By Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombians rejected a peace deal with Marxist insurgents in a referendum on Sunday, plunging the nation into uncertainty and dashing President Juan Manuel Santos’ dream of ending the 52-year war.
The surprise victory for the “no” camp - by less than half a percentage point - was likely to shatter a sense of international jubilation - from the White House to the Vatican - at what appeared to be the end of the longest-running conflict in the Americas.
Before the referendum, Santos was confident of victory. He said a “no” vote would be “catastrophic” and that he would return Colombia to war if the deal was rejected.
Santos, 53, was due to address the nation at 7 p.m. local time (8.00 p.m. ET).
Opinion polls had shown he would comfortably win and then be able to start implementing a deal painstakingly negotiated in Cuba over the past four years with guerrilla leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
But traditionally conservative Colombian voters, anxious over perceived soft treatment for the guerrillas, confounded forecasts as the “no” camp won with a tiny margin of 50.23 percent to 49.76 percent.
Opponents of the pact believe it was too lenient on the FARC rebels by allowing them to re-enter society, form a political party and escape jail sentences.
“I voted no. I don’t want to teach my children that everything can be forgiven,” said Bogota engineer Alejandro Jaramillo, 35.
Opponents want a renegotiation of the deal with rebel leaders serving jail sentences and receiving no free seats in Congress.
“This is a clear message. .. I ask all citizens to trust we will know how to handle this situation without agitation. We’ll work with the government to remake this accord,” said former Vice President Francisco Santos, a prominent “no” supporter.
Torrential rain seems to have contributed to an abstention rate of 63 percent. “No” voters appeared more highly motivated, and some Colombians may have felt pressured to tell pollsters they were voting for peace despite private doubts.
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 presidency of former leader Alvaro Uribe backed the “no” camp.
DISASTER FOR SANTOS
Colombians were asked for a simple “yes” or “no” vote on whether they supported the accord signed last Monday by Santos and the rebel commander known as Timochenko.
The FARC, whose numbers were halved to about 7,000 in recent years because of a U.S.-backed military offensive, had agreed to turn in weapons and fight for power at the ballot box instead.
Uribe, still an influential figure in Colombia with a large following, led the “no” camp and the result was a huge victory for him.
Under the accord, 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.
It would also have given up its role in the lucrative illegal drug trade and taken part in reforming rural Colombia.
But controversially, many rebel leaders who ordered killings, bombings and displacements would have had to appear before a special tribunal that could sentence them to alternative punishments like clearing landmines.
For decades, the FARC bankrolled the longest-running conflict in the Americas through the illegal drug trade, kidnapping and extortion, spreading a sense of terror that left few Colombians unaffected. The conflict took more than 220,000 lives and displaced millions of people.
The bloodshed, at its worst, saw the FARC positioned close to the capital and the state on the verge of collapse.
Battles between the guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug gangs and the army raged in the countryside and there were atrocities committed on all sides.
“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 of the “yes” campaign.
The vote is a disaster for Santos, who had hoped to turn his focus quickly to other matters including possible talks with the smaller ELN rebel group and a much-needed tax reform and other economic measures to compensate for a drop in oil income.
The government had hoped peace would lead to a boom in investment by commodities investors, in gold mines, oil and agriculture in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.
But after Sunday’s vote, companies will be rethinking the situation.
Although the “no” camp has broached the idea of fresh talks, the FARC has said no group sits at a negotiating table to agree to jail time.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Additional reporting by Carlos Vargas and Monica Garcia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)