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Latin America

After five decades of war, Colombians head to the polls to vote on peace accord

Voters will decide Sunday whether to ratify the peace agreement negotiated by the government and FARC guerrillas. But Colombians are divided on the deal.
30 Sep 2016 – 02:57 PM EDT

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The night after she was kidnapped, Laura Ulloa woke up feeling cold. She asked the guerrilla on guard of the tent for a jacket. The guerrilla asked another fighter, who grudgingly took off his jacket and handed it over.

“It smelled horrible, but I knew I had to use it, because I was freezing,” said Ulloa, who was held in captivity for seven months. “When I got back into bed I cried and I thought, 'I've been kidnapped. I'm alone, and I don't know when I will see my parents again.'”

On Sept. 20, 2001, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had pulled her off her school bus as she returned to her home in Cali. She was 11 years old.

Fifteen years after her release, Ulloa will vote 'Yes' on Sunday in a countrywide referendum to decide whether to approve the peace agreement negotiated by the FARC and the government. The peace process has lasted four years, following decades of armed conflict that left more than eight million victims.

Ulloa says she knows it's not a perfect deal, but she feels hopeful because of the possibilities it offers. She also feels excited and scared.

Not all the victims of the conflict are happy about the peace agreement. Many Colombians say the terms of the deal are unfair, and complain that many guerrillas will never go to prison for the crimes they committed.

Alejandro Devis, victimized by the FARC five times between 1983 and 2003, says he will vote 'No' on Sunday.

The day after the peace agreement was published, Devis sat down to read it in detail. He found many positive aspects, such as agrarian reform. But 12 days and 33 pages of notes later, he concluded that most promises laid out in the accord can't possibly be kept.

How is the vote split?

Besides needing a majority, at least 13 percent of Colombia's registered voters must vote 'Yes' to ratify the peace agreement. That equals 4.5 million of the nearly 35 million Colombians who are eligible to vote, according to election authorities.

From the end of August to mid-September, support for the 'Yes' vote fell by nine percentage points, according to two surveys by pollster Cifras y Conceptos. A large number of voters were still undecided.

But a new Cifras y Conceptos survey of more than 1,000 voters conducted last week showed that 37 percent of registered voters plan to vote Sunday, and that the 'Yes' vote will win with 62 percent.

The survey also showed that the two regions likely to record the lowest voter turnout are Bogotá and the coffee-growing region in the central Andes.

Congressman Andrés Felipe Villamizar, a Liberal Party member who represents Bogotá and has been campaigning to persuade young people to vote, said low turnout is expected Sunday because such unusual votes normally don't draw much interest.

Polls have shown that voters between the ages of 18 and 35 are least likely to vote or support the peace agreement.

“Historically, the participation of young people has always been low,” said José Carlos Álvarez, director of Voto Joven (Youth Vote). “There's lots of activism, but little participation at the ballot box.”

A polarized nation

Both Villamizar and Álvarez say they are especially worried about the low turnout expected among young voters, whether voting 'Yes' or 'No.'

“If the people in those age categories don't vote, it will be us adults making the decisions for generations that will live longer with the consequences of the referendum,” Villamizar said.

The campaigns to persuade Colombians to vote 'Yes' or 'No' have been deeply polarizing, with President Juan Manuel Santos pushing for 'Yes' votes and his toughest opponent, former President Álvaro Uribe, leading the 'No' effort.

Although they will cast opposing votes on Sunday, Ulloa and Devis agree on some issues. Both say their vote is a personal decision, and that the deep polarization generated by the peace process is bad for the country. As victims, both say they know the pain of war firsthand and believe all Colombians, regardless of their vote Sunday, want peace.

On Sunday, the world will find out what Colombia decides.

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