Colombia Government and FARC Rebels Announce Peace Deal

Colombia mapAfter 52 years of fighting and nearly four years of grinding negotiations, the Colombian government and the country’s FARC rebel group declared Wednesday that they had reached an agreement to end the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas.

“The war is over,” said Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator, after signing the accord with his guerrilla counterparts.

The two sides made the announcement in Cuba, where the negotiations began in 2012 and where Fidel Castro launched a Communist revolution that once inspired guerrilla insurgencies across the hemisphere. Colombia, a nation of 50 million that is among the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, is the one place where the war has yet to end.

“We have finished fighting with weapons, and will now do battle with ideas,” said FARC chief negotiator Ivan Marquez, a former congressman who took up arms after many other leftist politicians were assassinated by right-wing groups in the 1980s.

The two sides said ending their country’s sordid history of political violence was the accord’s overarching goal.

More than 220,000 Colombians have been killed in fighting over the past half-century, and nearly 7 million have been driven from their homes. But one major obstacle remains for the peace deal to stick.

Colombian voters must ratify the accord at the ballot box in a vote, which Santos said would take place on Oct. 2. That plebiscite is shaping up as a showdown between Santos and his biggest political rival.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

Santos, who has staked his legacy on the peace accord, will be campaigning for Colombians to approve it. His nemesis, former president Álvaro Uribe, is leading the drive to sink the deal. He and other critics say it is too favorable to FARC leaders, whose guerrilla war tactics included kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder. Opinion polls have shown mixed results on whether Colombians will approve the peace deal.

One element of the accord made public for the first time Wednesday that is likely to stir controversy governs the FARC’s return to representative politics. Under the agreement, the rebels will be given a limited number of seats in Colombia’s congress and senate for an initial period of time.

The FARC representatives will be allowed to speak in the chambers on legislation, but not vote. Rebel commanders would eventually be able to run for political office as full representatives if they are cleared of war crimes and other criminal charges.

If approved at the ballot box, the peace agreement would become law, and the FARC would begin demobilizing its 7,000 fighters at designated camps and “protected zones” with monitors from the United Nations. The rebels — whose full name is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — would have 180 days to fully disarm under the terms of the agreement.

“This is the final chapter of the Cold War in the hemisphere,” said Bernard Aronson, the U.S. envoy to the peace talks, in an interview before the announcement.

Aronson said he expected the Colombian government to publish a final text of the treaty within days. FARC commanders are planning to return to their remote camps in the mountains and jungles of Colombia, where they will hold a FARC “congress” to build support for the deal among rank-and-file soldiers and prepare for disarmament and demobilization.

Wednesday’s announcement follows days of marathon negotiations between the government team and the guerrilla commanders. A final sticking point has been the timing of a blanket amnesty that will be offered to lower-ranking guerrillas who face only charges of “rebellion,” in contrast with more senior FARC members accused of committing more serious crimes. Under the terms of the accord, those FARC members will be able to avoid prison if they fully disclose their role in the war and make reparations as part of a truth-and-reconciliation process.

One point of concern for the FARC commanders has been when their fighters would leave their mountain redoubts and move into U.N. camps. They have been reluctant to make that move before the plebiscite is completed, fearing that if it fails, the rebels would be stuck in the camps and partially disarmed, even as fighting could resume. Neither side said Wednesday when the guerrillas would begin their demobilization.

Santos did not travel to Havana for Wednesday’s ceremony, which did not occur with the same fanfare as a cease-fire announcement in June attended by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and several heads of state.

Santos has acknowledged that peace with the FARC will end Colombia’s longest war — but not all its armed conflicts.

His government has struggled so far to make progress in talks with a smaller guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, which will be looking to boost its estimated force of 1,500 fighters with disaffected FARC soldiers who reject a transition to peaceful civilian life. The government insists it will not negotiate while the ELN continues to kidnap civilians and members of the Colombian security forces.

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