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Sunday was supposed to be a celebration of peace in Colombia. After four years of painstaking negotiations, and 52 years of armed conflict, polling indicated that Colombians would approve a carefully balanced peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The polls were wrong. A visceral hatred toward the FARC won out over peace.

In a country of 48 million people, it was only 60,000 votes that decided the outcome of Sunday’s plebiscite in one of the United States’ strongest allies. (A reminder to Americans of why voting on Nov. 8 is critical.) A 63 percent abstention rate was the highest in 22 years, reflecting deep disillusionment with the political process. Weather also influenced the vote, with many people staying home along the coast due to the heavy rains of Hurricane Matthew.

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Still, it must be remembered that this vote did not have to happen. President Juan Manuel Santos called for it assuming he would win — a story strikingly familiar across much of the Western world today.

With the “Yes” to peace vote expected to have won by a two-to-one margin, uncertainty now swirls around the country. As Santos has said, there is no plan B to peace.

Colombians are right to despise the FARC. Over 200,000 people have been killed throughout the conflict. Nearly 7 million people have been forced from their homes — the world’s highest number of internally displaced people, even exceeding Syria. Most know someone harmed by this brutal war. That includes the nearly 600,000 Colombians who live across the United States from Florida (top destination) to Massachusetts (number six).

But the peace deal was to have allowed the country to emerge from five decades of war. Rural areas long in the hands of the FARC were to return to government control, with a groundswell of corresponding foreign and domestic investment. Colombia is a shining beacon of economic stability across global emerging markets, and this accord was to have solidified this position.

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The 297-page deal found a careful balance among tough issues ranging from illegal crop eradication to political participation and transitional justice. Groups historically excluded in global peace deals had a seat at the table. Women’s organizations, Afro-descendant and Indigenous groups, and the victims themselves had their voices heard as part of the process. Neither side liked all the terms of the deal but that is what compromise means.

In the end, a vigorous campaign against the deal led by former President Alvaro Uribe (under whom Santos served as defense minister) captured the imaginations of those who believe that peace can be one-sided. The “no” to peace vote won out with its promises to negotiate harsher terms and more severe punishment toward the FARC. Many Colombians also likely saw the vote as a referendum on the unpopular Colombian president.

Will Colombia return to war? In the short term, a resumption of hostilities is unlikely. Since Aug. 29, a ceasefire has been in place. Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry joined world leaders and the UN secretary general in Cartagena for the formal signing of the peace agreement. For the United States, that moment exemplified the fruits of bipartisan support for Colombia over the last 15 years through Plan Colombia.

Yes, optimism is still possible. Santos said he would immediately convene all political parties — including those against the deal — to plan a way forward. He dispatched his top negotiator immediately back to the site of the negotiations — Havana — to ensure constant communication with the FARC leadership amidst this uncertainty. Uribe, the lead opposition figure, continues to keep the door slightly ajar for renewed talks.

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Still, with peace rejected, there is no certainty that the two sides will yet again find compromise. If and when they come back to the negotiating table, the government now faces a credibility challenge, perhaps forcing it to give those opposing the peace deal a direct role in the talks. Adding this additional layer of complexity means that peace is now again a distant possibility. In the end, Sunday’s rejection of peace is a defeat for a new Colombia.


Jason Marczak is director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.