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Colombians Narrowly Reject Peace Deal, Confounding Expectations

By Steve Herman October 02, 2016

Voters in Colombia appear to have narrowly rejected a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in a referendum Sunday, delivering a stunniing blow to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and plunging the country into a new period of uncertainty.

With almost all ballots counted, Colombia's election authority declared Sunday evening that the "No" side had received 50.2 percent of the vote compared to 49.8 percent for the "Yes" side. The outcome was a shock for analysts after pre-referendum polls had shown the "Yes" side with support from more than 60 percent of Colombians.

The referendum came just six days after a high-profile signing ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry where Colombian government and FARC leaders proclaimed an end to the longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. The signing capped four years of negotiations but was contingent on ratification in Sunday's referendum.

After the peace pact was signed last Monday, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono - better known by his alias of Timochenko - publicly asked for forgiveness for all the harm his movement had caused over the decades.

FARC's funding was primarily derived from the country's illicit cocaine industry, and its armed movement was the last full-blown one inspired originally by Cuban and Soviet ideology against democratic institutions in the Americas.

"No more war," declared President Santos in his remarks following Timochenko. "I welcome you to democracy, change weapons for votes and weapons for ideas."

The conflict since the mid-1960s displaced millions of people and left more than 250,000 dead.

The FARC has agreed to cooperate with de-mining, an effort being led by the United States and Norway.

Colombia has the second highest number of land mines in the world after Afghanistan, and the explosives have killed an estimated 11,500 people since 1990.

The United States is taking some of the credit for bringing about the peace pact, which diplomats in Washington describe as a transformational event for Colombia and the region and one that President Barack Obama has described as one of the most important achievements during his presidency.

Santos, who has staked his reputation on ending the war, had asked the United States to increase its engagement in the four-year negotiating process, which mostly took place in Cuba.

The U.S. government, in fiscal 2017, plans to spend $450 million to help Colombia bring government services, security, police, education, health, roads and economic development to the vast stretches of the interior that have been left out of national life during the decades of conflict.

Proponents of the deal also note the commitment to work with farmers to get land titles as well as access to transportation networks for their harvests of legal crops, rather than coca leaf production. It includes transitional justice efforts that proponents hope will lead to reconciliation in the countryside.

They also predict it will be the catalyst for Colombia's GDP to grow at twice its current pace and triple foreign investment following years of negative growth and capital flight.

"It's very hard to beat the economics of coca but it comes with coercion and violence," said Marcela Escobari, assistant administrator for the Latin America bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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