Colombia celebrates independence — and waits for word on peace deal

President Juan Manuel Santos decorates military and police officials during Colombia’s Independence Day celebration.
President Juan Manuel Santos decorates military and police officials during Colombia’s Independence Day celebration. Colombian Presidency

This Andean nation celebrated the 206th anniversary of its independence from Spain on Wednesday with a military display, parades and traditional dances. The one thing it didn’t do was a sign a long-sought peace agreement with its largest guerrilla group.

Last month, President Juan Manuel Santos said he hoped to have a deal inked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by July 20. But when the date arrived, it became clear that negotiators huddled in Havana weren’t ready.

Even so, both sides have assured the nation that a deal is coming this year. Citing anonymous sources in Havana, RCN Radio said the final signatures, which are expected to take place in Colombia, might happen in September.

In March of this year, the administration also blew an earlier self-imposed deadline for the signing.

Referendum Fight?

There are, however, signs of progress. On Monday, the Constitutional Court gave the go-ahead for the final deal to be put up for a national referendum. Under that plan, Colombians will have the chance to provide a simple “yes” or “no” vote to the peace deal. For it to be legally binding, at least 13 percent of registered voters need to cast a ballot.

Critics fear the pact lets the FARC — considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Colombia — off the hook.

“The real danger is to approve an agreement between the government and the FARC that gives the terrorist group, which is responsible for narco-traffic and other horrendous crimes, total impunity and allows them to run for political office,” former President Alvaro Uribe said in a statement.

He also said that the yes-or-no question obscures the complex legal issues that are buried in the deal. Uribe and his Centro Democrático party have said they will campaign to derail the agreement.

In a speech inaugurating the new congressional session Wednesday, Santos asked the deputies to encourage voter turnout for the eventual referendum.

“I ask you all, without exception, to promote the debate of ideas, with facts and not half-truths, with reality not myths, so Colombians can freely — freely — define their own future,” he said.

Santos has called the vote the “most important” electoral decision that Colombians might make in their lives.

The FARC and the government have been at war for more than half a century and began peace talks in 2012. Although the guerrillas declared a unilateral cease-fire last year, in theory, the two sides are still engaged militarily.

On Wednesday, Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center, a nonprofit that monitors clashes, said violence had hit the lowest levels in more than five decades. The organization said there had been only 10 FARC actions in the last year, which had left four dead and three injured.