Colom­bian vot­ers re­ject ac­cord

They shun peace deal with rebels by a nar­row mar­gin

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Joshua Good­man and An­drea Ro­driguez

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.

DI­ANA SANCHEZ/GETTY-AFP

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