Sunday, October 02, 2016

Colombia Peace Deal Headed to Defeat, Causing Shock and Uncertainty
OCT. 2, 2016
Bogotá on Sunday. Credit Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A Colombian peace deal that the president and the country’s largest rebel group had signed just days earlier appeared headed to defeat in a referendum on Sunday, leaving the fate of a 52-year war suddenly uncertain.

Though the government had not officially called the result, the “no” vote was ahead by half a percentage point with 99 percent of the ballots counted, the government said Sunday.

The result was a deep embarrassment for President Juan Manuel Santos. Only last week, he had joined arms with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, who apologized on national television during a signing ceremony.

The surprise surge by the “no” vote — nearly all major polls had indicated the agreement would be approved by a resounding margin — left the country in a dazed uncertainty not seen since Britain voted in June to leave the European Union.

And it left the future of rebels who had planned to rejoin Colombia as civilians — indeed, the future of the war itself, which both sides had declared ended — unknown to all.

On television on Sunday, Mr. Santos appeared humbled by the vote, but said the cease-fire that his government had signed with the rebels would remain in effect. He said he would soon “convene all political groups,” especially those against the deal, “to open spaces for dialogue and determine how we will go ahead.”

The leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño, said the group would not continue its fight.

“With today’s result, we know that our challenge as a political party is even greater and requires more effort to build a stable and lasting peace,” he said in a statement from Havana, where he had been negotiating. “The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future.”

The question voters were asked was simple: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and enduring peace?” But it was one that had divided this country for generations, as successive governments fought what seemed a war without end and Marxist rebels dug into the forest for what amounted to a hopeless insurgency.

In the capital, Bogotá, voters turned out on a rainy day for a vote that had even divided households. Carlos Gallon, a 42-year-old engineer, said he would be voting for the deal, despite the objections of his wife, María Fernanda González.

“I understand why she is voting no,” he said. “But we have to try something other than 50 years of war.”

Ms. González, 39, an administrator at a telecommunications company, said she wanted peace, but thought the FARC could not be trusted.

“Why didn’t they turn in their arms and tell the world what happened to the people they kidnapped, as a gesture during the talks?” she asked.

The failure of the agreement, if confirmed by the government, would overturn a timetable intended to end the FARC insurgency within months. The rebels had agreed to immediately abandon their battle camps for 28 “concentration zones” throughout the country, where over the next six months they would hand over their weapons to United Nations teams.

Under the agreement, rank-and-file fighters were expected to be granted amnesty and begin life as civilians. Those involved in war crimes would be judged in special tribunals with reduced sentences, many of which were expected to involve years of community service work like removing land mines the FARC once planted to attack its enemies.

Experts said Sunday that it seemed impossible that the government could go back to fighting the FARC. It would be far more likely to try persuading opponents in the Colombian Congress, most notably former President Álvaro Uribe, who had led the fight against the agreement, to agree to a new deal.

“Everyone has said, including those who sided ‘no,’ that they could renegotiate the deal, but obviously that would have political challenges,” said César Rodríguez, the director of the Center for Law, Justice and Society, a Colombia-based nongovernmental organization focusing on legal issues. “It was a small majority, but a valid majority, and that has consequences.”

On Sunday night, politicians who had come out strongly against the deal were already signaling that it was time to negotiate more stringent terms with the rebels.

“We want to redo the process,” said Francisco Santos, a vice president under Mr. Uribe, who was against the deal but supports an eventual peace with the FARC. “In democracy sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose.”

The war left a brutal scar in Colombia. About 220,000 people were killed in the fighting and six million were displaced.

An untold number of women were raped at the hands of fighters, and children were given Kalashnikovs and forced into battle.

Unable to put down the insurgency on its own, the government turned in the countryside to paramilitary groups run by men who became regional warlords. The state seemed swept aside in the fighting.

“The adults that were born before the war now number very few,” said Juan Gabriel Velásquez, a Colombian novelist who voted for the deal. “As a society we are a massive case of post-traumatic stress, because we have grown up in the midst of fear, of anxiety, of the noise of war.”

The losers in the outcome were many. Among them was President Santos, who had staked his legacy on the peace deal — and was rumored to be a possible contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. The leaders of the FARC, who had been on the run in the jungle for decades, now see their hopes of rejoining Colombia as political leaders — including 10 seats in Congress — suddenly dashed.

Perhaps the biggest winner in Sunday’s vote was Mr. Uribe, the former president, and the Colombian far right, which had vowed to sink the deal at the ballot box. For months, Mr. Uribe had argued that the agreement was too lenient on the rebels, who he said should be prosecuted as murderers and drug traffickers.

“Peace is an illusion,” Mr. Uribe said on Twitter Sunday.

In the end, a small majority of Colombians agreed with him.

Julia Symmes Cobb reported from Bogotá, and Nicholas Casey from New York.

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