BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s president said Wednesday, Aug. 24, that government negotiators and leftist rebels are putting the final touches on a peace deal that they hope to announce in the coming hours.
“Today I hope to give historic, very important news to the country,” President Juan Manuel Santos said at an education event.
Government negotiators told local news media earlier that all major obstacles to a deal have been cleared up in around-the-clock sessions taking place in Cuba for the past week. But some representatives for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia cautioned on social media that some details remain to be worked out.
The government published a photo Tuesday night of negotiators in a circle and smiling under a headline reading: “The day is coming. We’re on the road to peace.”
Once negotiations conclude, the accord must still be ratified by voters in a plebiscite. But just the wrapping up of talks opens the possibility for Colombians to put behind them more than 50 years of political bloodshed that has claimed more than 220,000 victims and driven more than 5 million people from their homes.
The accord would commit Colombia’s government to carrying out aggressive land reform, an overhaul of its anti-narcotics strategy and an expansion of political protections for leftist activists and traditionally marginalized groups.
Negotiations began in November 2012 and were plagued by distrust built up during decades of war propaganda on both sides.
Polls show most Colombians loathe the rebel group known as the FARC and show no hesitation labeling 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 U.S. Meanwhile, the FARC held onto a Cold War view of Colombia’s political and economic establishment as “oligarchs” at the service of the U.S.
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 U.S.-backed military and the its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.
President Juan Manuel Santos, an unlikely peacemaker given his role as architect of the military offensive, throughout maintained a steady pulse even as he was labeled a traitor by his conservative former allies and suffered a plunge in approval ratings.
The most contentious breakthrough came in September when the two sides laid out a framework for investigating atrocities, punishing guerrillas for involvement in those abuses and offering compensation to victims.
Conservative opponents of Santos and some human rights groups harshly criticized a key part of that deal: guerrillas who confess their crimes won’t 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 Santos calls the concessions he’s 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 Sen. Roy Barreras, among political reinforcements sent in by 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, Santos must present the accords to congress and ask it to set a date for a plebiscite that could take place as early as next month. Polls show Colombians would likely 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 Santos, whose approval rating plummeted to 21 percent 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 percent of the electorate, or about 4.4 million voters, must vote in favor for the accord to be ratified.
After the agreement is signed, the FARC will begin mobilizing 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.
Analysts are concerned that as the rebels integrate into Colombian society, well-organized 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 homicide 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’s pursuing a peace deal of its own.