It is a momentous time to be Colombian. Out on the streets, you can feel this is no regular week. By Sunday, we could have a different—and hopefully better—country. Since August 24, when the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla announced they had reached a final agreement in their peace negotiations there has been practically no conversation; no interaction, no Facebook or WhatsApp group involving at least two Colombians that has not touched upon the subject of whether to approve it or reject it.
Yet, despite the inflated rhetoric, and the heated arguments with friends and family that have dominated our daily lives for the past few weeks, it feels like the country is on the verge of something truly historic: Colombia’s longest-running conflict might be officially over by the end of this week.
The government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC guerrilla, led by their commander Rodrigo Londoño (a.k.a. “Timochenko”) officially signed the peace agreement this past Monday in a big ceremony in Cartagena that included many Latin American presidents, U.S. State secretary John Kerry, the King of Spain, and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
But, even though there is a lot to be optimistic about, this is not yet a done deal. Colombians will be heading to the polls on Sunday October 2 to vote “yes” or “no” to the final text of the agreement. And while the government has declared, and international media has generally reported, that Colombia has reached a coveted “end to its conflict,” there is still a lot to be done.
Will this bring peace, and what does that mean?
For one part, this peace deal will only end conflict with the FARC guerrilla. This group is the largest illegal armed group in the country, numbering about 8,000 members. It is also the oldest insurgency remaining in the country, as it has fought the Colombian state since its foundation in 1964.
But other violent groups will remain, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla—which will become the largest illegal armed group in the country—as well as neo-paramilitary bands, known as “Bacrim” of “Organized Armed Groups”, that make a living out of drug trafficking and extortion. The voids left by disarming FARC might be occupied by law-abiding citizens, but they run the risk of being taken over by one or more of these other violent groups.
Furthermore, the vote for “yes” on Sunday has to beat the vote for “no” and also reach 13 percent of the voting census—which translates to about four and a half million votes—for the peace agreements to be legally valid. And what will be subject to approval on Sunday is a 297-pages long document, which took four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, to be complete, and that might not generate the enthusiasm needed.
What happens to FARC?
The complex text lays out the plan for the FARC members to give up its weapons and return to civilian life, as well as a plan for a massive land reform that will affect most of the country’s rural regions, not just guerrilla territory. The FARC will also be required to help remove landmines, aid with victim’s reparations, confess their crimes in a truth commission, and pay small symbolic sentences for some of their crimes.
In exchange, the FARC will be allowed to become a political party, and they will be given up to five seats in the Senate and five in the House of Representatives for the 2018 and 2022 elections. Their disarmed members will also get a few more benefits, such as a monthly income (amounting to about 90 percent of Colombia’s minimum monthly wage), plus some money they can invest in a business, and some other they can use for whatever, in order to help them re-enter civilian life. They will also enjoy some sort of amnesty for most crimes—unless they are war crimes or crimes against humanity— but they will lose this benefit if they are found to not have confessed it all.
Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, now a senator and still a very popular political figure in the country, has lead the campaign for the “no” vote, arguing that the government conceded too many things to the FARC. Uribe has also argued that, in the eventual victory of a “no” vote, the peace deal can be renegotiated. However, the Constitutional Court has said that in that case this agreement will be void, and both President Santos and FARC leaders have said they would not renegotiate.
Despite Uribe’s and his party's vocal—and often misleading—opposition, every poll since the August announcement has “yes” leading. But those heated and usually polarizing conversations on the street, with family, or in social media have many Colombians thinking that a win for the “yes” vote is still not certain.
How does this affect Colombian society?
The changes implemented by the peace deal would disproportionately affect rural Colombia—including the formalization of 7 million hectares and the redistribution of 3 million more–, where there is massive support for the agreement. But the vast majority of Colombians (about 75 percent) live in urban areas, where they might have not felt the positive effects of the peace talks. For example, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire on July 20, and last August was found to be the least violent month in Colombia in four decades.
If “yes” does win, what comes next won’t be easy. An enormous bureaucratic infrastructure must be created to deal with transitional justice, land reform, reinsertion to civilian life, and so on. A country divided must have to come to terms with itself, it must learn how to find forgiveness, and how to welcome back those who have hurt it. But of all the possibilities, this, the possibility of dealing with each other without guns, seems like the best so far.