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Colombia's rejection of peace deal has echoes of UK's shock Brexit

There was a lot to stomach in a Yes vote for a people caused so much pain over the past five decades, writes Michael Sheils McNamee from Medellin.

Michael Sheils McNamee

COLOMBIA HAS VOTED, and it’s a No.

As anyone who woke up to the news alerts on the morning of Brexit will know, there’s nowt so queer as folk, especially when it comes to mass decision-making on a country’s political future.

In the end, it was fewer than 55,000 people out of an electorate of more than 30 million who made the difference to the vote on the peace deal with Marxist rebel group the Farc.

The live coverage on Colombian CNN felt like a plangent echo of the UK’s decision to leave the EU – with the uncertainty about what will happen next amplified by the irreversible nature of the decision.

Colombia Peace Referendum A supporter of the peace deal reacts to the news that it had not passed by the people of Colombia. Source: Ariana Cubillos via PA Images

Colombia Peace Referendum An opponent to the deal reacts with no less emotion to the news, demonstrating the huge emotional stake for both sides in the referendum. Source: Ariana Cubillos via PA Images

In Colombia the pre-vote polls were extremely confident this wouldn’t happen, with Yes bounding out in front with as much as 66% support.

A high-profile deal-signing ceremony last Sunday in the coastal city of Cartagena between government representatives and rebel leaders gave it a feeling of inevitability.

Surely, after everyone had gone to the effort of wearing white and shaking hands with Ban Ki-Moon there was no way the deal was going to be rejected.

Perhaps indulging in a touch of pre-referendum melodrama, President Juan Manual Santos even went so far as to say that he had no back up plan and that a No vote could mean a return to war.

In all likelihood that isn’t going to happen, and the country’s political leaders – at the request of Santos – are today sitting down to try to thrash this out.

A ceasefire has been in place since the end of August and Farc leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, has reiterated his group’s commitment to keeping the peace and “to use only words as a weapon to build towards the future”.

To me, an outsider with no ties to Colombia, it seemed like taking the peace deal would have been a good idea.

My thinking was mostly influenced by my landlady, whose husband was killed by anti-government forces during the conflict.

Monica, one of the nicest people you could wish to meet, is a fresh-faced 40-year-old who has witnessed the worst of Colombia’s history first-hand.

Over the past few days I’ve also had the chance to meet her daughter Zara, who had come home for a wedding and her boyfriend’s birthday. She’s aged around 20 and studying conflict resolution in Bogota.

Around the walls are pictures of the three of them while Monica’s husband was still alive, and taking prominence in the living room is a large 18th century old-style cash register that he had bought as a present for his wife.

A bookshelf next to the kitchen is also covered in pre-colonial artefacts, which Monica explained to me he had collected while he was still alive.

I haven’t pried too much on the subject – because I’ve found that asking someone about their dead spouse in a foreign language you barely speak isn’t the best idea – but I think she moved to this apartment after selling the family home in another part of Medellín.

I don’t want to labour the point, but it has occurred to me that – once the immediacy of a tragedy has passed – the day-to-day impact of something so awful seems to manifest itself in much more mundane ways.

I didn’t know her husband had been killed when I asked her which way she was voting, and probably wouldn’t have asked if I did know, but – all the same – she did say she was voting Yes.

There had been too much pain for everyone, she said, and this was the right thing to do.

An observation she had was that, in broad strokes, the people voting against the peace deal were less likely to have been impacted directly by the conflict, while those who had been directly impacted were more likely to vote for it.

Colombia Peace Referendum Voters line up during the referendum to decide whether to support the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Farc. Source: Fernando Vergara via PA Images

I think it is only fair to temper all of this by saying that, as an outsider, I have absolutely no right criticise the No vote.

With the referendum on same-sex marriage in May last year it felt like there was a moral imperative to voting Yes, and making marriage available to everyone was the decent thing to do.

While No voters here also seemed to be of an older and more conservative ilk, the same narrative does not apply.

There is still an active conflict going on in the country, and so far close to 220,000 (of which 178,000 have been civilians) have been killed since it began in 1964.

The deal, were it to have passed, would have given get out of jail free cards to Farc members who were responsible for crimes that included abduction, recruitment of child soldiers and the killing of thousands.

Many voters have also had difficulty with the fact that the deal would have made the Farc a mainstream political institution, opening the door to a possible future where the group could rule over the people they once imposed terror upon.

That’s a lot to stomach, and it is understandable that – by the finest of margins – the people of Colombia decided not to do so.

Michael Sheils McNamee is a freelance journalist, currently working in Colombia. He has a travel blog here.

After 52 years of war and 260,000 dead, Colombians reject peace deal with Farc rebels>

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