OXFORD, England — The bishop who has been a key player in the Colombian peace negotiations has called for all sides to reiterate their commitment to peace following a surprise rejection of the historic agreement between the government and the country’s main guerrilla army in Sunday’s referendum.
Luis Augusto Castro, the Archbishop of Tunja and President of the Colombian bishops’ conference, also insisted the referendum result would not affect a papal visit scheduled for next year.
Castro, who heads the National Reconciliation Commission — which coordinates the Church’s multi-pronged work for peace in Colombia — told Caracol Radio yesterday that both winners and losers in the referendum “must give a clear and forthright demonstration that they wish to continue working for peace” and at all costs “should avoid the impression that we are going to go back to war.”
Asked to give their view on the historic peace agreement reached in August in the Cuban capital Havana after four years of talks, 50.2 percent of Colombians voted by a paper-thin majority to reject the accords, against 49.8 percent who voted to accept them.
The ‘No’ campaign, led by former president Alvaro Uribe — who remains popular — argued that rejecting the agreement meant re-opening negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and amending the agreement’s conditions. Uribe claimed that the accords conceded too much to the FARC, Latin America’s oldest and largest rebel army, which has long been involved in kidnappings and drug-trafficking.
Both the guerrillas and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos campaigned with a message that this was the best and only agreement possible, and that there was no Plan B. Since the result, Santos and the FARC have said they are willing to continue negotiating to reach a peace agreement a majority of Colombians would accept.
However, Uribe — who is far more popular than Santos, and whose position has been greatly strengthened by the referendum result — says he wants a radical revision of such broad issues as justice, the political participation of the rebels as well as the social policies put forward in the agreement, which include a plan for land redistribution.
Arguments over the terms of the agreement are likely to go on for years, and may only be resolved at the next presidential election in 2018. In the meantime, the status of the FARC — who had agreed to hand over their weapons and compensate victims in exchange for seats in Congress and immunity from prison terms — remains unclear.
“There is an enormous need of reconciliation in the country, that’s very clear,” Archbishop Castro said, adding: “This is a moment in which the politicians especially need to be very prudent in what they say and how they analyze the result.”
He said both politicians and the guerrillas should reaffirm their commitment to peace, despite the results, and to “avoid clashes or anything they may regret.”
Meanwhile, another key church player in the peace process interviewed by Crux prior to the referendum says the result is a reason for redoubling efforts to achieve a lasting peace, but ensuring this time that objectors are listened to.
Writing from Rome where he is attending the Jesuit General Congregation, Fr Francisco de Roux SJ said both the process and the key elements of the Havana accord “continue to be valid” but “the vote result shows that the agreements have to be revised to make them politically and institutionally viable in today’s Colombia.”
The referendum result has also thrown into doubt the papal visit expected early next year.
Speaking before the result was announced, Pope Francis on the flight back from Azerbaijan to Rome on Sunday night appeared to suggest that his planned but so far unscheduled visit to Colombia might be conditional on a ‘YES’ result.
“I said that when the peace process comes through, I would like to go, when everything is locked in, when the plebiscite wins, when everything is absolutely certain, when they can’t turn back,” he told journalists, adding: “If it’s like that, I could go. But if the thing is unstable, no. Everything depends on what the people say.”
Archbishop Castro however insisted that the papal visit was “above a yes or no” vote, and wasn’t dependent on political processes.
“The pope would never make his pastoral visit conditional on a political motive,” he said. “He, yes, wants peace, but he is going to come whether there is peace or war — and obviously we clearly hope there will be peace.”
“If he doesn’t find Colombia at peace, then at least he could find us working for peace,” he added.
The Colombian bishops have maintained a neutral stance over the referendum, arguing in favor of a negotiated end to the decades-old armed conflict but not expressing a view on the Havana accords.
The bishops however insisted that Colombians informed their consciences and had to vote.
In the end, however, turnout was under 38 percent, the lowest in over 20 years, suggesting that the 297-page Havana agreement was too complex as well as a widespread disillusionment with politicians.