News Latin America

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Colombia's government announces peace deal with rebel group FARC after half-century

Leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) patrol by a roadway near to San Vicente de Caguan January 9, 1999
Leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) patrol by a roadway near to San Vicente de Caguan January 9, 1999

Colombia's government and its biggest rebel group are announcing a deal for ending their country's half-century guerrilla war, one of the world's longest-running armed conflicts.

The government's accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) must still be ratified by voters in order to take effect and President Juan Manuel Santos says he will hold a referendum on October 2.

Mr Santos said he would present the final accord with the rebels to Colombia's congress for consideration on Thursday.

MPs have a month to comment but cannot block Mr Santos' plans for the vote.

The announcement in Havana, Cuba, of a deal after four years of talks opens the possibility for Colombians to put behind them political bloodshed that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven more than five million people from their homes.

The accord - the final text has yet to be published - commits Colombia's government to carrying out aggressive land reform, overhauling its anti-drugs strategy and greatly expanding the state into traditionally neglected areas of the country.

Negotiations began in November 2012 but were plagued by distrust built up during decades of war propaganda on both sides.

Polls say most Colombians loathe the FARC rebels and show no hesitation labelling them "narco-terrorists" for their heavy involvement in Colombia's cocaine trade, an association for which members of the group's top leadership have been indicted in the US.

Meanwhile, the FARC held on to a Cold War view of Colombia's political and economic establishment as "oligarchs" at the service of the US

The rebel army was forced to the negotiating table after a decade of heavy battlefield losses that saw a succession of top rebel commanders killed by the US-backed military and the its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.

Mr Santos, an unlikely peacemaker given his role as architect of the military offensive, maintained a steady pulse throughout, even as he was labelled a traitor by his conservative former allies and suffered a plunge in approval ratings.

The most contentious breakthrough came in September when Mr Santos travelled to Havana to lay out a framework for investigating atrocities, punishing guerrillas for involvement in those abuses and offering compensation to victims.

Opponents of Mr Santos and some human rights groups harshly criticised a key part of that deal: guerrillas who confess their crimes will not spend any time in prison and will instead be allowed to serve out reduced sentences of no more than eight years helping rebuild communities hit by the conflict.

Another toad to swallow, as Mr Santos calls the concessions he has had to make, will be the sight of former rebel leaders occupying seats in congress specially reserved for the FARC's still unnamed political movement. The exact number of such seats was among the last details being hammered out in marathon 18-hour sessions taking place in recent days.

"We haven't slept but it was worth the effort," said Senator Roy Barreras, among political reinforcements sent in by Mr Santos to work on the deal, speaking to Caracol Radio from Havana.

The announcement that talks have successfully concluded will trigger a series of events, some entailing political risks.

First, Mr Santos must present the accords to congress and ask it to set a date for a referendum that could take place as early as next month. Polls show Colombians would probably endorse any deal in a simple yes or no vote.

But the still-unknown final accord may contain surprises and the opposition is likely to try to convert the vote into a referendum on Mr Santos, whose approval rating plummeted to 21% in May according to a Gallup poll, the lowest since he took office in 2010.

Low voter turnout is also a concern because a minimum of 13% of the electorate, or about 4.4 million voters, must vote in favour for the accord to be ratified.

After the agreement is signed, the FARC will begin mobilising its troops to 31 zones scattered across the country, and 90 days later they are supposed to begin handing their weapons over to United Nations-sponsored monitors.

But any immediate peace dividend or security improvements in Colombia's blood-splattered countryside should not be expected.

Over the last 13 months, since the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire and the government reciprocated with a truce of its own in all but name, violence has fallen to the lowest level since the FARC was created 52 years ago by outlaw peasant groups joined by communist activists.

Only four deaths attributed to the FARC have been reported during that period and in the last 68 days the group has not carried out a single offensive action, according to a report last week by the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Centre.

Analysts are concerned that as the rebels integrate into Colombian society, well-organised criminal gangs will fill the void and fight among themselves for control of the lucrative cocaine trade that kept the FARC well-armed much longer than other Latin American insurgencies.

While Colombia's murder rate has fallen sharply over the years, it remains among the world's deadliest countries, with violence driven largely by its status as the world's top supplier of cocaine.

The much-smaller National Liberation Army will also remain active, although it is pursuing a peace deal of its own.

"We've won the most beautiful of all battles: the peace of Colombia," chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez said at the announcement in Havana.

As soon as his speech finished, bringing the televised event to an end, an emotional crowd on the plaza sang the national anthem and shouted "Viva Colombia! Yes to Peace!"

"I can die in peace because finally I'll see my country without violence with a future for my children," said Orlando Guevara, 57, crying as white flags symbolising peace waved behind him.

US president Barack Obama welcomed the deal, saying the announcement was "a critical juncture in what will be a long process to fully implement a just and lasting peace agreement that can advance security and prosperity for the Colombian people".

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