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Colombian Leaders Try to Revive Peace Deal After Stunning Referendum Defeat

  • Celia Mendoza

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks after after voting in a referendum to decide whether or not to support the peace deal he signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2, 2016.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks after after voting in a referendum to decide whether or not to support the peace deal he signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2, 2016.

Political leaders in Colombia are looking for a way forward after voters unexpectedly rejected a peace deal with leftist FARC rebels that would have ended a 52-year-old war.

President Juan Manuel Santos plans to meet Monday with all political parties and has ordered his negotiators to return to Havana, Cuba, where four years of peace talks had taken place.

Voters narrowly rejected the deal 50.2 percent to 49.7, or by a margin of just 54,000 votes. Public opinion polls going into Sunday's voting forecast the referendum would pass by a two-to-one margin.

Santos and rebel leaders are vowing to push ahead with the peace process, though it is unclear how they can save the deal since there appears to be no plan B.

"I will not give in and I will continue to seek peace to the last day of my term," Santos said in a televised address late Sunday.

A supporter of cries after the nation voted "no" in a referendum on a peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, at Bolivar Square in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2, 2016.

A supporter of cries after the nation voted "no" in a referendum on a peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, at Bolivar Square in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2, 2016.

The leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Rodrigo Londono, who is also known as Timochenko, is also refusing to give up.

"To the Colombian people who dream of peace, count on us. Peace will triumph," said Londono, who is also expected to return to Havana.

U.S. praises planned dialogue

In a statement, the U.S. State Department commended the government and people of Colombia "for the democratic process held yesterday and recognizes that difficult decisions are going to have to be taken in the days ahead."

"Colombians have expressed their commitment to settle their differences through institutions and dialogue rather than violence," said spokesman John Kirby. "Colombia can count on the continued support of the United States as it continues to seek democratic peace."

The United Nations also remains fully committed to the peace process and will continue to help the government reach a deal with the rebels, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday.

"We would have hoped for a different result, but I am encouraged by the commitment expressed by President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC-EP commander Timoleon Jimenez," Ban told reporters in Switzerland.

Ban also said he has "urgently" dispatched special representative Jean Arnault to the Cuban capital for consultations. "In Carthagena, I witnessed a profound desire of the Colombian people to end the violence. I count on them to press ahead until they achieve, secure a lasting peace," he added.

Protests

Supporters of both sides took to the streets of Bogota after the results of the referendum were announced. The "no" celebrated while a group of "yes" voters, dressed in white from head to toe, gathered outside Santos' home.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, front left, and the top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Rodrigo Londono, known by the alias Timochenko, shake hands after signing the peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the FARC to end over 50 years of conflict in Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 26, 2016.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, front left, and the top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Rodrigo Londono, known by the alias Timochenko, shake hands after signing the peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the FARC to end over 50 years of conflict in Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 26, 2016.


The peace agreement signed last week was aimed at formally ending the 52-year-old uprising by the leftist rebels. The guerrilla war in Colombia has killed more than 220,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

The Santos government had waged a fierce campaign in favor of the peace deal, appealing to the millions of Colombians who say they are sick of war and violence and terrorism.

But the "no" side, led by Santos' chief political rival, former President Alvaro Uribe, campaigned just as vigorously against the deal.

Turnout low

Turnout for the referendum was low, at just 37 percent. That is in part because of Hurricane Matthew, which dumped heavy rains in coastal areas, including many parts where there is more support for the government.

"Clearly the peace deal won in most of the larger cities and many of the coastal areas. It was in the mountainous central part of Colombia where it lost," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Opponents to the peace deal signed between the Colombia government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, attend an event to promote the "No" vote in the upcoming referendum in Bogota, Colombia, Oct 1, 2016.

Opponents to the peace deal signed between the Colombia government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, attend an event to promote the "No" vote in the upcoming referendum in Bogota, Colombia, Oct 1, 2016.


Many "no" voters were genuinely offended that nearly all FARC rebels will avoid prison time for crimes allegedly committed during the uprising and get various financial support from the government.

They are also upset that FARC would be guaranteed seats in the Colombian congress without an election in exchange for transforming FARC into a political party.

Timochenko had publicly asked for forgiveness for whatever harm was committed by the rebels during the long uprising.

The FARC rebellion began as a simple peasant uprising in 1964 and soon grew into a major threat to various Colombian obtainments over the next five decades.

It used drug trafficking as a major source of funding. Kidnapping politicians and foreigners and holding them hostage in remote jungle hideouts was a FARC trademark.

The United States spent billions of dollars in military aid to help the Colombian government combat FARC and bring it to the negotiating table.

VOA’s Steve Herman and Victor Beattie contributed to this report.

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