, to halt immigration and reclaim their country from those they perceive as “the others.” In the same vein, earlier this month, British ministers announced the end of the Dubs amendment, a legislation put in place by Lord Dubs to aid migrant children across Europe. This means that, as of March, Britain’s doors will be closed to child refugees. All the while, in the US, an executive order has left many refugee families stranded in airports and without any other choice but to return to the very war zones they managed to escape from. Such harsh measure is hardly surprising coming from a president whose campaign platform has consisted of blaming immigrants and building a wall.

Back in October, I too had a wall of my own to deal with. I was out in California, visiting a friend. My plan had been to head to Colombia from San Francisco. Then, just two days before my flight, the referendum fell through. Concerned friends inquired whether I still meant to go. The fear of the unknown overtook me. But with Hurricane Matthew quickly approaching the east coast, it proved difficult to get back home. I reluctantly got on the plane to Cartagena as planned. But the next day, when I stepped onto the old city’s esplanade, I felt I had made the right decision. Across the street from me was the Bay of the Animals, where twilight dyed the sky and the sea pink-purple. A cool breeze rolled through the walkway. I was enjoying the view, one that I had traveled so far to find. My rapture, however, did not last long.

Near the clock tower gate, through which Simon Bolivar the Liberator once triumphantly entered the city, people were gathering. In a short time, the plaza was filled with white – white shirts, white flags, white signs written in bold letters. One thing I had promised my friends before I left was that I would stay away from protests. And here I was, just a street away from it.

Soon, the police arrived as well as a few news reporters and their crews. The practical voice in my head told me to turn around and go home. But then, when have I listened to that voice? If I had, I wouldn’t have come to Colombia by myself in the first place. Partly, it was curiosity. But it was also more than curiosity. I felt forces greater than myself at work. Here it was: a chance to face my fears head-on. I crossed the street.

The protestors were not at all what I had imagined. Instead of dangerous rioters, I was surrounded by university students. And their message was not one of anger but a call for reconciliation: “IT IS TIME FOR CHANGE IN EVERYONE’S MIND: HATRED FOR LOVE”; “FOR THE VICTIMS, FOR YOU, FOR ME, FOR OUR FUTURE: AGREE TO PEACE”, the signs read. A young man who looked no older than twenty came to the center and began calling out both the FARC leaders and the government to work together. Though I could not understand more than every third or fourth word, I understood the conviction, the urgency in his voice.

Following the speech, everyone began sitting down, from the center to periphery. And holding up their candles, they prayed. I was dumbstruck and humbled by the way that they demonstrated their hope. Afterwards, they stood up once more to chant together. By then, without my realizing, I had made my way to the center. And, on verge of tears, I found myself chanting with them: Long live Colombia! Long live peace! 

Such was my first day in Colombia. I remember thinking: “If this is what the future of Colombia looks like, she has nothing to fear”. And I was right. Though there had been many challenges and frustrations along the way, hope eventually won out and peace achieved. And now, as I encounter similar scenes of protests and public outcry closer to home, the glimmer from the northern edge of South America feels ever closer and much needed. If it can happen in Colombia, perhaps it can happen here too.

Originally written for Democracia Abierta.

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