Colombia

Colombia’s congress passes historic peace deal with guerrillas, but battles remain

Colombia's former president and opposition Senator Alvaro Uribe sits at his desk covered in signs that say in Spanish "No to the rabbit," a local way to refer to cheating, in the Senate in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, the day the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, signed a revised peace pact. Uribe's party may boycott the congressional debate on ratifying the agreement, calling the new peace deal unconstitutional after it was first rejected in a referendum last month.
Colombia's former president and opposition Senator Alvaro Uribe sits at his desk covered in signs that say in Spanish "No to the rabbit," a local way to refer to cheating, in the Senate in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, the day the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, signed a revised peace pact. Uribe's party may boycott the congressional debate on ratifying the agreement, calling the new peace deal unconstitutional after it was first rejected in a referendum last month. AP

President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday was celebrating what he called the nation’s “first day of peace in 52 years” even as a battle was looming over implementing a historic peace accord with the nation’s largest guerrilla group.

Colombia’s legislature finished approving the 310-page accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, late Wednesday, even with an opposition walkout.

“From this day forward, we need to find reconciliation as Colombians, identify opportunities and set ambitious goals and move forward in this marvelous country,” Santos said at a military promotion ceremony in Cali. “With this obstacle of war out of the way, we can see things that we’ve never seen before.”

But the milestone is also something of an anticlimax, as the government awaits word whether the Constitutional Court will allow the raft of laws and amendments needed to make peace a reality move quickly through the legislature or face weeks of bruising debates.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo on Thursday refused to speculate about the fate of the peace deal if the courts don’t grant the “fast track” option.

“The Constitutional Court is studying the issue at this moment,” he said in a press conference, “and we have to wait, with all due respect, until they make an announcement.”

Among the priorities is blanket immunity for FARC members who are only accused of “rebellion,” and not other serious crimes. Congress also needs to pass legislation creating the new FARC political party and a commission to help find the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during the half-century conflict, Cristo said.

More delays?

The wait for the court ruling comes amid other signs of friction. The administration maintains that the clock has started for the guerrillas to begin moving toward 27 pre-established concentration zones, where, over the course of six months, they will hand over their weapons and receive training.

But on Thursday, FARC Commander Pastor Alape told Caracol radio that it’s premature to make that move. He said the guerrillas need more legislative and judicial guarantees, including the amnesty and the court’s “fast track” approval, before they will begin complying with the peace agreement.

However, he said, there was no turning back on the deal.

“We’re happy that the agreement was passed,” he said. “Spring is here and hope has arrived.”

Alape also said that as many as 15,000 FARC members will need to be reintegrated, including combatants, jailed guerrillas and support staff known as “militias.”

The government and analysts have said the guerrilla group, founded in 1964, might have as many as 7,000 hardened soldiers.

Peace slog

Peace has been a long and tortured process. The two sides spent almost six years in secret and public negotiations in Havana hammering out the deal. An initial agreement — that was hailed internationally and won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize — was narrowly rejected by voters Oct. 2, forcing both sides back to the table.

On Nov. 24, Santos and FARC Leader Rodrigo “Londoño” Jiménez signed off on the revised deal. But rather than put it up for a national vote again, Santos took the agreement to congress, where his coalition enjoys a majority.

After marathon debate sessions, Colombia’s Senate ratified the deal Tuesday followed by the House late Wednesday. While the accord was unanimously approved, legislators of the Centro Democrático party, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, staged a walkout before the vote.

Uribe and others insist that even this revised agreement is too lenient, allowing FARC commanders to avoid jail time and participate in politics.

READ MORE: U.S. FARC hostage shares concerns over peace deal

On Thursday, High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo acknowledged that the drawn-out fight had taken its toll.

After the first deal was rejected in October, “we entered a period of great uncertainty, national confusion and the loss of enthusiasm for peace, which we still feel in the environment,” he said. “But I want to invite everyone to turn the page and think about the future of the country.”

Colombia’s conflict, stretching over more than five decades, has cost more than 220,000 lives and forced more than 6 million to flee their homes. And while the FARC is not the only armed group responsible for the violence, bringing its members into the fold is a historic step and a huge success for the Santos administration.

On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden will head to Colombia for two days, in part to discuss U.S. commitment to the peace accords. And on Dec. 10, Santos is scheduled to travel to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

On Thursday, Santos cautioned that peace is a process, not an event. For the deal to be lasting, the nation needs to close the gap between the rural poor and wealthier cities, and make sure the country’s economy benefits everyone. But he said that even an imperfect peace was absolutely necessary.

“We have done all of this to overcome the millstone of violence,” he said, “and to heal the wounds from a war that should never have happened.”

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