In a stunning blow to this country’s hard-fought peace deal with FARC guerrillas, Colombians on Sunday rejected the pact that held out the hope of ending a half-century-long conflict.
Colombians voted 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent to reject the peace deal that had been four years in the making and which President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his presidency on.
Even as the deal seemed badly wounded, both Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said they hoped to pull peace from the wreckage. Both sides said that a bilateral ceasefire that was announced June 24 would remain in place.
“We reiterate our disposition to rely only on words as our weapons to build the future,” FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño said in a statement after the vote. “Colombians who dream of peace can count on us.”
In a speech acknowledging the defeat, Santos ordered his negotiators back to Havana, Cuba, to confer with their FARC counterparts. He also said he would be meeting with political leaders on Monday, including promoters of the “no” vote, “to listen to them, to open space for dialogue and to decide what path to follow.”
But he made clear that he wasn’t prepared to give up the progress he has made trying to end a conflict that has cost more than 220,000 lives.
“I will work to the very last minute of my term to find peace,” he said, “because that’s the way to leave a better country for our children.”
With 99.89 percent of the voting stations counted, representing more than 13 million ballots, the results were razor thin — coming down to a difference of 57,090 votes.
It was a whiplash reversal for a process that often seemed unstoppable. Negotiations ended on Aug. 24 and Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed off on the pact on Sept. 26 in a star-studded event that drew a dozen regional leaders and had broad international support. Pope Francis had announced he would visit Colombia early next year if peace was ratified, and there were reports that the deal was on the short list for a Nobel Prize.
Polls leading up to Sunday’s vote had predicted that the “yes” votes would win with a comfortable margin.
But rural areas, particularly those hardest hit by the FARC, voted overwhelmingly against the deal.
Colombians in U.S. vote no
Colombians in the United States, many of whom fled there during the violence, also voted “no.” With 97 percent of the Colombian vote in the United States counted, 63 percent had voted against the deal versus 38 percent who approved it.
The United States, Paraguay and the United Arab Emirates were the only three nations where the “no” vote prevailed.
The outcome left many voters stunned.
Jorge Pinzón, 59, had pulled his taxi to the side of the road in downtown Bogotá to smoke a cigarette and process the news. He had spent the day shuttling his family to polling stations to vote in favor of the deal.
“I’m amazed by human stupidity,” he said. “I can’t believe that Colombians would rather continue with a 52-year-old war than give peace a chance.”
Just a few blocks away, Alex Mesas, a 37-year-old television producer, said the vote had been a clear message to the FARC and the government that the deal was fatally flawed.
In particular, he said he was wary of provisions that would allow FARC members who had committed serious crimes to face penalties other than jail if they told the truth and provided reparations.
“I want peace, but not peace with impunity,” he said. “They need to do jail time, at least a little.”
The vote was a big win for former President Álvaro Uribe, now a senator, who had been railing against the deal. He had maintained that it was dangerous to submit a 297-page peace pact to a simple up or down vote.
“Peace is a fantasy we all want,” he said shortly after voting, “but the Havana peace deal is disappointing.”
The FARC, which were founded in 1964, seemed to have embraced the deal in the last few weeks. Some troops were already demobilizing, and they destroyed a stock of explosives over the weekend. On Saturday, they announced they would provide a detailed list of their resources and goods — which they called their “war economy” — to be used to make reparations to the victims of the conflict. Up until now, the group had insisted that it was broke.
If the deal had passed, guerrilla fighters would have begun gathering in “concentration zones” where they would hand over their weapons and receive training for six months before re-entering society. That’s all on hold now.
“Sunday’s results come as an unforeseen disappointment for a country that has taken momentous strides to end half a century of war,” Peter Schechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in a statement. “This result is a deep strike at years of painstaking negotiations that had positioned Colombia on the path toward a new future. In the end, the people have spoken — the Colombian government and the FARC have no choice but to renegotiate.”
Voter turnout had been light in the morning as large swaths of the nations were pounded by Hurricane Matthew-related rains. But as the skies cleared later in the day, more voters came out. The government estimated that 37.4 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.
The Ministry of Defense said the vote was one of the most peaceful in the country’s history. The National Liberation Army, or ELN, a smaller guerrilla group that’s also inching toward a peace deal, made good on its promise not to interfere with the plebiscite.
The one exception came near the village of Barranquillita, Guaviare, where assailants detonated explosives near a polling station without causing damage or injuries. On Sunday, the Ministry of Defense said it suspected the action was carried out by a small group of FARC dissidents from the First Front, who have rejected the peace accord.
Valeria Avila, a 24-year-old student, was taking a walk with her boyfriend late Sunday, trying to process the results.
“My entire life, I’ve lived in a country in conflict,” she said. “I knew the peace deal wasn’t perfect, but I thought it might be a step in the right direction.”
Her boyfriend, Carlos Reyes, 27, said the country simply couldn’t get beyond five decades of conflict.
“After 52 years of fighting, all we have in Colombia is anger and a thirst for revenge,” he said. “We still don’t know how to forgive.”