Once a regional outcast synonymous with bloodshed and bombs, Colombia on Monday signed a historic peace deal that puts it closer than ever to ending a half-century conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
With a dozen regional leaders present, President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Rodrigo “Timoleón Jiménez” Londoño, signed the pact Monday in front of hundreds of white-clad guests.
“Let’s open up our hearts to the new dawn, to the bright sun full of possibilities that is rising over Colombia,” Santos said with tears in his eyes. “It’s the dawn of peace. It’s the dawn of life.”
Londoño, in a white shirt, asked for the “forgiveness of all the victims of the conflict,” drawing prolonged applause from the crowd. He also said the guerrillas were eager to defend their ideas “in the arena of politics” and without weapons.
“We’re going to live up to our end of the deal, and we hope the government does too,” he said.
As Londoño spoke, air force jets roared overhead and he visibly flinched.
“This time, they’re coming to salute peace and not drop bombs,” he said.
The prospect of ending the hemisphere’s longest and bloodiest civil conflict, which has cost more than 220,000 lives, drew praise from around the world.
“This [peace deal] is as important for the Americas and the world as it is for Colombia,” OAS Secretary General Luís Almagro said.
More than a dozen leaders, foreign ministers and the heads of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank attended the event.
The U.S. delegation was headed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent Monday talking to victims of the conflict.
“Peace is hard work. Anybody can pick up a gun, blow things up, hurt other people, but it doesn’t take you anywhere,” he said. “What life is really all about is trying to build community and trying to help make life better for everybody around you. And this step that your country is going to take [Monday] is a giant step.”
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa called the peace deal the “best news in decades” for the hemisphere.
The entire region has to help “build peace, which is not just the absence of war, but the presence of justice, equal opportunities, equal rights and well-being,” Correa said.
The streets of the picturesque port town were on lockdown Monday amid tight security, and locals said they felt like they were witnessing history.
Jaime Torres, a 54-year-old candy vendor, said he’d been waiting his whole life for this moment.
“It’s like Jesus Christ has finally come back,” he said. “We knew that someday those guerrillas would get tired of living in the mountains.”
Government and FARC negotiators officially began meeting in Havana in 2012 to try to find a 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 ceremony, there’s still one step left. On Oct. 2, Colombians will go to the ballot box to approve or reject the pact. While polls suggest it will pass easily, critics of the deal say Santos is trying to influence the vote by having a high-profile signing even before Colombians go to the polls.
On Monday, former President Alvaro Uribe led a rally of several hundred people and urged the nation to vote “no” during the plebiscite.
“We say ‘yes’ to peace but ‘no’ to the agreement, because the accords don’t guarantee peace. They will only breed violence,” he told the crowd.
Critics fear the 297-page pact is too lenient and that, without justice, the conflict will grind on. Also under the deal, the FARC — considered a terrorist organization by the United States and long accused of having ties to the drug trade — will be allowed to participate in politics.
Uribe said Mexico would never think of giving its biggest cartel leaders amnesty, and the United States would never allow Osama bin Laden “or the people of ISIS” to be elected president.
Kerry said Monday that the U.S. would wait to see that the FARC were “implementing” the peace deal before they’re taken off the terror list.
Carlos Parra, a 32-year-old vendor, said he wanted peace but didn’t understand why the administration was rewarding the guerrillas with 10 guaranteed spots in the House and Senate for two elections cycles.
“It’s like they’re getting a prize for all the damage they’ve caused the country,” he said.
Three years ago, Giraldo Duque had his name legally changed to “Paz Colombia.” As he walked in downtown Cartagena wearing a “peace” hat and carrying a “peace” satchel, he said a vote for peace didn’t mean the FARC have a political future.
“I am saying yes to peace so the FARC and our campesino solders don’t keep killing each other,” he said. “I say yes to peace but that doesn’t mean we have to vote for the FARC in the future. They have to earn our vote.”
The administration has walked a fine line trying to balance the need for justice against an agreement that the FARC might accept. On Monday, Santos acknowledged those concerns.
“I prefer an imperfect agreement that saves lives to a perfect war that keeps sowing death and pain in our country,” he said.
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 agreement forged by his one-time rival.
Mockus, a vocal advocate for peace, said the country needs to remain vigilant to make peace a reality.
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.”
Santos acknowledged the risks, saying that it took courage and intelligence for the guerrillas to “trade bullets for ballots.”
FARC Commander Felix Antonio Muñoz, better known as Pastor Alape, recognized that some Colombians distrust his group, but said the nation needs to work together.
“We’re asking our countrymen to listen to each other, see each other and talk,” he told the Miami Herald last week. “We’re all Colombians. Let’s meet and try to build a different Colombia.”
Santos, who first took office in 2010, has staked his presidency and career on the peace deal, which hasn’t always been popular with Colombians. On Monday, his bet seemed to be paying off as the crowds chanted “yes we could!” and waved white handkerchiefs in the air.
“What we have signed today is a declaration from the people of Colombia to the world,” Santos said, “that we’re done with war, that we do not accept violence as a way to defend our ideas. We say it loud and clear: ‘No more war!”’