'A leap into the unknown': Colombia's rejection of FARC treaty throws peace process into chaos

After Colombians rejected the government's peace deal with FARC rebels in a referendum on Sunday, it's unclear whether a bilateral ceasefire will hold, whether the FARC will follow through on plans to disarm and whether a UN mission tasked with verifying compliance with the peace accords will now go home.

President Juan Manuel Santos puts on brave face, vowing to find path to unity

A supporter of the peace accord signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, cries as she follows referendum results on a giant screen in Bogota on Sunday. Voters rejected a historic peace treaty that's been years in the making. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

It was supposed to be the day when Colombians closed the book on 52 years of armed conflict. Instead, voters defied opinion polls and their president Sunday by rejecting — albeit by the slimmest of margins — a historic peace treaty that's been years in the making. 

The ballots were almost evenly split, with the No vote topping the Yes vote by a mere 0.5 per cent. The margin of victory was about 54,000 votes among the 12.7 million ballots cast in a plebiscite that asked voters whether or not they supported an agreement to end the war between government troops, right-wing paramilitaries and the Marxist guerrilla group known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). 

The result, a kind of Colombian "Brexit," shocked the political system and threw a four-year-old peace process into chaos. It's now unclear whether a bilateral ceasefire will hold, whether the FARC will follow through on plans to disarm, and whether a UN mission tasked with verifying compliance with the peace accords will be sent home. 

"It's really a leap into the unknown," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. 

Finding common ground

With polls predicting a comfortable victory for the Yes side, government officials had insisted there was no Plan B should the plebiscite fail. It was all or nothing. 

'No' supporters celebrate following their victory in the referendum Sunday on a peace accord that would end the 52-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state, but also would have given many concessions to FARC. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In a speech Sunday night after the votes were counted, a shaken President Juan Manuel Santos vowed to maintain the ceasefire and to somehow find a way to make the peace deal stick. 

Everyone, without exception, wants peace. Finding common ground and unity is more important now than ever.- Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian president

"I will listen to those who said No and to those who said Yes. Everyone, without exception, wants peace," Santos said. "Finding common ground and unity is more important now than ever." 

Santos said he would send his peace negotiators to consult with FARC leaders. Santos vowed to meet with leaders campaigning for the No vote. He hinted that he might be open to renegotiating sections of the 297-page peace agreement. 

'The FARC maintains its will for peace and reiterates its disposition to use only words, as opposed to weapons.'- Rodrigo Londono, FARC commander

Speaking from Havana, the site of nearly four years of peace talks between the two sides, Rodrigo Londono, the top FARC commander, expressed disappointment in the outcome but indicated that the rebels had no immediate plans to head back into combat. 

"The FARC maintains its will for peace and reiterates its disposition to use only words, as opposed to weapons," said Londono, widely known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko. 

FARC feelings run deep

The peace accords were signed last Monday in an elaborate ceremony before 2,500 guests, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and about a dozen foreign presidents. Coming just six days before the plebiscite, the event was widely viewed as a way for the Santos government to drum up support for the Yes side and to make the outcome appear all but inevitable. 

Instead, officials seem to have underestimated some Colombians' hatred for the FARC. 

FARC guerrilla commanders Timochenko, right, and Pablo Catatumbo left, watch the results of TV from Havana, where negotiations have been held. (AFP/Getty Images)

Five decades of fighting left 220,000 people dead, most of them civilians, and a bloody record of atrocities on all sides.

But it was the massacres and kidnappings carried out by the FARC that were likely foremost on the minds of many of those voting No Sunday.

Under the peace accords, FARC rebels accused of war crimes could avoid prison by confessing before a special tribunal. The rebel army also used profits from drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and extortion to finance the war.

Thus, to many Colombians, the FARC seemed more like a criminal gang than rebels in the mould of Che Guevara — the swashbuckling Argentine revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba.   

"If we award delinquents and validate violence as a way to advance in negotiations with the government we will only be sowing more violence," said Ivan Duque, an opposition senator who urged Colombians to vote against the peace deal. 

Referendum on Santos

Another factor in the government's referendum loss might have been Santos's low job-approval ratings, which hover around 30 per cent. Santos has made peace his No. 1 priority during his six years in office and is the public face of the agreement with the FARC. As a result, Sunday's vote was widely seen as a referendum on the president. 

Then there was the weather. The Caribbean coast, where support for the peace process is more robust, was hit by torrential rains over the weekend brought on by Hurricane Matthew. Downpours and flooding severely depressed turnout in that region, according to electoral officials. Nationwide, fewer than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. 

A voter looks for her polling station while trying to keep dry under an umbrella. The effects of Hurricane Matthew may have depressed turnout in some regions, officials said. (Ricardo Mazalan/The Associated Press)

Still, there is much within the accords that Colombians agree on. 

They call for the FARC to gather its 5,800 rebel foot soldiers in about 30 special demilitarized zones around Colombia where they were to turn in their weapons to UN inspectors. The FARC have pledged to get out of the cocaine smuggling business, help the army locate and destroy landmines and to apologize to their victims.

The FARC's long-term goal is to form a left-wing political party. 

For its part, the government has pledged to invest huge sums in land reform and to build roads, schools and clinics in the impoverished rural areas that gave rise to the FARC back in the 1960s. 

Ironically, to put all this into place, Santos was not required to call the plebiscite. But he was wagering that the vote would give the peace accords broader legitimacy.   

His bet failed.


John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.