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Colombia peace deal is defeated in a referendum, leaving a Nation in shock

By Tajuddin
Oct 3rd, 2016
Supporters of a peace agreement that had been years in the making watched referendum results on Sunday in Bogotá, Colombia. Credit Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Supporters of a peace agreement that had been years in the making watched referendum results on Sunday in Bogotá, Colombia. Credit Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Bogotá, Colombia (Nytimes + DIPLOMAT.SO) – A Colombian peace deal that the president and the country’s largest rebel group had signed just days before was defeated in a referendum on Sunday, leaving the fate of a 52-year war suddenly uncertain.

A narrow margin divided the yes-or-no vote, with 50.2 percent of Colombians rejecting the peace deal and 49.8 percent voting in favor, the government said.

The result was a deep embarrassment for President Juan Manuel Santos. Just last week, Mr. Santos had joined arms with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, who apologized on national television during a signing ceremony.

The surprise surge by the “no” vote — nearly all major polls had indicated resounding approval — left the country in a dazed uncertainty not seen since Britain voted in June to leave the European Union. And it left the future of rebels who had planned to rejoin Colombia as civilians — indeed, the future of the war itself, which both sides had declared over — unknown.

Both sides vowed they would not go back to fighting.

Mr. Santos, who appeared humbled by the vote on television on Sunday, said the cease-fire that his government had signed with the FARC would remain in effect. He added that he would soon “convene all political groups,” especially those against the deal, “to open spaces for dialogue and determine how we will go ahead.”

Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC leader, who was preparing to return to Colombia after four years of negotiations in Havana, said he, too, was not interested in more war.

“The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future,” he said in a statement. “With today’s result, we know that our challenge as a political party is even greater and requires more effort to build a stable and lasting peace.”

The question voters were asked was simple: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and enduring peace?” But it was one that had divided this country for generations, as successive governments fought what seemed to be a war without an end and the Marxist FARC rebels dug into the forest for a hopeless insurgency.

To many Colombians who had endured years of kidnappings and killings by the rebels, the agreement was too lenient. It would have allowed most rank-and-file fighters to start lives as normal citizens, and rebel leaders to receive reduced sentences for war crimes.

“There’s no justice in this accord,” said Roosevelt Pulgarin, 32, a music teacher who cast his ballot against the agreement on a rainy day at an elementary school in Bogotá, the capital. “If ‘no’ wins, we won’t have peace, but at least we won’t give the country away to the guerrillas. We need better negotiations.”

María Fernanda González, 39, an administrator at a telecommunications company who voted against the deal, said she simply did not trust the FARC.

“Why didn’t they turn in their arms and tell the world what happened to the people they kidnapped, as a gesture during the talks?” she asked.

Her household seemed to reflect the deep divides in Colombia, with her husband, Carlos Gallon, 42, an engineer, voting for the deal. Mr. Gallon said the country had no choice but to stop fighting.

But still, he admitted, “I understand why she is voting no.”

The referendum result overturned a timetable intended to end the FARC insurgency within months. The rebels had agreed to immediately abandon their battle camps for 28 “concentration zones” throughout the country, where over the next six months they would hand over their weapons to United Nations teams.

Under the agreement, rank-and-file fighters were expected to be granted amnesty. Those suspected of being involved in war crimes would be judged in special tribunals with reduced sentences, many of which were expected to involve years of community service work, like removing land mines once planted by the FARC.

On Sunday, the government said it had sent negotiators to Havana to begin discussing the next steps with the rebels. After the president’s statement that he was reaching out to opposition leaders in the Colombian Congress like former President Álvaro Uribe, experts predicted a potentially tortured process in which Mr. Uribe and others would seek harsher punishments for FARC members, especially those who had participated in the drug trade.

“Everyone has said, including those who sided ‘no,’ that they could renegotiate the deal, but obviously that would have political challenges,” said César Rodríguez, the director of the Center for Law, Justice and Society, a nongovernmental organization in Colombia focusing on legal issues. “It was a small majority, but a valid majority, and that has consequences.”

On Sunday night, politicians who had strongly opposed the deal were already signaling that it was time to negotiate more stringent terms with the rebels.

“We want to redo the process,” said Francisco Santos, a vice president under Mr. Uribe, who was against the deal but supports an eventual peace with the FARC. “In democracy, sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose.”

The war left brutal scars in Colombia. About 220,000 people were killed in the fighting, and six million were displaced. An untold number of women were raped by fighters, and children were given Kalashnikov rifles and forced into battle.

Opponents of a peace agreement celebrated its apparent defeat in Bogotá. Many believed it was too lenient on rebels. Credit Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Opponents of a peace agreement celebrated its apparent defeat in Bogotá. Many believed it was too lenient on rebels. Credit Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Unable to put down the insurgency, the government turned in the countryside to paramilitary groups run by men who became regional warlords. The state seemed swept aside in the fighting.

In the end, the war lasted so long that it might have been difficult for many Colombians to forgive the FARC.

“The adults that were born before the war now number very few,” said Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a novelist who voted for the deal. “As a society, we are a massive case of post-traumatic stress, because we have grown up in the midst of fear, of anxiety, of the noise of war.”

Many people lost because of the outcome. Among them was President Santos, who had staked his legacy on the peace deal and had been rumored as a possible contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. FARC members, who had been on the run in the jungle for decades, saw their hopes of rejoining Colombia as political leaders, including 10 seats in Congress, suddenly dashed for the time being.

Perhaps the biggest winner on Sunday was Mr. Uribe, the former president, and the Colombian far right, which had vowed to defeat the deal at the ballot box. Mr. Uribe had argued that the agreement was too lenient on the rebels, who he said should be prosecuted as murderers and drug traffickers.

“Peace is an illusion, the Havana agreement deceptive,” Mr. Uribe wrote on Twitter on Sunday after casting his “no” vote.

In the end, a small majority of Colombians agreed with him.

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