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Underlying the referendum defeat is the possibility that conflict could escalate with illegal armed groups in the countryside, says professor Mario Murillo

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KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. Colombians who favor the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, are still reeling from Sunday’s surprising referendum result in which a slight majority of 50.2% voted against the agreement. Here is what one of the peace agreement supporters had to say about the result. SPEAKER: What this result shows is that 50% of the people the people who went out to vote allowed themselves to be convinced by a message of hate, a message of revenge, a message of keeping us in the past. BROWN: It took 4 years to negotiate this peace agreement which was supposed to put an end one of the world’s longest civil wars. One that lasted 52 years. Opponents argued that the agreement gives too much broad and amnesty to FARC leaders for crimes that were committed during the conflict. However rural populations that bore the brunt of the conflict overwhelming supported the agreement. Joining us to discuss the Colombian peace referendum result is Mario Murillo. Mario is a Colombian activist. He’s also a professor of communications at Hofstra University and he has covered Colombia for over 25 years. He’s also the author of the book titled, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization. Thanks for being on the Real News, Mario. MARIO MURILLO: Thank you. It’s great to be with you. BROWN: Why is it that you think the referendum lost? Many reports point to the low turnout but compared to the first round presidential vote in 2014 in which only 40% of Colombians voted, the turnout at 37% for the referendum was not much lower. MURILLO: Well it’s ironic that the winners in this plebiscite that took place on Sunday, the people who supported the no vote or in other words were opposed to the peace agreement signed between the FARC and the government of Santos, they point to this as democracy at work in Colombia. That the people have spoken and perhaps this is democracy. This is quintessential Colombian style democracy where under 40% of the people vote, where the turnout was so low but also the discrepancy, the difference was so close but the regional discrepancies were very apparent as you pointed out in the introduction. That you had the regions of the country that were most and continue to be most effective. The people that continue to be most daily reality of this 52-year war, those who’ve been facing forced displacement, who’ve been facing attacks against civilian populations, those who’ve faced massacres over these many years. They’re the ones who are calling for an end. They’re the ones who supported the peace agreement by overwhelming numbers. While in the areas, the urban areas with the exception of ironically, the capitol and some other urban centers. For the most part distance and apart from the war, watching the war from a distance, they overwhelmingly supported the no vote. So this goes to show that the wide discrepancies in the population and perhaps unfairness of the entire process. My feeling is that it’s too much weight put on this referendum, on this plebiscite without really considering the potential consequences of the no vote down the road. I think finally the other question is, the level of intimidation, fear, misinformation that was being put forward by the no vote and how they had a consistent permanent platform in the mainstream media in Colombia was unbelievable and the fear and the misinformation I think ultimately ended up getting the upper hand in the final tally. BROWN: That’s an interesting point Mario because my next question is what was the role of the media in the cities? MURRILO: Well I mean; this is part of the collective narrative that has been building for decades in Colombia. If you look at the war, I’ve been following it for a better part of a quarter century, the mainstream news media with some exceptions, I don’t want to clump them all in the same basket because there are very good examples of investigative journalism in Colombia done under very difficult conditions. But for the most part, the mainstream television networks, the big corporate channels, the radio, they echo essentially the ongoing narrative that the Colombian crisis, the war in Colombia, the difficulties in Colombia are the result of the intransigents and the militarism and the terrorism of the FARC rebels who have been waging a war on the countryside for 52 years. All the other transgressions being carried out by the military, by the paramilitary groups that were working alongside the military for many years, all of those are kind of swept under the rug as if not of significance. So that narrative continued and obviously when you have somebody as politically and as media savvy as the former president Álvaro Uribe who had the two terms and president and who is currently a senator and he is basically the poster boy of the anti-FARC extremism in Colombia that use the platform on a daily basis to scare the public and to say that this accord was going to bring Colombia to surrender Colombia to communism. That Colombia’s going to become another Venezuela or Cuba with scarcities that the guerillas are going to be taking over the country that we’re surrendering to FARC terrorism. And obviously the pro peace accord perspective was presented. But when you have that kind of narrative filtering the news all the time, it’s very hard to contest and I think that definitely had a big role to play in the ultimate result. BROWN: So what can we expect will happen next? Because both President Santos and FARC leader Timochenco have said that they will go