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Colombia, A Country Divided For Peace

A tumultuous final chapter: The government’s pragmatic decision not to call a second referendum comes at a cost

The government’s pragmatic decision not to call a second referendum comes at a cost
The government’s pragmatic decision not to call a second referendum comes at a cost

(From The Economist) THE announcement that Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, had won the 2016 Nobel peace prize came just as his effort to end the country’s long-standing conflict faced an unexpected test. In a referendum five days earlier, voters had rejected—by a margin of just 0.4 percentage points—the peace accord he had signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s strongest leftist guerrilla group. The surprise result caught both sides off guard, leaving them scrambling to salvage the agreement.

Mr Santos and the FARC quickly hammered out a revised deal. On November 24th the president and the guerrillas’ leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, signed it in a sombre ceremony at a small theatre in Bogotá. Congress ratified the new terms six days later. On December 6th the FARC’s nearly 6,000 troops began moving from their jungle camps to demobilisation zones, where they will disarm and prepare for life as civilians (although some of the designated areas were not yet equipped to receive them). So when Mr Santos takes the stage in Oslo to receive the peace prize on December 10th, he will be feted for officially bringing the longest-lasting conflict in the Americas to an end.

Nonetheless, the mood is likely to be far less festive than it was at the signing of the first settlement in September. The president had promised time and again that Colombian voters would have the last say in any agreement with the FARC. But after his defeat at the polls in October, Mr Santos was forced to choose between unpalatable options. Putting the updated terms to a new referendum risked a devastating second rejection. Instead, he settled for legislative passage. That eliminated the risk of a return to war, but also meant the pact will lack the democratic reinforcement of a formal seal of approval from voters.

Mr Santos hoped to close the book for good on Colombia’s 52 years of strife. Mercifully, the fighting chapter now seems to be over. The denouement, however, may still prove long and contentious.

The more things change

Mr Santos and the FARC say they listened closely to the No campaign’s message, and made substantial alterations to over 50 points in response. No longer will the pact be incorporated into the constitution, which would have burdened that document with ephemeral policy choices. A tribunal dispensing “transitional justice” will not include foreign magistrates, as the earlier version permitted. And the new text clarifies that the agreement will not affect private-property rights.

However, the FARC refused to accept the core demands of the No side, including stiffer penalties and a ban on political participation for guerrilla leaders responsible for war crimes. As a result, those deal-breaking proposals remain absent from the accord. Meanwhile, the government’s modest concessions on social legislation, such as a scheme to distribute and develop rural land, survived the revision. That rankles with voters who saw the FARC as a defeated terrorist group, with whom negotiations should have focused on the terms of surrender, not public policy.

The accord’s most extreme opponents may be trying to undermine it by force. In a grim reprise of the terror wrought by right-wing paramilitary organisations in the 1980s and 1990s, 13 leaders of grassroots activist groups were killed between the day the first settlement was signed on September 26th and November 30th, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, this rate is only slightly higher than it was during the year’s first quarter, when the talks had still not produced an agreement. Nonetheless, the continuing murders demonstrate the limits of the peace deal. Far more victims have suffered injuries and death threats.

Marcos Calarcá, a FARC spokesman, says that these reprisals aim to “derail the peace process”. So far, no evidence has emerged of any systematic plan to sink the accord through violence. However, José Félix Lafaurie, the head of Colombia’s association of cattle ranchers—many of whom financed reactionary paramilitaries in the past—has warned pointedly that his group will act as a “bulwark against the FARC’s aim of having territorial control”.

In order to forestall any potential return to broader fighting, Mr Santos needs to show quickly that the pact will bring peace on the ground. The FARC are scheduled to hand over their last batch of arms to a UN commission by April 30th. But the state has to begin implementing the accord first, which requires Congress to pass dozens of bills and constitutional amendments.

Opponents of the deal, who are outnumbered in the legislature, are now likely to focus on prolonging this process. Their leader, the senator Álvaro Uribe, was Mr Santos’s predecessor as president and former political patron, but split with him over the peace talks. His party walked out in protest when the pact came to a vote, letting it pass unanimously in both houses.

Under normal legislative rules, it could take up to a year to approve an amnesty for rank-and-file guerrillas. That would push the debate into the campaign for the 2018 presidential election, in which parties will be tempted to pander to hardline voters and Mr Santos’s coalition could splinter. Already, members of the centrist Radical Change party, led by the vice-president, Germán Vargas Lleras, say that they may try to modify the necessary laws.

However, the judiciary may come to Mr Santos’s aid. His allies in Congress hope to use a “fast-track” mechanism, which shortens the deliberation required before voting and would allow the majority to implement the settlement in short order. The constitutional court is expected to rule on this effort by December 12th.

Even if the accord does get fast-tracked, there is a strong risk that the election becomes a de facto second referendum. Mr Santos and Mr Uribe have both served two terms and cannot run. Mr Londoño has called on parties who support the deal to rally around one candidate who would ensure its implementation. The most likely choice would be Humberto de la Calle, who negotiated the pact for the government. Conversely, Mr Uribe’s party will probably field a candidate promising to dismantle as much as possible. The more progress is made in the coming months to convert a paper agreement into facts on the ground, the harder it will be to reverse—and the likelier voters will be to choose a president who promises to preserve it.

Written by Rico

Rico

"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of onlinemagazines that includes TodayColombia.com. Rico brings his special kind of savvy to online marketing. His websites are engaging, provocative, informative and sometimes off the wall, where you either like or you leave it. The same goes for him, like him or leave him.There is no middle ground. No compromises, only a passion to present reality as he sees it!

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