Colombia finalizes historic peace deal to end half-century conflict

In this August photo, rebels of the 48th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia watch a nightly newscast on a television at their encampment in the southern jungles of Putumayo, Colombia.
In this August photo, rebels of the 48th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia watch a nightly newscast on a television at their encampment in the southern jungles of Putumayo, Colombia. AP

For almost four years, government and guerrilla negotiators have been holed up in Cuba trying to hammer out a deal to end the hemisphere’s bloodiest conflict and bring peace to this Andean nation for the first time in more than half a century.

On Wednesday, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, said they had done what many believed would be impossible: reached a peace pact.

“Today is the beginning of the end of suffering, pain and the tragedy of war,” President Juan Manuel Santos said. “We’ve reached a complete, definitive, final agreement to put an end to the armed conflict with the FARC.”

Santos said he would present the deal to Congress on Thursday and that the nation would get to vote on the pact Oct. 2.

“It’s a unique and historic opportunity,” he said of the binding referendum. “It will be the most important vote in our lifetime.”

Earlier in the evening, negotiators in Havana — where the talks have been taking place since 2012 — announced that they had finally reached the end of negotiations.

“I believe we’ve won the most beautiful of all battles: peace,” said the FARC’s chief negotiator, Iván Márquez.

It’s unclear when the signing ceremony will take place, and the peace commissioner’s office couldn’t confirm whether it would be before or after the plebiscite.

The peace deal was hard-fought and sweeping. Among its key provisions: Most guerrillas will receive amnesty, and those accused of serious crimes will have access to “alternative” penalties that don’t include jail time as long they confess their crimes. The deal also requires the FARC, which has ties to Colombia’s cocaine trade, to become part of the solution and help eliminate illicit crops. The government also has the complicated task of pouring funds into long-neglected rural areas.

The deal contemplates reparations for victims, a truth commission and a special group to discover the fate of the disappeared.

But at its core, the deal paves the way for the FARC, which has been waging war since 1962, to transform itself into a political party. The prospect of the group — thought to have some 7,000 to 9,000 fighters — morphing into a political force has some on edge.

The government has set and blown several deadlines for a peace deal in the past, but with negotiations over and a timeline set for the plebiscite, this deal is seen as definitive.

The road ahead

However, even though the heavy lifting of negotiations came to an end Wednesday, there are still obstacles ahead.

For starters, the FARC will have to present the deal to its troops on the ground and win approval. The pact is likely to be accepted, but there are indications that some factions might not be on board.

And the outcome of the Oct. 2 referendum isn’t a given. Polls have shown mixed results, with some predicting a tight race with “no” in the lead, while others have given the “yes” vote an overwhelming majority.

Peter Shechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center, called the referendum the country’s “biggest challenge.”

“Polls show that large numbers of Colombians are understandably on the fence,” he wrote. “No Colombian wants the conflict to continue, but many fear the terms are too generous.”

That’s been the argument of influential former president, Álvaro Uribe, whose Centro Democrático party will be actively promoting the “no” vote.

“We’re not against peace,” Uribe told local media on Tuesday. “What we’re against are these agreements that hand the country over to the FARC and don’t lead to peace but more violence.”

He also said the agreements put Colombia on the path to become like socialist Venezuela.

In his speech, Santos thanked Uribe and previous presidents for laying the groundwork for peace. Many credit the hawkish Uribe administration (2002-2010) with weakening the FARC and forcing them to the negotiation table.

The government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said the agreement “wasn’t perfect” but it was “the best deal possible.”

“We think we’ve done a good job,” he said. “Now we have to wait, with humility, for the verdict of the people.”

The victims speak

But for many, even a flawed deal is better than none at all.

Edgar Bermudez, a 37-year-old police officer, lost his sight and much of his face when he stepped on a FARC landmine in 2005.

A musician and budding psychologist who is trying to take care of two young daughters, Bermudez said no one should go through what he has suffered — not even his former enemies in the FARC.

“So the peace deal has its limitations or it’s not perfect. That’s OK with me, that’s life,” he said. “I’d rather see 10,000 guerillas without weapons than 10,000 guerrillas who are still armed.”

Santos has said the signing ceremony of the deal will take place in Colombia. And some suspect that could happen in the tourist port city of Cartagena — a fighting locale for the foreign dignitaries and celebrities that might attend the event.

Even then, however, the race isn’t over.

Five days after the signature, FARC troops will gather in 23 “zones” and eight “camps” to begin the reintegration process and hand in their weapons. Six months after the deal, the last of the weapons are supposed to be turned over to the United Nations, which will use them to build three peace “monuments.”

The one-time guerrillas will then emerge from the camps as unarmed civilians.

Implementing peace deals is where the critical work begins, said Kristian Herbolzheimer, the director of the Colombia program at the London-based non-profit Conciliation Resources.

“The rule of thumb is that half of all peace deals break down and that no peace deal is implemented 100 percent,” he said.

Even so, there are reasons to be optimistic in this case. The Colombia deal has been almost four years in the making, and few people are under the illusion that things will change overnight.

“Unlike other peace processes, the government and the FARC have been clear that in Havana they weren’t building peace, they were ending the war,” Herbolzheimer said. “Building peace implies political and cultural transformations. It’s the work of society at large.”

Santos, who took office in 2010, staked his presidency and his legacy on the risky deal. But he said it was worth it to end a conflict that has cost more than 220,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes.

“We don’t want any more young people to be cannon fodder in an absurd and painful war,” he said. “We Colombians have the right to recover our hope for a better future.”