PRADERA, Colombia — The young men in pastel-colored Polo shirts pulled up to the square in this war-battered town and jumped out, armed only with pens and clipboards.
Their leader and political idol, former president Álvaro Uribe, had called for a signature-collecting campaign of “civil resistance” to the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who is nearing a peace accord with leftist rebels that would end 52 years of fighting.
The preppy activists didn’t mince words. “Do you support Santos’s deal with FARC?” shouted Jaime Arizabaleta, a conservative 25-year-old city council member from the nearby city of Cali. “Doesn’t it bother you that those criminals won’t see a single day in a prison cell?” Old men sipping rum in the shade straightened up to listen.
“Do you think it’s fair that Santos will let all those FARC gangsters keep all their drug money, while families here struggle to survive?” he prodded. Hands reached for the clipboard to sign.
Such talk would have been foolish not long ago in a town such as this one at the edge of territory controlled by the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But with the peace deal nearly done and a formal cease-fire in place, a final struggle is underway between Santos and Uribe — and the powerful forces in Colombian society they represent.
After nearly four years of formal talks with the FARC, Santos insists that the accord his government has negotiated be put to a referendum, a rare move in the history of peacemaking. The vote could be held within a few months of the signing ceremony.
Santos has calculated that Colombians will choose overwhelmingly to support the deal if confronted with a simple war-or-peace decision. The FARC is not threatening to go back to war if the accord is rejected, but the rebels will not be fully disarmed when the vote happens. The U.N.-monitored camps where they will gather after the accord is signed will be just a short distance from their jungle hideouts.
The president’s goal is to give Colombians a personal stake in the treaty. If approved by a wide margin, it could provide a much-needed catharsis for a country where 220,000 have been killed and 7 million have been driven from their homes by five decades of war.
Polls suggest that a majority of Colombians will vote for it even if they dislike parts of the deal. But the plebiscite, as the vote is called here, is already shaping up to be a contest, not unlike the Brexit vote in Britain, that will symbolize far more than what is on the ballot.
Santos, who served as defense minister under Uribe and then broke bitterly with his former boss to launch talks with the FARC, has staked his legacy on the deal. The scion of a wealthy Bogota publishing family, he represents an urban, globalized Colombian elite that sees little downside to a peace accord and stands to benefit if improved security and stability generate a bonanza of new foreign investment.
Santos seems to have the world in his corner: the United Nations, President Obama and, most important in this heavily Catholic nation, Pope Francis. If he can coax the FARC’s more than 7,000 fighters to come down from the mountains and lay down their weapons, he will be a leading candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The problem? With his approval rating plummeting, Santos is unpopular with the only constituency that counts: Colombians. His rival, meanwhile, remains a towering figure here.
Uribe decimated the FARC’s ranks when he led the country from 2002 to 2010. The tough-talking son of a cattle rancher slain by the guerrillas, he is beloved by Colombia’s traditional conservatives, especially the rural landowners who have borne the brunt of guerrilla attacks.
For them, the war is personal. They have little faith in a peace deal, especially as the FARC commanders who have been their mortal enemies see it as a launchpad into Colombian politics. Although the accord will not include the type of sweeping land-policy changes the guerrillas wanted, their presence in Congress will bring a new element of radical politics to rural areas where property ownership is concentrated in a few hands and land disputes stretch back decades.
“A lot of these landowners know that the price of peace is that they will have to give back what they stole,” said Ariel Ávila, a political analyst at the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, which supports the accord. “In the end, it comes down to economic interests.”
Uribe and his supporters bristle at such claims, and at Santos’s charges that they are warmongers. “We have always sought peace, but with minimal conditions,” Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the leader of Uribe’s political party, said in an interview.
“We believe that those who have committed atrocities, like massacres, rape and the kidnapping of children, must face prison terms, as the International Criminal Court establishes,” said Zuluaga, who lost to Santos in the 2014 presidential race. “If we want peace based on justice, we have to fulfill international norms.”
Zuluaga said his party rejects the very idea of a yes-or-no plebiscite. It will submit the protest signatures it gathers to Colombia’s highest court, he said, but has not yet decided whether to urge Colombians to vote no or simply cast a blank ballot.
A Gallup survey of 1,200 Colombians reached by telephone last month found that 40 percent of respondents would vote in a plebiscite on the peace accord if one is held. Of those, 70 percent said they would approve the deal. But the tracking poll is conducted only in Colombia’s five largest cities, and it found only 30 percent of respondents voicing approval of Santos’s presidency.
Merely winning won’t be enough for Santos. He needs a wide margin of victory for the accord to acquire the kind of legitimacy and perception of national consensus that he seeks.
Uribe’s “civil resistance” rhetoric, however, shows he intends to make the vote a referendum on Santos and his government. As they gather signatures here, Arizabaleta and others do not ask people whether they support “a peace deal” but rather “the Santos deal,” with the latter phrasing eliciting far more negative reactions.
Many Colombians are unhappy, according to surveys. Crime and drug trafficking are on the rise. Economic growth has slowed, and inflation is driving up food prices. Santos’s critics say he has been too distracted by the negotiations with the FARC — which are taking place in faraway Havana, largely in secret — to fix Colombia’s problems.
That secrecy has further contributed to the credibility gap plaguing Santos, as has the nagging perception that he rode Uribe’s popularity into office and then betrayed him. “I don’t trust Santos. This whole thing feels false to me,” said Cali resident Adriana Corrales, 33, referring to the peace deal.
Five years ago, when her eldest son turned 13, she and her family fled their farm for a cramped apartment in the city. She was worried the rebels would forcibly “recruit” her son, as they had other teens in her village who were never seen again.
“He was a tall, strong boy,” Corrales said. “I knew they would try to take him from me.”
Her rough Aguablanca neighborhood in Cali is full of displaced families from Colombia’s impoverished Pacific coast, where political violence, drug trafficking and rural gangsterism are inextricably entangled.
It’s difficult to know whether Colombians in such areas will vote for a peace deal — war has gone on for so long that few may be willing to believe it could end with a piece of paper.
That may be Santos’s biggest problem here in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca department, including towns such as Pradera that have long lived under threat of guerrilla takeover. A FARC bombing outside city hall in January 2014 killed one person and injured more than 50.
Carolina Agredo was selling corn cakes on the sidewalk that day. A piece of shrapnel shredded her shoulder, leaving scars the size of fists. The pain has never gone away.
“What if I’d died that day?” asked Agredo, 21, who said she plans to vote against any deal that allows FARC leaders to avoid prison. “How can they get off so easily?”
She added her signature to the list.