I spent 12 hours with President Santos as Colombians voted to reject their historic peace deal

Enrique Acevedo

BOGOTA, Colombia —Hope poured out of the fourth floor of Casa de Nariño as the day went on. Up until the plebiscite results came in like a punch in the gut, unexpectedly taking everyone’s air out.

Oct. 2 was nothing like what they expected it would be. For the past four years, President Santos and his negotiators led a peace process that aimed to end a conflict that had lasted more than half a century. So what now? Nobody in the government had prepared for Colombians to reject the peace treaty.

It was raining throughout Colombia Sunday morning. The northern coast and parts of the center were feeling the effects of Hurricane Matthew. It was 8 a.m. sharp when Juan Manuel Santos and his family came out of the elevator into the basement of the president’s official residence.

The plan was to walk to the voting station in Plaza Simón Bolivar, but the sky was not cooperating. The presidential guards prepared the vehicles and got the umbrellas ready…white umbrellas for a dark Sunday morning.

Santos had dreamed of this day ever since he started his political career, more than 25 years ago. “Hopefully the weather helps us,” he told me before getting into the black armored BMW, which was souped-up in Germany to be able to withstand a shot from a tank or a powerful bomb explosion.

The plebiscite for peace was the culmination of an arduous negotiation process between the government and the FARC. It was a date that Colombians were invited to after a war that left over 8 million victims and many more scars that have not yet healed.

Just a few weeks ago, a poll from Semana magazine projected that the vote for peace had a 39% chance of winning. Since then, the “yes” vote had started to gain momentum, but the rain came crashing down on this day in Colombia, and the lingering ghost of voter abstentionism had the president’s cabinet feeling uneasy.

Dozens of journalists were waiting for the commander in chief to arrive at Plaza Bolivar. More than 34 million Colombians were eligible to participate in the plebiscite that started with Santos’ vote. Between puddles, pushing and photos came the first public speech of the day. “I just submitted my vote in this plebiscite. With this historic vote, I hope that we change the history of this country for the better,” the Colombian president said from the heart of the capital.

It was a special day, but it didn’t distract the Santos family from their daily routine. They ate breakfast together at the official residence and then, after voting, went to 9 a.m. mass at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Security measures were already in place at Calle 22C #26-35, in the Samper Mendoza neighborhood, to receive the presidential caravan.

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is the preferred chapel for the president and First Lady María Clemencia Rodríguez, or “Tutina” as the Colombians know her. President Santos was in charge of reading the gospel: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” was the first line in the reading of the prophet of Habakkuk.

Oct. 2 holds deep religious significance because it is the celebration of the day of nonviolence between Catholics and the eve of the new Jewish year. Before returning to the presidential home, the presidential caravan made one last stop at the Magenovadia synagogue, where Colombia’s Sephardi Hebrew community is based.

The congregation welcomes Santos with applause. After the welcoming messages, there is a minute of silence to remember Shimon Peres, whom the Colombian president says was an inspiration to him.

“It’s as though the sun wants to come out now,” Captain Manrique told me outside of the temple, taking his eyes off the man he protects to briefly inspect the sky.

It had stopped raining as the returning convoy passed by two of the 81,000 voting stations set up throughout the country. Through the layers of polycarbonate of the armored window, we could see lines forming at the polling stations. “Yes” talk was dominating the hashtags on social media, but hashtag votes don’t really count.

For the president, there was nothing else to do but wait. The polls closed at 4 p.m. and the results started to flow into the National Civil Registry shortly after. Little by little, the presidential family, the negotiation team and other members of the presidential cabinet gathered in a private room on the fourth floor of Nariño, equipped with televisions and a screen that allowed them to follow the results in real time.

Former president Cesar Gaviria was in the room, but Juan Manuel Santos did not join the group. For those hoping for peace, the vote returns don’t bring good news. The smiles and hugs fade. Everyone remains glued to their cell phones and to the television.

By 5 p.m., the results started to lean towards No. Then there was silence. After a few minutes there was resignation: “We lost.”

At the end of the day, a little more than 60,000 votes marked the difference between Yes and No. Victims in the provinces that were directly affected by the conflict voted yes, but the majority of the voters rejected the peace treaty. More than 60 percent of the eligible voters in Colombia abstain from voting at all.

It was all over but the pain and disbelief. The first lady asked for everyone to be strong. “We will be at our husbands’ sides and show them we are deeply proud of the work they are doing for Colombia,” she said.

With the tally complete, President Santos only allowed the negotiation team into his library. De la Calle, Jaramillo, Naranjo, Pearl… they all tried to digest the news and find a new path for a divided nation. The president left his library 40 minutes later to go be by himself and write. It was time to prepare what could be the most difficult speech of his life.

Greeted with applauses, Santos entered the room five minutes before 7 p.m., ready to give his speech.

The president took a couple drinks of water from the bottle his assistant handed him. Then they asked to bring coats for the negotiators, who are dressed casually. The woman and nine men who made up the government’s negotiation team huddled around Santos for final instructions before they took their positions.

It’s not a speech Santos ever imagined he would have to give on this night. The producer counts down…three, two… the Colombian national anthem starts to play. In a brief message, Juan Manuel Santos accepts the defeat, and says the ceasefire will continue. He assures the country that he will not rest until they finally find peace in Colombia.

The room regains some energy and is filled with applauses once again for Juan Manuel and Tutina, who insists on projecting strength. The couple then walks together down to one of the entrances of Casa de Nariño, where a group of young people have showed up to express their support. “We want peace. Not one step back,” the group yells.

The president returns to the building, but before he goes up the stairs into his private residence, I ask him: “Now what?”

Santos turned to me and smiled with his response: “I am not giving up. I will continue to work for peace.”

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