Colombia’s No vote loud, clear; What next?

Miami Herald Editorial Board

A small boy at a pre-election rally outside Bogota made clear he’s for peace.
A small boy at a pre-election rally outside Bogota made clear he’s for peace. Associated Press

With their vote on Sunday against the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after 52 years of civil war, it’s obvious a slight majority of Colombians refused to turn the other cheek. Too much blood has been spilled; too many lives snuffed out.

For so many Colombians, it’s personal.

Sunday’s referendum on the peace accord with the FARC failed by a harrowingly slim margin: 50.2 percent rejected it, while 49.8 percent were in favor.

With so much fanfare and, obviously, premature celebration, the elections presented Colombians with a dilemma that still must be unknotted: Do they follow their yearning for peace or demand that, after decades of terror, the guerrillas of the FARC pay for their war crimes first?

The outcome was as stunning as the Brexit vote in Britain earlier this year — which turned polling on its head — and as freighted with risk and uncertainty. And in a way, Colombians and Miami’s old-guard Cuban exiles, who oppose thawed relations with the Castros after more than five decades, faced a similar dilemma:

Downplay wrongdoing by a government or rebel forces and move forward as a country? Or insist that justice is meted out before there’s any possibility of progress?

Miami’s own U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was one of the most vocal stateside officials to express displeasure with the peace pact in Colombia.

Indeed, the hard-won agreement between guerrilla leaders and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos gave FARC rebels what amounted to a slap on the wrist: These are people who committed deplorable, inhuman acts, including rape, torture, the random killing of civilians, massacres and whole villages torched.

Still, jail time would have been unlikely for war criminals if they confessed to their heinous acts and agreed to compensate victims. There was the possibility that they would serve, perhaps, eight-year sentences working on agricultural co-ops.

In addition, the pact gave the FARC some political clout, with a few seats in the national assembly. In return, the insurgents would lay down their arms in surrender.

For many Colombians, that was a bitter pill, and one that it was much too hard to swallow.

Telling in Sunday’s No vote is that although the war with the FARC touched virtually everyone in that South American country, Colombians who live in rural areas suffered most. That’s where much of the killing took place, where innocent civilians were victimized. As expected, those Colombians led the Yes votes.

With their ballots they said, Enough!

But the majority that voted No could not forgive and forget. Their pain, too, must be recognized, not criticized.

By rejecting the peace deal, Colombians leave their country in limbo. It’s most encouraging that the FARC doesn’t seem eager to pick up the arms it has already put down and that the Santos government is determined to continue the pursuit of peace.

But now that critics of the pact, chief among them former President Álvaro Uribe, have gotten what they fervently sought, a No vote, they share the burden of coming up with a compromise that will get this done.

That means returning to the table of dialogue, of give and take — and of, perhaps, taking responsibility for the blood that was spilled for 50 years.

Obviously, a majority of traumatized Colombians are demanding no less.