- - Sunday, October 2, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia — In a stunning turn of events, Colombians on Sunday rejected a bid to end the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere, narrowly voting down President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Six days after Mr. Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono promised a new era of peace, 50.2 percent of citizens voting in a referendum refused to sign off on the “final agreement,” signed after four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, to disarm the FARC guerrillas and integrate them in the political process. A slight minority, 49.8 percent, backed the measure.

Mr. Santos had insisted on consulting the citizenry over objections from FARC negotiators — he was not legally bound to do so — and campaigned tirelessly to persuade voters of the merits of the deal.

The stunning rejection was a political triumph for former president Alvaro Uribe, Mr. Santos’ predecessor-turned-political rival. In his first reaction following his campaign’s surprise victory, Mr. Uribe explicitly directed his words at FARC as he called for “pluralism without a prize for crime.”

“Colombians, let us make corrections. Our homeland’s democracy has overcome all official pressure to impose the ‘yes,’” said Mr. Uribe, who had frequently decried his camp’s disadvantage in funding and media access and used his address to take a jab at foreign leaders from President Obama to Pope Francis who had lined up behind the deal with the FARC.

“We ask for a reflection within the international community,” he said. “We want to contribute to a national agreement.”

As for Mr. Santos, the result not only denies him a desired legacy as a national peacemaker, but may dent his political career.

In a televised address to the nation, the president Sunday night conceded defeat but ruled out resignation. Mr. Santos assured the FARC that he would maintain a cease-fire and dispatch negotiators to Havana. He vowed to invite political leaders of all stripes for talks starting tomorrow.

“I will not give up,” a defiant Mr. Santos said. “We will pursue peace until the last minute of my tenure.”

But in promoting the peace accord, Mr. Santos had not been shy about warning Colombians that a “no” vote would not result in new negotiations but in a continuation of a conflict that has killed an estimated 200,000 citizens, most of them civilians.

“Don’t get it wrong,” he said on June 17 at the World Economic Forum in Medellin. “If the referendum is not approved, we will return to war. It’s that simple: We will not return to the negotiating table, we will return to war. That’s the truth.”

FARC fighters originally had been scheduled to leave their camps to begin a disarmament and integration process as early as this week; now their soldiers may well return to the jungle, while their leaders are expected to leave Colombian territory. The group’s initial response on Sunday night, nevertheless, took a conciliatory tone.

“The FARC maintain their will for peace and reiterate their willingness to use only words as a weapon to build the future,” Mr. Londono, better known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, said in a video message. “To the Colombian people, which dreams of peace: Count on us. Peace will triumph.”

None of the three men — Timocheno, Mr. Uribe or Mr. Santos — seems to have expected the outcome that voters delivered, said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez, a political scientist at Bogota’s prestigious Del Rosario University.

“I believe that they are even more perplexed than the public opinion,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said. “There was no Plan B, apparently.”

Mr. Uribe, whose aggressive military campaign is often credited with bringing the guerrillas to the negotiating table in the first place, had been the most vocal critic of the details emerging from the negotiations in Cuba and the effective leader of the “no” campaign.

“To young Colombians, I say this: Peace is promising, but the Havana documents [are] disappointing,” Mr. Uribe told reporters after voting in Bogota on Sunday morning.

The former president would be wise to note, though, that a possible repeat referendum might yield a different result — especially given Sunday’s relatively low turnout, Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said.

“This is a Pyrrhic victory,” he said. “At this moment the country is divided 50-50.”

But polls had consistently predicted a “yes” victory by a wide margin, and Mr. Uribe this week had all but admitted defeat, as Colombia’s political and social establishments lined up as one-sidedly, to take a recent example, as Britain’s elites had against the “Brexit” vote.

The mood leading up to the vote had been festive, with no shortage of superlatives on a day that local media had dubbed “historic” from the get-go. National University of Colombia political scientist David Roll Velez went so far as suggest that the last communist guerrilla army giving up its arms would conclude a process that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — the final “end of the Cold War.”

Global brands from Johnnie Walker to Uber, meanwhile, used their advertising to implicitly back the deal, and the ride-hailing app even gave out $10 in free rides to and from the polling places — and replaced the app’s car icons with peace signs.

In the Colombian capital, voters cast their ballots under the watchful eye of some 13,000 soldiers and police — mainly in the early morning and during a midafternoon respite from the rain. An hour into the referendum, Uber driver Jhon Suarez had already taken three customers to the polls.

But Mr. Suarez himself was among those who found it difficult to back a pact often decried as vague, and key provisions — such as the six-month time frame for the disarmament — left him uneasy. On the other hand, he worried a return to hostilities might lead the guerrillas to strike against cities including Bogota, long spared the brunt of the violence.

“Peace would be something good,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s a very difficult decision because one doesn’t know what can happen.”

Others like Andrea Devis — who on Sunday morning cast her “yes” vote in Bogota’s central Chapinero neighborhood — argued that a challenging deal was better than no deal at all.

“We have give peace a chance in Colombia so that our children have a better future,” Ms. Devis said. “Obviously, the path is not going to be easy. But you have to take a step because, without a first step, the path is impossible.”

Still, the 56-year-old architect said she understood those who objected.

“There are many people who say they cannot forgive the guerrilla for his crimes” she said. “But I also think that if you go to them and say, ‘Come, let’s sign the peace process,’ but then you put them in jail for 80 years — nobody will sit down and negotiate under these conditions. You have to make concessions.”

In the U.S., 34,205 Colombian citizens participated in the referendum at 51 voting centers, including at the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs on 14th Street NW. Of those, 62.5 percent backed the peace accord; 37.5 percent rejected it.

Some opponents, meanwhile, also claimed pragmatism as the deciding factor behind their “no” votes: Consultant Christian Knudsen, who cast his ballot minutes later at the same polling place, said Colombia simply could not afford the price tag attached to the FARC demobilization, which a 2014 panel of Colombia’s congress had put at up to $45 billion.

“I don’t think we can pay what we signed,” the 46-year-old said. “We pledged to break the bank, and we don’t have the money.”

For Colombians hoping to turn the page, however, the result will mark a lost opportunity as war may remain a fact of life for the next generation. At the Casa del Florero museum in the heart of Bogota — which asks visitors to write “declarations of independence” and list things they want to be free of — children’s messages spoke for themselves.

“From failing classes,” they wrote. “From social networks.” And “from war.”



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