Colombian government, rebels hope to revive peace deal after vote

Reuters , Monday 3 Oct 2016

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FARC leftist guerrilla commander Timochenko (C) speaks next to FARC commanders Pablo Catatumbo (L) and Ivan Marquez (R) after knowing the results of a referendum on wether to ratify a peace accord to end a 52-year war between the Colombian government and the communist FARC rebels, in Havana, on October 2, 2016 (Photo: AFP)

Colombia's government and Marxist FARC guerrillas scrambled on Monday to revive a plan to end their 52-year war after voters rejected the hard-negotiated deal as too lenient on the rebels in a shock result that plunged the nation into uncertainty.

Putting on a brave face after a major political defeat, President Juan Manuel Santos offered hope to those who backed his four-year peace negotiation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Cuba.

Latin America's longest conflict has killed 220,000 people.

"I will not give up, I will keep seeking peace until the last minute of my term," he said moments after losing Sunday's plebiscite to those who want a re-negotiation of the deal or an obliteration of the FARC on the battlefield.

Santos, whose term ends in mid-2018, planned to meet all political parties on Monday. He was also sending lead government peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle back to Havana to speak to the FARC leadership.

Rodrigo Londono, the top FARC commander better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, also offered reassurance the rebels remain committed to becoming a peaceful political party.

"Count on us, peace will triumph," Timochenko said.

Disappointed Latin American neighbors urged Colombia not to give up on peace. With Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela acting as guarantors and observers of the negotiations in Havana, the region had been closely involved with the deal.

"We're saddened by the slim victory for 'No'," said Ecuador's Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, after the peace deal was rejected by a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point, or only 54,000 votes.

Following the result, peace researchers dropped Colombia from a list of favorites for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The United Nations applauded the maintenance of a ceasefire in Colombia despite the vote and said its special envoy, Jean Arnault, would also travel to Cuba to help the process.

"I count on them to press ahead until they have achieved lasting peace," U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said.

Santos, 65, who was not obliged by law to hold a plebiscite, had said there was no Plan B in the event of the failure of the peace vote, but now appears ready to consider options.

Turnout for the vote was a paltry 37 percent, reflecting some apathy from "yes" supporters who had assumed an easy win in addition to bad weather that deterred voters.

Colombians, even those who backed the "No" vote, expressed shock at the outcome and uncertainty about the future.

"We never thought this could happen," said sociologist and "No" voter Mabel Castano, 37. "Now I just hope the government, the opposition and the FARC come up with something intelligent that includes us all."

ROOTS IN THE SIXTIES

The peace accord reached in late August and signed a week ago offered the possibility that rebel fighters would hand in their weapons to the United Nations, confess their crimes and form a political party rooted in their Marxist ideology.

The FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964, would have been able to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections and have 10 unelected congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

That enraged "No" supporters, including powerful former president Alvaro Uribe, who argued the rebels should serve jail terms and never be permitted to enter politics.

Uribe, a onetime ally who has become Santos' fiercest critic, may now hold the key to any potential re-negotiation.

While the FARC has refused to serve traditional jail terms, it may see no future in returning to the battlefields and so consider some sort of new deal.

"In the end, the people have spoken: the Colombian government and the FARC have no choice but to renegotiate," said Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

The FARC already had softened its stance in the original negotiation, publicly admitting for the first time it trafficked drugs, recruited minors and committed human rights violations, including massacres.

But voters worried the rebels would not turn over assets from drugs and illegal mining, potentially giving them a formidable war chest that could outstrip the coffers of traditional parties.

Regions still riven by the conflict, including poor areas along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, voted resoundingly in favor of the deal, but formerly violent interior areas pacified during the Uribe presidency largely backed the "no" camp.

"How sad. It seems Colombia has forgotten about the cruelty of war, our deaths, our injured, our mutilated, our victims and the suffering we've all lived through with this war," said Adriana Rivera, 43, a philosophy professor standing tearfully at the hotel housing the headquarters of the "yes" campaign.

The vote may delay Santos' plans to move on to other matters including much-needed tax reform and other measures to offset a drop in oil income. It will also dent his hopes for a boom in foreign investment in mining, oil and agriculture in Latin America's fourth-largest economy.

Colombia's peso currency fell 2.8 percent against the dollar in early trading on Monday.

Goldman Sachs analyst Albert Ramos said a weaker peso and political uncertainty would probably limit the central bank's ability to cut interest rates in the short term.

"The victory of the 'no' camp is likely to render Colombia's domestic political picture even more complex and could impact the tax proposal the government was expected to announce soon after the referendum," he added in a note to clients.

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