Colombian voters delivered a huge setback to President Juan Manuel Santos by rejecting a peace deal with leftist rebels by thin margin in a national referendum. The referendum has enhanced President Santos’s problems as he had vowed to keep a cease fire in place and push ahead on his campaign of peace 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 search for peace until the last moment of my mandate," Santos said yesterday 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.
The shock outcome, comparable to Britain's decision to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote, opens an uncertain outlook for the peace accord that was signed less than a week ago by Santos and the FARC in a ceremony attended by heads of state, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
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 previously ruled out. Early in the day, FARC leaders, including Timochenko and Ivan Marquez, sat in leather recliners at Club Havana, once Cuba's most exclusive beach club, watching the referendum 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. But the mood soured as results began to come in, and the rebel commanders talked in hushed tones on cellphones, conferred quietly and asked journalists to leave the room.
"The FARC deeply regret that the destructive power of those who sow hatred and revenge have influenced the Colombian people's opinion," Timochenko told reporters later. He said the rebel group's commitment to peace remains intact. "The FARC reiterates its desire for peace and our willingness to use only words as a weapon for building the future."
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.