This long-troubled Andean nation will be signing a historic peace deal Monday to bring an end to a half-century conflict that has cost more than 220,000 lives and forced more than six million people to flee their homes.
President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Rodrigo “Timoleón Jiménez” Londoño, will sign off on the peace pact that was almost four years in the making.
More than a dozen presidents, 27 foreign ministers and the heads of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank are expected at the event in the historic port town of Cartagena.
The streets of the picturesque city were on lockdown Monday, amid heavy security.
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“This is supposed to be a peace event but it feels like we’re under siege,” said Fernando Vicente, 36, who runs a hostel.
The first of the delegates began arriving Sunday, as airplanes streaked overhead leaving trails of yellow, blue and red smoke — the colors of the Colombian flag.
“This [peace deal] is as important for the Americas and the world as it is for Colombia,” OAS Secretary General Luís Almagro said Monday, ahead of the signing.
Santos started the day meeting the military and police in a private meeting. At 1:00 p.m., a special mass will be held around the country. The main event, the signing, will take place at 6:00 p.m. before an estimated 2,500 guests.
The presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are expected to attend.
The U.S. delegation will be headed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Cartagena Sunday night.
Government and FARC negotiators officially began meeting in Havana in 2012 to try to find a negotiated solution to the long-running conflict. On Aug. 24, both sides announced they had reached a deal, and on Friday, the FARC, at its 10th Conference, signed off on the agreement.
Despite Monday’s fanfare, there’s still one step left. On Oct. 2, Colombians go to the ballot box to approve or reject the pact. While polls suggest it will pass easily, critics of the peace process say Santos is trying to influence the vote with the high-profile signing even before Colombians go to the polls.
On Sunday, critics of the peace deal congregated in Cartagena chanting “Debate! Debate!,” demanding that Santos defend the agreement in a public forum. Those opposed to the deal fear it is too lenient and that, without justice, the conflict could grind on.
Under the deal, the FARC will be guaranteed 10 congressional seats (five in the House and five in the Senate) for two election cycles.
Carlos Parra, a 32-year-old vendor, said he wanted peace but didn’t understand why the government was rewarding the guerrillas.
“It’s like they’re getting a prize for all damage they’ve caused the country,” he said.
FARC Commander Felix Antonio Muñoz, better known as Pastor Alape, said Colombians have to put the past aside.
“We’re asking the country to try to listen to each other, see each other and talk,” he told the Miami Herald. “We’re all Colombians. Let’s meet and try to build a different Colombia.”
On Monday, Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá who ran for the presidency against Santos in 2010, said he had to “take off his hat” to the peace deal forged by his one-time rival.
Mockus, a vocal advocate for the peace deal, said the country would have to remain vigilant to stamp out the thirst for vengeance and other potential violence.
The Colombian trait of “correcting the course of democracy with an assassination has to be put aside,” he said. “The only thing that can stop the peace process is violence.”
On Sunday, in a televised interview, Santos said he was “overcome with emotion and happiness” at the thought of helping create a country where children could grow up in peace.
“And I’m also a bit fearful of the challenge that we have ahead of us,” he said. “All Colombians are going to have to make a great effort to build peace.”