'Colombia is betting everything on this': Voters are deciding whether to end the Western Hemisphere's longest war

Colombia FARC peace deal Juan Manuel Santos

Colombians at home and around the world began voting early Sunday morning on a peace deal negotiated over the last four years by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

The FARC and the Colombian government reached a deal this summer, which was approved by the rebel group’s members at the FARC’s final meeting in late September and signed by Santos and FARC leaders on September 26.

Now the Colombian people will cast their votes to approve or reject the deal, voting on Sunday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, with results expected by Sunday evening.

While numerous polls have indicated that “Yes” will win by a comfortable margin, the Santos government has said there is no Plan B should the accord be voted down and the country would fall back into war if the deal fails.

“Colombia is betting everything on this plebiscite, socially, economically and politically,” Jorge Restrepo, director of conflict analysis center CERAC, told AFP.

Surveys of public opinion by Datexco and Ipsos Napoleon Franco done in late September and cited by AFP found that the “Yes” vote ahead by about a 20% margin, with both pollsters estimating a “No” vote of about 35%. Other polls conducted before the voting indicated “Yes” votes outweighing “No” votes by a considerable margin.

The “Yes” campaign has attracted noteworthy backers, including Shakira, actor John Leguizamo, and soccer star Carlos Valderrama.

The “No” campaign has been led by former President Alvaro Uribe, under whom Santos served as defense minister. John Jairo Velasquez, a former hit man for Pablo Escobar who has been implicated in the deaths of thousands, has called on his countrymen to embrace the far right and “stand together in favor of the ‘No,'” according to AFP.

Uribe and other “No” backers have claimed the peace deal offers impunity for FARC crimes and invoked the specter of “Castro Chavismo,” a reference to the governments of Cuba and Venezuela, to criticize the political opportunities given to demobilized rebels. Those opposing the deal have marched under the slogan, “yes to peace, but not like this.” 

Ironically, it was Cuba and the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, as well as the US, who helped put the talks on track over the last four years, with the Cubans playing host to the negotiations in Havana.

Despite the apparent lead held by the “Yes” vote, worries remain. Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian government’s peace commissioner, expressed concern to The Washington Post, which noted that low voter turnout may influence the result. 

Colombia’s elections often see low participation, especially outside cities, where rural regions are often remote and poorly connected to the rest of the country. Moreover, some important bastions of “Yes” support, like the Caribbean city of Cartagena, where the government and FARC signed the deal on Monday, have been hard hit by heavy rain and other effects of Hurricane Matthew.

“Most polls indicate a 2 to 1 victory for “yes” but with over 40% abstention,” Orlando J. Perez, an associate dean at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said on Twitter.

Demonstrators take part in an event organized by supporters of the

In order for the deal to pass, it must get the support of 13% of Colombia’s registered voters, or some 4.5 million people, and the “Yes” votes must outnumber votes for “No.” While a “Yes” victory would not change Colombian law, it would ensure legitimacy for the accord, show popular support, and provide strong assurances that what was agreed upon will be implemented.

A win for “Yes” would initiate the demobilization and disarmament of the FARC’s nearly 5,800 fighters, as well as of members of associated militias and armed groups. This process will be overseen by UN observers, and on Saturday the rebel group went ahead and destroyed nearly 1,400 pounds of grenades and light explosives.

During this demobilization period, the FARC would also begin to declare “the monetary and non-monetary resources” that have funded its war effort.

The rebel group has said it will put these assets toward material reparations for the victims of the 52-year war. Under the deal, the FARC will also take part in some economic-development projects, including ones focused on tourism and agriculture. 

FARC members have also met with Colombians around the country to ask for forgiveness, including one such meeting in northwest Colombia, where a FARC attack left 35 people dead in 1994.

“All of us in life have committed mistakes, some with consequences more serious than others,” FARC leader Ivan Marquez said at that ceremony, according to the Associated Press. “There’s nothing to lose in recognizing it. Speaking the pure and clean truth heals the soul’s wounds, no matter how deep they are.”

FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by hs nom de guerre Timochenko, and leaders sing the anthem during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp where they prepare for ratifying a peace deal with the government, near El Diamante in Yari Plains, Colombia, September 17, 2016.  REUTERS /John Vizcaino

Since the rebel group took up arms against the Colombian state in 1964, more than a quarter-million people have been killed and some 7 million have been displaced from their homes in the country of about 50 million people. 

As part of the negotiations, the Colombian government granted some concessions to the rebels. The group, which has said it will form a political party by May 2017, can compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections and will have 10 unelected congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

Political integration for rebel groups in Colombia has historically been a fraught process. Efforts by the FARC to demobilize and enter the political sphere in the late 1980s were quashed by a violent campaign by right-wing paramilitaries and other groups, which left thousands of FARC members and supporters dead.

Some FARC members will also receive an amnesty for their actions during the conflict, but not those accused of the worst crimes such as massacres, torture, and rape.

FARC rebels Colombia peace plan demobilization

This amnesty and the prospect of FARC political participation have animated the opposition, with Uribe’s “No” campaign arguing the group should face harsher consequences, a sentiment echoed by some in the country. 

“The president has given the guerrillas the ability to be in government. He’s sold out the country,” 66-year-old Bogota housewife Fanny Castro, whose son-in-law is in the army, told Reuters. “We have to vote no or we’ll have the guerrillas on top of us.”

Others opposed to the deal have raised the prospect that FARC rebels could slip back into criminal activity. Indeed, some FARC factions have declared that they won’t participate in the demobilization, resistance some observers say is motivated by a desire to stay in the lucrative drug trade. Colombia’s high output of cocaine is seen as a big obstacle to ensuring the FARC’s deactivation and to eliminating other criminal groups.

Many Colombians, even those not totally satisfied with the deal, see an imperfect peace as a better option than continued war.

“Even one less death is enough of an argument,” Sandra Guevara, a 42-year-old secretary, said to Reuters. “I’m voting yes because I’m betting on hope, to guarantee my son can see a better country.”

A win for “Yes” on Sunday would likely see Santos turn his government’s attention to economic measures needed to fund the many projects and initiatives need to secure the implementation of the peace deal, including rural development and ongoing security programs. Colombia’s economy has been undercut by the slump in the price of oil, one of the country’s main exports and sources of revenue.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s historic peace plan has a bloody legacy to overcome

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