back to the negotiating table. But previously they both also said that neither side would be able to win more concessions from the other side. MURILLO: Yea that’s going to be the tricky part and because now Uribe and the right has the kind of political upper hand as a result of Sunday’s plebiscite results, there’s some question as to whether or not now Uribe going to be a part of this renegotiation and his people. And his bottom line is that Uribe has never intended to really negotiate with the FARC. His fixation and the fixation of the right wing in Colombia is that they can militarily liquidate the FARC from the political space in Colombia if they’re only given a little bit more time to do so. Any political concessions whether it’s spaces in the congress which is part of the agreement for the next 10 years, the FARC would get 10 uncontested seats so they could insert themselves in the legal political system in Colombia and then in 2026, in that election cycle then they would be expected to compete directly with those spaces. Now this is a small part of the congress. We’re talking about 10 seats out of 256 seats or something like that. Yet the opposition was saying that’s unacceptable to let these criminals into our congress. This conveniently overlooks the fact that for over the last 10-15 years you’ve had a major infiltration of the right, including politicians with direct links with right wing paramilitary groups that were responsible for thousands of deaths in the countryside for the last 20 years and they were allowed and given spaces in kind of a different process without any people yelling about impunity and providing spaces for terrorists and [narco-terrorists]. It’s a major contradiction and it’s a real concern that if Uribe is given that space to renegotiate it, hopefully the peace ceasefire that both sides have agreed to and they’ve been more or less respecting for the last 2 years, hopefully that will hold. But we have to keep in mind something that hasn’t really been reported much is that in the countryside you have a lot of armed groups including the remnants of the paramilitary groups that supposedly demobilized back in 2006. Paramilitary groups that have deep rooted hatred towards the guerillas who have already announced publicly, that the minutes these FARC combatants surrender their weapons and become part of the is political space in the post “accord” post conflict period, that these would be military targets. That they will be official military targets of these right wing groups, these so called criminal bands that continue to operate in the countryside and that essentially would kind of lead to yet another round of bloodshed in Colombia. That’s a big concern and hopefully the international community, the cooler heads will prevail both by the FARC and the government forces and that this would remain in check. But that’s a real serious consideration that again it’s not being discussed much in the wake of this plebiscite fiasco. BROWN: You know one of the key issues for the no vote campaigner such as the former right wing president Álvaro Uribe as you mentioned was the amnesty. Is there any chance that this will be renegotiated? MURILLO: The question about the amnesty is another one of those things that has been misrepresented because I think what they’re trying to do is talk about transitional justice. If you look at the accord, they’re talking about transitional justice and it’s still to be determined according to the provisions of the accord that depending on what level participation does the specific combatant, what role they play during the war, it would depend on a number of different factors as to what would their political and legal situation be? What those concern of was that they weren’t going to all spend the rest of their life in prison. That there was going to be some kind of transitional period in which they would be able to payback, they would have to accept their crimes. They would have to compensate victims of the actions that were carried out. Some crimes would be amnestied but the crime of rebellion which is seditious like what we would have here in terms of sedition. That would be amnestied because it would be considered a political crime. But the issue of drug trafficking and the role it might have played in drug trafficking is still up in the air. That would have to be determined through congressional legislation that would be debated in the congress in terms of how that would be hammered out. Then the issue of the leaders, the ideas is well okay if they’re involved crimes against humanity there would be some kind or legal repercussions behind that. But is the solution, if we’re talking about national reconciliation, a process of peace and reconciliation and truth, does it necessarily mean that they have to serve time in prison? If we look at the paramilitary groups in which Uribe, Álvaro Uribe had a negotiation and a peace agreement back in 2006 and 2007, the vast majority of them are not serving time for massive crimes carried out in Colombia during the war against the FARC but really against the civilian population in strongholds of the FARC. There’s a number of them who are now serving time in US federal prisons as a result of their crimes in terms of micro trafficking. But that has nothing to do with the crimes against humanity that they carried out. They’re not serving time for their war crimes that they carried out in Colombia, so that’s a totally different issue. BROWN: So when the agreement was initially signed, the Obama administration tried to take some credit for the agreement, saying that [planned] Colombia helped bring about peace. But what has been the role in this conflict and in the peace agreement and in the referendum results. MURILLO: They can take credit. The United States can take