CARTAGENA, Colombia – In a historic event, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri ‘Timochenko,’ the leader of the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and with this physical gesture, a peace agreement that ended 52 years of war between government forces and the rebels was finally reached.
During the weekend, the FARC wrapped up its X Conference, a congress of sorts for the guerrillas, where days of internal debate and vote resulted in the ratification of the peace agreement with the government. With the decision, the FARC has officially ceased to function as an armed rebel group and now starts the process of converting into a political party.
Thus, on a stage in Yarí, a small town in the green and lush forests of Colombia’s southern region of Caquetá, Timochenko proclaimed that members of the FARC “finally have a second chance on Earth” to cheers and applause from over 200 blocks (units) of the group’s members that came from all across the nation.
The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then continued in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced nearly seven million more.
So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiations about the victims lasted 18 months.
Days after the FARC’s conference, the rebel group’s negotiators that spent years in Havana were joined by their government counterparts in Cartagena, the scenic Colombian port city on the Caribbean, for the historic signing of the 207-page peace agreement.
“In the name of the FARC, I offer a sincere apology to all of the victims of the conflict,” said Timochenko, and in the interest of leaving aside his nom de guerre and presenting his civil side, he presented himself as Rodrigo Londoño, his birth name.
“This liberation of the individual and group as a whole is what allows the permission for forgiveness. The forgiveness not only then emotionally liberates the people accepting that forgiveness but, even more so, the person asking for that forgiveness,” added President Santos.
The ceremony, which saw the two leaders, prominent individuals from both sides, foreign dignitaries and other invitees including over 400 of the war’s victims and 2,000 other civilians dressed in white, was attended by 17 heads of state (and several former leaders), 27 foreign ministers and leaders of international organizations including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan.
Prior to the signing, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, led a morning mass for peace at Cartagena’s historic Church of San Pedro Claver and Santos attended a separate ceremony in which he honored the fallen soldiers of the Armed Forces of Colombia for their “ultimate sacrifice.”
Then, Santos welcomed the foreign dignitaries to a luncheon to show his nation’s appreciation for the international community’s support for the peace process, and for the support that Colombia will continue to need in the post-conflict period.
Finally, it was time for Santos and Londoño to put pen to paper, and the document was signed by a .50 caliber bullet that was converted into a pen in yet another symbolic gesture.
Meanwhile, in the national capital of Bogotá, over 20,000 people gathered in the central Bolívar Plaza to watch the signing of the peace agreement on giant television screens. Thousands of mini Colombian flags were waving as those present, who were also dressed in white, clapped and cheered.
Now that the final agreement has been signed, the Colombian public will have to ultimately approve it via public referendum which will likely take place on October 2. Poll numbers indicate that the public will certainly approve and pave the way for the peace agreement to be signed into law.
The most outspoken opponent of the peace talks, Álvaro Uribe, the former Colombian leader (2002-2010) and Santos’ predecessor, has sought to use his political influence to sway Colombians to vote against the peace agreement.
By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, Uribe has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.
Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents led by Uribe of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party (to which Santos still belongs). Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly criticized Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.
Thus, Uribe, a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, and his party wield a great deal of public influence and have made their feelings on the process known, even comparing the Islamic State to the FARC and saying that there is no difference between what the former has done in Paris and Brussels and what the FARC did in Colombia. This is despite the fact that during the ongoing peace talks, the level of violence has fallen to the lowest point ever observed since the beginning of the conflict and keeps dropping.
Next week, Colombians will go to the polls in accordance with Article 7 of Law 134 of 1994 outlines that a plebiscite, or a public vote, is the voice of the nation’s people that approves or rejects a decision made by the Executive. In this case, Colombians will respond with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the text that has already been overseen and approved by the Constitutional Court.
The plebiscite, in accordance with rules outlined in the Constitution, will only need to receive more than 13 percent of the electorate’s votes, which is just under 4.5 million votes in favor of ratifying the peace agreement. If the ‘no’ votes outnumber the ‘yes’ votes, or if the ‘yes’ votes simply do not add up to the aforementioned number, the agreement will be negated.
In response to the critics, President Santos has admitted that the peace process “certainly is not perfect,” but it is still “much better than an all-out war.”
“Peace is not perfect and nobody is going to be one hundred percent satisfied, nor will we solve all of our problems the day we sign the agreement, but I say once again that this is definitively better than war,” he said in an interview with Colombian daily ‘El Espectador.’
Regardless of the dissenting opinions of Uribe and his Democratic Center colleagues, however, polls have shown that Colombians will strongly support the plebiscite and subsequent peace deal, even if some are still skeptical of an enduring peace.
Furthermore, the ‘yes’ campaign also has the support of most other political parties, labor and trade unions, religious institutions and the rural and peasant associations whose regions have been most affected by the violence, not to mention the firm support of the world’s governments and international bodies like the United Nations, which has already eagerly committed to oversee the ceasefire and the handover of weapons by the FARC.