Why did Colombian voters reject the FARC peace deal?

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A man casts his vote in a referendum on a peace deal between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels at the Colombian Consulate in Caracas, Venezuela October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello - RTSQFVK

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a major upset in South America.

Yesterday, voters in Colombia rejected a peace deal between their government and the largest rebel group, known as the FARC. It was hoped the deal would put an end to 50-plus years of conflict that’s left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

William Brangham has the latest.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sunday’s stunning outcome in Colombia touched off celebrations in parts of Bogota. Voters narrowly rejected a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, this despite predictions it would win easily.

CLAUDIA, ‘No’ Supporter (through translator): We have all been victims of the FARC and this victory is calling to the government to renegotiate the agreements, not to hand over the country to the FARC. It’s very emotional. This is what Colombia wants.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But yes-voters complained opponents of the peace deal were misguided.

ANTONIO SANGUINO, ‘Yes’ supporter (through translator): Fifty percent of the people who went out to vote allowed themselves to be convinced by a message of hate, a message of revenge, a message of keeping us in the past.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The government and the leftist rebels signed the peace pact one week ago after four years of negotiations. It would formally end a conflict that’s claimed at least 220,000 lives since the 1960s, and displaced millions more, but it still needed ratification. After Sunday’s rejection, President Juan Manuel Santos and the top FARC commander appealed for calm.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, Colombia (through translator): I call on those who decided to or not to support the agreement to end the conflict with the FARC. Now we are all together, going to decide between the path that we should take so that peace is possible. I will not give up.

TIMOCHENKO, FARC Commander (through translator): The FARC maintains its willingness for peace and reiterates its position to use only words as weapons to work towards the future. The Colombian people who dream of peace, you can count on us. Peace will win out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Even former President Alvaro Uribe, a leader of the no campaign, warned against reprisals.

PRESIDENT ALVARO URIBE, Former President, Colombia (through translator): We all want peace. Nobody wants violence. We ask that the FARC are protected and that all crimes, including drug trafficking and extortion, are stopped.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The United States had backed the accord, and, today, a White House spokesman voiced hope.

JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: The good news is that all sides including the voters, I think, are still focused on trying to reach this negotiated peace, and that certainly is within the national security interests of the United States to end this war, and we are going to encourage all sides to pursue that peace.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For now, a cease-fire remains in effect, as negotiators ponder the way forward.

To help us understand the future of this peace process, we’re joined now by someone intimately involved in securing the deal in the first place.

Bernard Aronson is the U.S. special envoy for talks between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels.

Welcome.

Fifty years of fighting. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions of people pushed out of their homes. Why did voters reject this peace plan?

BERNARD ARONSON, US Special Envoy for Colombian Peace Process: Well, I think the woman who spoke about it in your introduction spoke for a lot of Colombians, which is they have suffered enormously, they have been victimized, they’re bitter about that, rightfully so, and they felt the FARC got off too easy in this peace accord.

Whether that’s true or not is up to debate, but many Colombians felt that way and they turned out, and, by a very small majority, rejected the accord.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A very, very small majority, I mean, 50 to 49, almost.

Pick up that idea, though. The argument that many of them made is that the FARC were involved in drug trafficking, killings, kidnappings, extortion, and to them this deal felt like the FARC was able to walk away scot-free. Is that a legitimate criticism?

BERNARD ARONSON: It isn’t true that they were going to wake away scot-free.

What the agreement did was set up a system of justice called transitional justice. All the FARC members who were accused of war crimes, atrocities or atrocities or violations of international human rights had to go before these tribunals, confess all of their crimes, all their criminal activity, give up any gains they made from it, and then subject themselves to sanctions by the court, which included restrictions on liberty, though maybe not prison, per se, and some kind of sanction of work.

They have been sentenced to spend five or eight years removing land mines. But the people in Colombia whose family were kidnapped and who were killed or driven off their land, and they felt that that wasn’t an appropriate punishment.

And that’s part of the discussion that has to go forward now between the government and the opposition.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, what does happen at this point?

I mean, before this vote was held, the government said if the vote goes no, we’re not coming back to the negotiating table. The FARC said the same thing. So, where does the leave the peace process?

BERNARD ARONSON: Well, but you just heard President Santos, in fact, say, they are going to try to renegotiate.

I think what he wants to do, and what he’s doing correctly, is try to reach out to a broad spectrum of Colombian political leadership, including the no campaign, which obviously has to have a seat at the table now, and see if they can come up with some new consensus that they can start to discuss with the FARC.

Whether they will get there or not is an open question, but it’s certainly worth an effort. And this president has been pretty relentless in his pursuit of peace.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But do you think the FARC — and you know many of these leaders. You have worked with them intimately over the years.

Do you think they are going to tolerate a further conversation where all of a sudden the government says, I know we had a deal, but now we have a new deal to work out and you guys are going to have to be punished more severely?

BERNARD ARONSON: Right. It’s not an easy sell.

On the other hand, if the opposition can be brought into the deal so that there is a national consensus behind it, that’s good for the peace process, it’s good for the FARC, because, with a country as divided as Colombia is today, to go forward with the agreement, you would have made it a political football for the opposition. It could be obstructed and torn apart.

And this way, the hope is — and it’s a hope at this point — is that you can create a national consensus which will be enduring and will unite the country.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s say that it does forward and there is some sort of process reignited.

One of the things I know that was an issue at this was the FARC rebels to disarm and some of their soldiers would then be reintegrated into Colombian society. My understanding is, many of these are very, very young people. How does someone who’s lived their entire life as a guerrilla soldier suddenly put down arms and reintegrate into society?

BERNARD ARONSON: Well, Colombia actually has a long history over the last 20 or 30 years of reintegrating and demobilizing guerrilla forces.

But what they do is a very sort of systematic approach with a presidential institute. They teach these young fighters to read and write, if they’re not literate. They teach them a job skill. They reunite them with their families. They provide housing. They often provide direct entree to a job opportunity.

It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but they actually have a pretty good track record of demobilizing guerrilla forces.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You are someone who’s worked in this region for decades and you know the players involved intimately.

Today, in the light of this vote, do you have any sense of hope that this is a chance that this is going to be restarted in a meaningful way?

BERNARD ARONSON: Colombians on the yes vote and the Colombians on the no vote want peace.

They don’t want to go back to war. They want a negotiated settlement. So, I don’t think it’s impossible the Colombians can come together on a new consensus. Getting the FARC to give up what they had and go to a different set of agreements is not going to be easy, but they don’t have other options either.

They don’t want to go back to war, and war is not an option for them. So this is an uphill fight, but getting to the peace accords was a very long and torturous process. So, this is well worth the effort. President Santos wants to do this. The United States obviously support him.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Bernard Aronson, thank you very much for being here.

BERNARD ARONSON: Thank you.

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