credit of militarizing to an extreme the situation in Colombia. I write about this in my book in 2004 where I look at the US military role in Colombia and essentially it’s been more or less consistent since the 1950’s which is primarily focused on a military strategic alliance with the Colombian armed forces, the state security forces, its intelligence ordinances and etc. It was always looked at as maintaining security instability from the Cold War to the drug war, to the war on terror. It’s evolved in terms of its packaging but essentially it’s been the same. It’s been a military security strategy from the start. The last 15 years where the [Planned Colombia] came into effect under President Clinton by the way, it started in 1999, certainly had a devastating impact. It led to the demise in many ways that the FARC in terms of security and intelligence, exchange of information and the technology exchange that was going on between the Colombian armed forces, the training. And so they did have a major impact on the strategic military situation on the ground. The FARC went from an 18,000 strong to 20,000 strong army in the beginning of the century to what they are now, anywhere between seven and eight thousand combatants, probably less than that. So that’s clearly a military victory but think about what that has meant in the last 15 years as it’s been implemented in terms of massive displacement, up to 5 million people internally displaced, tens of thousands of people killed, disappeared, tortured, forced to flee because of the political violence. Not to mention the impact that it has had on the kind of the wealth of the country if you want to go that far. So to claim victory and to say that this was the result of US policy is the utmost in Sinicism. This is what Hillary Clinton has been trying to say in her public pronouncements about what US foreign policy success is. And it’s really cynical to say that this has been a success, given that there could’ve been a different approach years ago that might’ve led to a political solution earlier on than what we’re seeing right now. BROWN: So Mario, given the result that we saw happen over the weekend in Colombia, given that it took 4 years to even bring this referendum to the people, what do you expect is going to happen in Colombia in the coming weeks and certainly months and years? MURILLO: Well I really do hope that the cooler heads will prevail. The FARC and the government are meeting and they’re expected to continue to meet in Havana. President Santos did bring together or at least invited all the political sectors, political parties, including Uribe’s party for some consultations as to see what’s next. Perhaps to concede certain things which is still not clear. Uribe’s party is hesitant to sit down just yet. They want to so called analyze the results of a referendum so they’re not necessarily accepting that invitation. I personally think that the whole thing about the referendum was a mistake. To put this to a vote, we saw other examples of this in recent years, with the Brexit vote in the UK where you put this kind of historical moment where after decades of trying to resolve this conflict between the FARC and the government, when so much was at stake and so many ways of manipulation could take place, I think it was just a big mistake and hopefully the social movements and the sector that is pro-peace that is pushing for the end of the conflict will still have it’s say as the situation moves forward. But I still think that the repression, the right has never conceded anything to the left in Colombia without a major brutal fight and the loss of life and I’m concerned that now that this referendum supposedly shows the will of the people when it’s really not. We’re talking 50,000 vote differential in a country of 45 million people. It’s not a big difference in terms of support and opposition to this accord. I’m afraid that this is just going to give credence to the right to carry out an even more visible perhaps even violent backlash against those sectors who have been promoting a cessation to the hostilities between FARC and the government. BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Mario Murillo. Mario is a Colombian activist. He’s also a professor of communications at Hofstra University. He’s been covering Colombia for over 25 years and he is the author of the book titled, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization. Mario we really appreciate your joining us. Thank you so much. MURILLO: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. BROWN: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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Mario A. Murillo is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Radio, Television, Film department at Hofstra University. He is also co-director of Hofstra's Center for Civic Engagement.

In 2008-2009, Mario spent six months in Colombia, as a Fulbright Scholar, working in the Communication Department of the Universidad Pontif'cia La Javeriana in Bogot', alongside its radio station Javeriana Estereo. His research work was carried out in close collaboration with the Communication Committee of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, and focused on the strategic uses of communication of the indigenous movement. He is currently finishing a book about ACIN's role in the broader indigenous movement of Colombia, which is expected to be published in 2012.

He is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004), and Islands of Resistance: Puerto Rico, Vieques and U.S. Policy (Seven Stories, 2001). Mario has studied and written about community radio, both in the United States and Latin America for many years, his articles and essays published in academic journals and collected essays in the U.S. and abroad.