Colombia's 'no' on peace shocks the world – and itself

A razor-thin majority rejected a peace deal to end the longest war in the Americas. The road ahead now looks uncertain as the government and the FARC meet.

Fernando Vergara/AP
A man reads a newspaper with the headline that reads in Spanish: "Colombia said No" in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Voters rejected a peace deal with leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, by a razor-thin margin in a national referendum Sunday.

What began as a drab, rainy voting day in Bogotá soon turned into a night that will likely define a generation as Colombians rejected an historic peace deal to end the longest war in the Americas.

The vote was razor-thin: 50.2 percent opposed the deal, while 49.8 percent supported it. Four years in the making, the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (better known by its Spanish acronym FARC) was widely expected to pass. When it didn’t, “No” voters took to the streets to party while “Yes” voters expressed grief and disbelief.

It wasn’t only the voters who were shocked. President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his political reputation on a peace deal with the FARC, looked visibly broken as he addressed the nation after the historic vote.

“I will continue seeking peace until the last minute of my term because that is the way to leave a better country to our children,” he said in a televised statement from the presidential palace on Sunday night.

But the roadmap now looks very uncertain. Both the government and FARC negotiators had previously admitted there was no “Plan B” in case of a No win. Instead of plunging back into war, both sides are likely to try to come up with a new agreement that eases the concerns of many Colombians, who felt its terms were too lenient on the guerrillas. A half a century of war that has left 220,000 dead and nearly 7 million displaced.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, traveled to Havana Monday, where negotiations had been taking place with the FARC over four years. Members of the FARC leadership are also there. The hope is that the two sides will be able to renegotiate quickly, though analysts worry that is optimistic.

“What’s more likely is that [former President Álvaro] Uribe’s camp will push for a surrender deal with the FARC, which they may struggle to accept,” says Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy nonprofit in Washington.

Looking to bridge the divide between the Yes and No camps, President Santos called a meeting for Tuesday morning with representatives from all Colombia’s political parties, including Mr. Uribe’s hard-line Democratic Center.

The rebels echoed Santos. “The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future,” Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC leader better known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, said in a speech from Cuba.

A yawning social gap

Despite those pledges, the uncertainty and anger continues to grip Colombians who thought a Yes vote was a certainty. 

“It’s easy for Timochenko to say they won’t go back to war, but what about all the rebels in the ranks who now think over half the country hates them?” asked Nicolas Cuellar, a systems engineer from Bogota.

In Hippie’s Park, a vibrant, young social spot, optimistic Yes supporters waving white flags representing peace began to break down in tears as the results came in, projected on a large screen. Journalists cried as they interviewed distraught attendees. Couples embraced in tearful despair.

“Honestly I feel completely frustrated with my country,” said Juan Felipe Gomez, a chef from Ibague, a town in the mountainous Tolima Province – the birthplace of the FARC. “And I am guilty myself. I’m not registered to vote here, and every vote counts.”

The difference between the Yes and No votes was around 50,000.

Many in attendance struggled to make sense of events as they unfolded. “Today is a deeply sad day for us,” said Miller Cavanzo, a sociologist watching the vote count in Hippie’s Park, as tears trickled down her face. “Realistically, nobody understands what is going to happen, we don’t have any idea.”

Dancing in the street

But six blocks away, outside  the Bogota office of the opposition Democratic Center, the mood was far different.

“Today is a massive triumph for Colombia and I feel proud and happy to be a Colombian,” said Carlos Rosales, a law student. As he spoke, a convoy of taxis and cars plastered with No campaign posters honked horns and boomed out Colombian folk music.

Uribe had led the No campaign, taking issue with the deal’s promises of special courts and provisions that would allow rebels who confess to their crimes to avoid jail. He also repeated on the campaign trail that the FARC is “the world’s biggest cocaine cartel,” given that the rebels have long relied on the drug trade to fund their insurgency. 

“There can be no peace with impunity,” Mr. Rosales said, echoing one of Uribe’s campaign beats. “The FARC are terrorists who have murdered, kidnapped, and extorted people; obviously they have to go to jail.”

As Rosales spoke, struggling to contain his wide grin and wearing the type of Panama hat often sported by Uribe, passersby interrupted and yelled at him, reflecting the rift in society Sunday’s result is likely to cause.

“Yesterday at our No march, people drove by us and gave us the finger,” said one No supporter (who did not want to be named), draped in a Colombian flag. “They don’t understand this is a great moment for our country.”

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