On Sunday, Colombian voters rejected the peace agreement that the government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, worked out with the FARC guerrillas by the slenderest margin possible: 50.21 percent to 49.78, a difference of 53,894 votes. The turnout was 37 percent, out of 34 million eligible voters.
It’s a heartbreaking disaster for the long, intricate peace process, which sought to put an end to Colombia’s more than five-decade-long civil war. That war has claimed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of lives and has displaced millions upon millions of people. The peace deal, which was worked out during years of negotiations, mostly in Havana, was more aspirational than binding, offering hope that one of the world’s longest-running conflicts would come to an end. Now, that deal is in “tatters.” But keep in mind that “no” won with a sliver of a voting majority (less than 1 percent) of a minority (of eligible voters), with turnout low due to, in many precincts, extreme tropical rain, mostly in coastal departments where “yes” won handily.
That bad-weather luck almost wants you to invoke the apocalyptic conclusion to Colombia’s most famous novel, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where an unending hurricane washes all away. But the peace might not be lost. Lisa Haugaard, of the indispensable Latin American Working Group, told me, “The Colombian government, fully engaged in finding a negotiated solution, did not do the outreach, socializing, and explaining of the accords that was necessary. The ‘no’ campaign effectively organized around its negative message. Fortunately, after it was clear the ‘no’ vote narrowly won, both President Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño pledged that the cease-fire will hold and that they remain committed to peace.”
According to The New York Times, the government and FARC have already announced that they would send diplomats to Havana to begin discussing how to salvage the peace. The FARC responded to the vote by announcing that they remained committed to peace; indeed, the UN has already started disarming the guerrillas. Santos stated that the cease-fire will hold, and the historian Robert Karl, who just wrote a terrific “centuries long history behind Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC” in The Washington Post, tells me that Santos, as president, has “a good deal of discretionary power” over the military, so let’s hope Santos can keep the security forces on a leash. What Washington, who has spent billions on this war (for the lethal effects of Plan Colombia, see these very useful charts by the Latin American Working Group), will do is unclear. As of early morning Monday, the State Department hasn’t commented.