Colombian voters reject accord
They shun peace deal with rebels by a narrow margin
BOGOTA, Colombia — Voters rejected a peace deal with leftist rebels by a razorthin margin in a national referendum Sunday, delivering a major setback to President Juan Manuel Santos, who vowed to keep a cease-fire in place and not give up his campaign to end a half-century of war.
With more than 99 percent of polling stations reporting, 50.2 percent of ballots opposed the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while 49.8 percent favored it — a difference of less than 57,000 votes out of a total of 13 million. Pre-election polls had predicted the “yes” vote would win by an almost two-to-one margin.
“I won’t give up. I’ll continue (to) search for peace until the last moment of my mandate,” Santos said in a televised address recognizing his defeat.
He ordered his negotiators to return to Cuba on Monday to consult with FARC leaders who were awaiting results on the communist island. He also promised to listen to opponents in a bid to save — and strengthen — the deal, which he said is Colombia’s best chance for ending a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and driven almost 8 million people from their homes. Colombians celebrate Sunday after hearing the results of a referendum on whether to ratify a deal with FARC rebels.
The shocking outcome, comparable to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote, opens an uncertain outlook for the peace accord that took four years to negotiate. It’s also a major blow to Santos, who has staked his presidency on putting an end to the conflict.
Opposition to the accord, led by influential former President Alvaro Uribe, argued that the government was appeasing the FARC and setting a bad example that criminal gangs would seize on. If the “no” vote prevailed, Uribe said, the government should return to the negotiating table.
But that is an option that Santos has ruled out. It’s unclear what options the government has to save the accord. The FARC made no indication it intends to resume fighting.
“The love we feel in our hearts is gigantic and with our words and actions will be able to reach peace,” the rebels said in a message on Twitter as the “no” vote looked headed to victory.
The highly polarized campaign exposed how steep a challenge the government would face implementing the 297-page accord and bringing about real reconciliation.
Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many considered provisions in the accord that would spare the rebels jail time an insult to victims of the long-running conflict.
FARC leaders, including the nom de guerre Timochenko and Ivan Marquez, sat in leather recliners at Club Havana, once Cuba’s most exclusive beach club, watching the results on a flat-screen TV. Initially, the atmosphere was festive, with the guerrillas laughing and joking while snacking on cheese-and-olive hors d’oeuvres, smoking cigars and visiting an open bar. The mood soured as results came in, and the rebel commanders talked in hushed tones on cellphones, conferred quietly and asked journalists to leave the room to await a formal statement.
Turnout was low, less than the 40 percent seen in recent congressional elections, a further sign to some analysts that Colombians’ enthusiasm for the ambitious accord was lacking. Turnout was especially affected along the Caribbean coast, where support for the government is highest, as a result of heavy rainfall from Hurricane Matthew, which made it impossible to set up a few polling stations in La Guajira peninsula.
In the past month, ever since the deal was announced in Cuba after four years of grueling negotiations, the government spent heavily on television ads and staged concerts and peace rallies around the country to get out the vote. It even enrolled the help of U2’s Bono and former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.
Santos had urged his compatriots to vote early and take inspiration from Indian independence leader Mohandas K Gandhi.
“We in Colombia have to adopt this culture of nonviolence,” Santos said shortly after casting his ballot in a washed-out Plaza Bolivar next to the presidential palace. “All of us can be protagonists in this historic change taking place in our nation.”
The FARC in recent days made an effort to show its commitment to peace is real. Leaders of the group have traveled to areas hit hard by violence to apologize for massacres committed by their troops and discuss with communities how they can compensate victims.
“All of us in life have committed mistakes, some with consequences more serious than others,” FARC leader Marquez said Friday at a ceremony in a northern Colombian town where rebels in 1994 disrupted a street party with gunfire, killing 35. “There’s nothing to lose in recognizing it. Speaking the pure and clean truth heals the soul’s wounds, no matter how deep they are.”
On Saturday, in the presence of United Nations observers, the FARC voluntarily destroyed over 1,300 pounds of grenades and light explosives. It also said it would compensate victims with financial resources and land holdings accumulated during the war.
Although Santos wasn’t required to call for a vote on the accord — some of his advisers and the FARC opposed the idea — the outcome would be binding.