Next fight for Colombia’s peace deal: a national referendum

People celebrate in a park as they listen to the announcement from Havana, Cuba, that delegates of Colombia's government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia reached a peace accord. The deal still must be ratified by voters.
People celebrate in a park as they listen to the announcement from Havana, Cuba, that delegates of Colombia's government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia reached a peace accord. The deal still must be ratified by voters. AP

President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday declared the end of hostilities against the country’s largest guerrilla group, effectively putting an end to a half-century civil conflict that has taken 220,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes.

The ceasefire will take effect Monday and comes after negotiators in Havana announced they’d reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following almost four years of negotiations.

But even as the guns go silent in the jungle, a new political fight is brewing: at polling places, where the nation will have to ratify or reject the deal on Oct. 2.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, on Thursday said it could have “unimaginable” and “catastrophic” consequences if Colombians reject the pact.

While opponents are asking the country to vote against the deal in hopes of going back to the bargaining table to extract better terms, de la Calle said that would be a non-starter.

“If ‘no’ wins, the negotiations are over,” he said. “Personally, I think that would be catastrophic.”

During a press conference in Havana, where the talks have been taking place since 2012, de la Calle said that every time peace talks with the 52-year-old guerrilla group have collapsed in the past, it has taken at least a decade for a new effort to begin.

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez are expected to formalize the deal at a signing ceremony in coming weeks. The government said there’s not a time or a place set for that event, but it will happen before the Oct. 2 vote.

Tricky timing

Within five days of the signing ceremony, the FARC will have to gather in concentration zones. When they leave those areas six months later, all their weapons have to be in the hands of the United Nations.

But the time line implies that the FARC will either be on their way to those areas, or in them, when the vote happens. Rejecting the deal at that point would put the FARC — and the government — in geographic and political limbo.

Polls suggest it will be a tight race. An Aug. 23 survey by El Tiempo newspaper found 32 percent said they would vote for the peace deal, 30 percent would vote against it and 27 percent said they would abstain. In order to go into effect, the “yes” vote needs at least 13 percent of registered voters, or 4.4 million ballots. The survey of 700 people has a margin of error of 3.7 percent.

On Thursday, Santos presented the 297-page peace document to Congress, which has to authorize the plebiscite. Surrounded by crowds chanting “Yes, we could,” Santos said it was time for Colombians to imagine a future without war.

“Peace will allow us to lose the fear that we’ve grown up with as Colombians after so many years of armed conflict,” he said.

Deep dive

While portions of the deal had been released in the past, the entire document was made public Thursday, giving those critical of the agreement a chance to see specifics.

Among the key concerns is that the deal guarantees the FARC a minimum of five seats in the House and Senate for two electoral cycles starting in 2018 — well after they’ve gone through the reintegration process. In the past, the government has downplayed the idea that the guerrillas would automatically have congressional slots.

On Thursday, the negotiators called the deal a “safety net” that allows the group to take a chance on peace.

“The purpose of any peace deal in the world is for [armed actors] to put down their weapons and enter civil, democratic political life,” de la Calle said. “Colombia can’t lose sight of that.”

There are also concerns about the cost of the deal at a time when Colombia’s finances are hurting.

Under the agreement, demobilized guerrillas will receive subsidies equivalent to 90 percent of the minimum wage for two years before transitioning into existing reintegration programs that are supposed to prepare them for the workforce or help them start their own businesses.

Pressed on how much the deal would cost, negotiators said they still didn’t know how many people the FARC had on its rolls. Estimates have ranged from 7,000 to 9,000 fighters, but the group is thought to have three times that number of urban “militias” as part of their support network.

Central America lessons

Whatever the cost, it will be far lower than fighting the guerrillas or putting them in jail, negotiators said.

Sen. Roy Barreras, who has been participating in the talks, said the economic aid is to avoid the “Central American experience” where nations such as El Salvador and Guatemala signed peace deals only to see street violence explode as the hardened fighters became the core of gangs.

“Subsidizing people so they can abandon violence and can return to their families is a national aspiration,” Barreras said. “That money is not for the FARC, it’s for Colombia.”

Critics also worry that the deal is too lenient, allowing those who have committed serious crimes to evade jail time — although not monitoring and confinement — if they tell the truth and provide reparations. Those who don’t comply with the restrictions can face up to 20 years in jail.

The image of longtime guerrilla leaders, who have been accused of massacres and other atrocities, playing part of political life is anathema to many and will likely be at the heart of the “no” campaign.

Even as some of these worries were just getting traction in Colombia, congratulations were pouring in from around the world.

U.S. politics

Santos received calls from the leaders of Spain and France. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Colombia had “shown real courage” in betting on peace.

U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted: “After decades of war, we stand with you in building a future of peace.”

But not everyone was as optimistic.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), said it raised “serious concerns” that the deal had been forged in Cuba, which was also one of the guarantors of the deal, along with Norway.

Under the agreement, the FARC will have to cut ties with the drug trade and help eradicate illicit crops, but she said it was troubling that they have access to narco-cash.

“It is worrisome that the FARC can traffic narcotics to raise millions of dollars for its illicit activities to pursue its own political agenda,” she said in a statement. “We have seen in the past, whether it’s Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, that allowing terrorist organizations too much influence in the political process can undermine peace and stability in a country.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pledged her support.

“Now Colombia must turn this agreement into a just and lasting peace,” she said in a statement to the Associated Press. “As president, I'll ensure that the United States remains their partner in that process." Her opponent, Republican Donald Trump, had yet to comment.

The Obama administration has pledged $451 million to support post conflict and drug-eradication efforts. And there is the sense here that shifting political tides in the U.S. could change the equation.

“The support of the Obama administration has been total and definitive for the [peace] process,” Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo, said. “We would like that support to continue during the implementation [phase], but that will obviously depend on the elections in the United States.”

But the most critical election will be in Colombia on Oct. 2, he said .

“I think we’re so tired that we barely realize that this is over, but it’s true, it’s over,” a visibly tired Jaramillo said of the negotiations and the wider conflict. “Now it’s up to each Colombian to make the most important decision of their lives.”