BOGOTA— A reporter cries as she holds her red microphone. Around her, people hug tearfully, while others look at a giant TV screen and gasp in disbelief.
Students, young professionals, and a collection of middle aged parents had come out to Bogota’s “hippie park” on Sunday to celebrate what they expected to be the official end of Colombia’s 52-year war.
But their afternoon took a shocking turn as the sun went down and it became painfully evident that Colombians had voted to reject the peace deal by the slimmest of margins.
Colombia held a plebiscite on Sunday to decide the fate of a peace treaty that was signed Sept. 26 between the government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas, concluding four gruelingly long years of negotiations. The deal sought to address the roots of the conflict, offer some measure of justice to the victims, and give the communist rebels a stake in national politics.
But by the twiggy margin of 50,000 votes—just 0.5% of all the ballots cast on Sunday—Colombia said “No” to the peace deal. The country that invented magical realism just rejected an historic opportunity to end a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and forced an additional 6 million to flee their homes.
“I’m really saddened that we have so much hate in our hearts,” said a teary-eyed Ana Maria Ibañez, an artist who went to the square to watch the poll returns. “Today, we had the chance to finish off the FARC as an armed group, and it didn’t happen.”
The peace deal had always been a hard sell in Colombia, even though it was widely applauded by international diplomats and the foreign press corps.
Throughout the peace talks with the guerrillas, opposition parties here chastised the government for conceding too much to the rebels in exchange for their weapons.
Critics said the peace deal was too lenient on guerrilla leaders who have forcibly recruited thousands of children into the war, and financed the FARC insurgency through kidnappings and drug trafficking.
Colombians have spent years watching TV reports of remote towns getting obliterated by guerrilla attacks, and the harrowing testimonies of kidnap victims who were forced to spend years rotting in jungle prisons. It was too much suffering to unsee.
That accumulated pain and anger ultimately made it impossible to sell the country on a peace deal that would have allowed guerrilla leaders who have committed serious war crimes to avoid prison by cooperating with a special peace tribunal and fessing up to their abuses.
“I think the guerillas got too much there,” said John Ospina, a law student who voted No. “I’m not against peace, but I would like to see these people, who have shed blood for so long, get some jail time for what they did.”
Another contentious part of the peace deal would have guaranteed the guerrillas 10 congressional seats for the next two election cycles, and given the FARC 10% of government funds earmarked for political parties.
Jason Perez, an activist for the No camp, said he isn’t against an eventual peace treaty, but wants to see certain aspects of the deal renegotiated.
“They should have to earn those spots (in congress) with votes, just like the rest of Colombians,” Perez told me. “They should have to fight for political influence with their own money, not with our tax money.”
Many “Yes” voters were also uncomfortable with those provisions, but said they were willing to overlook some of that for the sake of peace.
“In a peace process everyone has to make sacrifices,” said Catalina Ospina, a social worker from Medellin. “No one is going to be so dumb as to give up their guns, demobilize, and walk straight into jail.”
Despite the controversy over some of the government’s concessions to the FARC, the peace deal was expected to pass, which is why Sunday’s No vote is such a shocker. Opinion polls as recent as last week showed the peace deal was expected to win approval with anywhere from 60-70%, while the Nos were predicted to get only 30-40%.
But polls have been inaccurate in previous Colombian elections. And a lower-than-expected voter turnout seems to have dampened the Yes side. Only 37% of eligible voters participated in Sunday’s plebiscite, and most of them were from the “No” camp, which appears to have been more energized by their resentment towards the guerrillas.
Now, Colombia is faced with the challenge of what to do with a fighting force of 10,000 guerrillas who—until a few hours ago—were on the verge of handing in their guns to become a political party.
The guerrillas will have to decide whether to re-enter another round of peace talks that promise to offer them fewer benefits, to try and start the peace talks from scratch or go back to war.
On Sunday night, FARC leader Timochenko said in a brief statement that his organization will to continue its commitment to peace talks though he did not lay out a clear strategy.
“We lament, deeply, the destructive power of those who sow hatred and rancor and may have influenced the Colombian people’s opinion,” Timochenko said in a communiqué read on national television. “But we will continue to use words as our only weapon to construct the future.”
President Juan Manuel Santos is also urging the guerrillas to stick with peace talks, and promised his government would continue to honor a ceasefire that has been in effect for almost a year.
“Everybody here wants peace,” Santos said. “So tomorrow, I will meet with political forces that represent the yes and no camps to determine what is the next step to take.”
For now, the No side is not gloating publicly about its win on Sunday. After all, it’s hard to go too nuts celebrating a decision to not end a bloody and prolonged war.
But the No leaders said Colombia can now push for a “better” peace deal. Francisco Santos, the leader of the No campaign and a cousin of President Santos, said Colombia, by voting no, has given the world a lesson in human rights.
“We proved to the world that we have a higher standard for justice,” Francisco Santos said.
The “Yes” voters at hippie park, meanwhile, fear that hate has won out over hope.
“I think everyone needs to fix what they have inside,” said Catalina Ibañez, the artist who attended the peace rally. “There are more wars in the world now because people hate more, and if we don’t all look inside ourselves first, we are screwed.”