BOGOTA, Colombia — After a stunning referendum defeat for a peace deal with leftist rebels, Colombians are asking what comes next for their war-torn country, which like Britain following the Brexit vote has no Plan B to save an accord that sought to bring an end to a half century of hostilities.
The damage from Sunday’s vote is still sinking in. Instead of winning by an almost two-to-one margin as pre-election polls had predicted, those favoring the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lost by a razor-thin margin, 49.8 percent of the votes to 50.2 percent for those against the deal.
Both President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the FARC, having come this far after four years of grueling negotiations, vowed to push ahead, giving no hint they want to resume a war that has already killed 220,000 people and displaced 8 million.
“I won’t give up. I’ll continue search for peace until the last moment of my mandate,” Santos said in a televised address appealing for calm.
But it’s not clear how the already unpopular Santos can save the deal given the stunning political defeat he suffered. For now, he has ordered his negotiators to return to Cuba on Monday to confer with FARC’s top leaders, who watched the results come in with disbelief after earlier ordering drinks and cigars at Club Havana, once Cuba’s most exclusive beach club.
“The FARC deeply regret that the destructive power of those who sow hatred and revenge have influenced the Colombian people’s opinion,” the FARC’s top commander, a guerrilla known as Timochenko, told reporters later.
The defeat for the government was even more stunning considering the huge international support for the accord, which Santos signed with Timochenko less than a week ago in a ceremony attended by heads of state, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
With the outlook uncertain, all eyes are on Santos’ former boss and chief rival: Álvaro Uribe, the powerful former president who led the grassroots campaign against the accord. He gave voice to millions of Colombians, many of them victims of the FARC like him, who bristled at the deal providing for rebel leaders to avoid jail time if they confessed their crimes and instead reserved them seats in congress — the two-most controversial provisions of the 297-page accord.
Uribe, in prepared remarks from his ranch outside Medellin after the results were in, called for a “big national pact” and insisted on “correctives” that guarantee respect for the constitution, respect for private enterprise and justice without impunity. But he didn’t specify whether he would join Santos in trying to salvage the deal.
“The entire accord was full of impunity,” said Ricardo Bernal, 60, celebrating the victory for the “no” side in a Bogota neighborhood where opponents were gathered. “We all want peace but there has to be adjustments made.”
Across town, hundreds of supporters of the peace deal who had gathered in a hotel ballroom for what they expected would be a victory party with Santos wept in despair.
The 7,000 guerrilla fighters are unlikely to return to the battlefield any time soon. For now, a cease-fire remains in place.
One option for the government would be to reopen negotiations, something Santos had ruled out previously and his chief negotiator said would be “catastrophic.” The president could also seek to ratify the accord in congress or by calling a constitutional convention, something both the FARC and Uribe have previously favored.
“I’ve always believed in a wise Chinese proverb to look for opportunities in any situation. And here we have an opportunity that’s opening up, with the new political reality that has demonstrated itself in the referendum,” Santos said Sunday night before descending to the steps of the presidential palace to address a small group of supporters, some of waving white flags symbolizing peace.
Bringing Santos and Uribe together might be harder than achieving peace with the FARC. Santos served as Uribe’s defense minister, when they worked together to drive the FARC to the edge of the jungles, but the two haven’t spoken for years and frequently trade insults.
One of the reasons for the surprise defeat was low turnout, with only 37 percent of the electorate bothering to vote, a further sign to some analysts that Colombians’ enthusiasm for the ambitious accord was lacking. Heavy rains from Hurricane Matthew especially dampened voting along the Caribbean coast, where the government’s electoral machinery is strongest and the “yes” vote won by a comfortable double-digit margin.
The campaign exposed deep rifts in Colombia’s society, dividing many families and making clear the road to reconciliation would have been long and torturous even had the accord passed. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many considered the accord an insult to victims of the long-running conflict.