Colombia

Peace in Colombia? ‘A dream that’s starting to become reality’

In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Yesenia, a 19-year-old rebel soldier for FARC, listens to a commander speak on the peace negotiations between the rebels and the Colombian government, in a hidden camp in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Now peace is within reach as talks between the guerrillas and the government near conclusion in Cuba, and for the first time the rebels are thinking about a future outside this jungle hideout.
In this Jan. 4, 2016 photo, Yesenia, a 19-year-old rebel soldier for FARC, listens to a commander speak on the peace negotiations between the rebels and the Colombian government, in a hidden camp in the northwest Andes of Colombia. Now peace is within reach as talks between the guerrillas and the government near conclusion in Cuba, and for the first time the rebels are thinking about a future outside this jungle hideout. AP

This Andean nation may be closer than ever to reaching a peace deal with the nation’s largest guerrilla group after the two sides announced Wednesday that they’d hammered out a cease-fire and disarmament agreement.

The details will be released Thursday at a high-profile event in Havana, where conversations have been taking place for more than three years with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

In a brief joint statement Wednesday, negotiators said they had reached agreements not just on the cease-fire, but how the FARC will hand over its weapons, gather in “concentration zones,” and be protected after its members demobilize. The deal will also include the government’s plans to fight criminal gangs and other groups seen as a threat to lasting peace.

Those issues were considered some of the thorniest in the overarching peace deal. And even though a definitive agreement may still be weeks off, the administration hailed the news as a major breakthrough.

“Tomorrow [Thursday] will be a great day!” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wrote on Twitter. “Let’s work for peace in Colombia, a dream that’s starting to become reality.”

Santos will be in Cuba on Thursday to ink the deal along with FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez and an all-star cast of political celebrities, including U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Cuban President Raúl Castro, Norway Foreign Minister Bogre Brende, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.

Cuba and Norway are guarantors of the talks that began in 2012, and Venezuela and Chile are official observers.

“The disarmament and cease-fire agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC is a breakthrough that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago,” Jason Marczak, with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in a statement. “In doubling down on peace, President Santos is also doubling down on ushering in the new Colombia.”

Conflict-related violence is already near historical lows. The FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in July of 2015 and since then violence has slowed considerably. In the past 11 months, there have only been four deaths and 10 injuries due to FARC-military clashes, said CERAC, a nonprofit that tracks the conflict.

Sources close to the negotiations have suggested that the bilateral cease-fire won’t necessarily happen Thursday; rather, the announcement will provide a road map and calendar leading to disarmament.

The cease-fire and disarmament are just one of six points of the overall deal. Negotiators have already reached tentative agreements on rural development, transitional justice, and the FARC’s participation in politics and helping eradicate the drug trade.

Still being negotiated is the verification and implementation of the peace deal. And negotiators have said that there are pending issues left over from previous sub-agreements.

Earlier this week, Santos said he expected to finalize talks by July 20, but such deadlines have come and gone in the past.

National Vote

Under the rules of engagement, none of the sub-deals will take effect until a final agreement is reached.

Once it is signed, the agreement will have to be approved in a national referendum before it can be implemented.

Even so, this administration has already come closer than any previous effort to bring an end to the hemisphere’s longest-running and bloodiest civil conflict. The government estimates that the half-century fight has cost more than 220,000 lives and forced millions to leave their homes.

While polls suggest most people support peace, there are also concerns over concessions made at the bargaining table.

Former President Alvaro Uribe was in Cali on Wednesday collecting signatures against the peace deal. But he said he would not comment on the announcement until it was clear “what they had signed in Havana.”

Others were openly enthusiastic.

“This is a historic event,” said Sen. Horacio Serpa, a former presidential candidate.”It’s the most important event in Colombia in many years.”

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