- - Thursday, September 29, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia — The ink on the landmark peace deal, signed this week amid much pomp and circumstance, will have barely dried when Colombian voters decide whether to sign off on it in Sunday’s national referendum. But little else seems certain about the deal, which supporters say will end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running and bloodiest conflict and detractors counter will vindicate terrorists by excusing their atrocities and giving them a seat at the table.

The 297-page “final agreement,” hammered out in four years of negotiations between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as the FARC, has won effusive praise from world leaders including President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Pope Francis said Thursday that he will reward the effort with a visit to Colombia early next year.

Inside Colombia, though, the reaction has been mixed, and a sizable and vociferous campaign is urging voters to reject the agreement.

The debate has pitted urban against rural populations, idealists against pragmatists and military hawks against political doves.

To former President Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by the guerrilla organization, the deal “turns the country over to the FARC.” To former Sen. Ingrid Betancourt, whom the rebels held hostage from 2002 to 2008, it will become a model for ending similar conflicts around the world.



Neither side is lacking in enthusiasm, but both the “yes” and “no” campaigns have been largely low-tech and said they planned to focus on door-to-door get-out-the-vote efforts in the final days before the referendum. Mr. Santos’ backers, who benefit from access to government funds and media, also promised additional TV commercials.

It has been largely business as usual in the Colombian capital, meanwhile, though the peace process is dominating conversations in the city’s famed coffee shops. On television, it is the prime topic well beyond news broadcasts, and even local channels, such as Cali-based Telepacifico, have provided ample coverage.

The station’s “Hour of the Gavel” debate show Wednesday night turned into a spirited verbal joust between a “yes” and “no” backer, while viewers used social media to weigh in.

Deep divisions were also on display when two Colombian air force fighter jets flew over the stage while FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, spoke at the signing ceremony Monday in Cartagena. “This time, they came to greet us and not to throw bombs,” an uneasy Mr. Londono said.

The flyover was meant to send a message, in the face of Mr. Santos’ relentless cheerleading for an accord on which he staked his political career, said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez, a political scientist at Bogota’s prestigious Del Rosario University.

“It was a very clear signal, clearly a message from the military brass,” he said. “It is possible that they make themselves heard in other ways” down the road.

Civilian opponents, meanwhile, hope Colombians will reject the agreement at the ballot box, and Mr. Uribe — whose aggressive military strategy cornered the FARC and may have forced the guerrillas to negotiate in the first place — further upped the ante this week when he warned that a “yes” vote would “put Colombia on the route of Venezuela.”

Long critical of the “damaged democracy” he believes would come from the accord, the former president told the Chilean daily La Tercera that the deal would guarantee former guerrilla leaders’ input on investment decisions, which could lead Venezuela’s economic and social meltdown to spill over to its neighbor.

He made the comments after Mr. Londono paid homage to Venezuela’s “eternal president,” the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, “without whose support and impulse nothing of the accomplished would have been possible.”

“All of Santos’ personal friends [and] the international community say: ‘No, Santos is not Chavez,’” Mr. Uribe said about his former defense minister and successor. “But he is creating the conditions for the Chavezes to get here.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady this week accused Mr. Santos of “setting a trap” for Colombians by rigging terms of the vote to ensure a victory despite an expected low turnout.

Colombia “is being torn apart by the signed agreement, which is practically a surrender, and by vicious government intimidation tactics designed to silence dissenters and jam the accord down the throats of Colombians ,” she wrote. “He may have enough electoral tricks up his sleeve to produce an official declaration of victory. But only a fool would believe that it could produce peace.”

The “no” campaign has had the momentum in recent weeks as the “yes” camp was hit by internal squabbles, but pollsters still predict the peace process will overcome its most immediate hurdle on Sunday and gain the backing of a majority of some 34 million eligible voters.

“We will get to Oct. 2 after a mediocre campaign on both sides,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said. “Afterwards, a very long road will begin, a tortuous road.”

‘Fast track’ changes

A “yes” win would activate a six-month legislative “fast track” to change the Colombian Constitution and legislation. Mr. Santos would be given special decree powers to advance the process, though he could not single-handedly change laws that require a supermajority in Congress.

The Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Long Lasting Peace calls for a U.N.-monitored disarmament of some 8,000 FARC rebels, who have 180 days to turn over their guns. They may then form a political party, which would be exempt from minimum-vote rules and thus would be effectively guaranteed seats in both houses of the national legislature.

Former fighters would receive job training and would be eligible for stipends of up to $2,700 to help them integrate into society. For many of them, accustomed to decades of life in jungle camps or exiled in communist countries, the transition to civilian live would be challenging.

“For decades, I never needed any document to identify myself. In any setting, it was enough to note that I was Gabriel Angel, a FARC guerrillero,” Cuba-based writer Gabriel Angel wrote, detailing his surreal experience of applying for a Colombian national ID card at the Colombian Embassy in Havana.

Although the rebels are finding themselves subject to a government whose legitimacy they denied for a half-century, Mr. Londono defiantly declared that “there are no winners or losers” as he addressed the presumably last FARC meeting Sept. 17-23 in the Colombian jungle region of Llanos del Yari.

“Our adversaries see themselves obliged to recognize our full right to political participation,” he said, “with the most ample guarantees.”

One of those concessions, the “jurisdiction for peace,” calls for a special tribunal to investigate the hundreds of kidnappings, hijackings, bombings and killings attributed to the rebels. It ranks among the most controversial provisions of the agreement.

Defendants who cooperate with the tribunal are assured the option to serve out their sentences in the form of community service — an offer of leniency that has drawn harsh criticism from victims associations and human rights groups alike.

“It makes a mockery of justice,” said Fernando Vargas, who leads the Committee for Victims of the Guerrillas and who noted that his grandfather was killed by leftist fighters. “They have not included us in the process,” he said, recounting how gunmen attacked him five years ago as he was picking up his children from school.

Meanwhile, key parts of the peace accord are alarmingly vague, said Robin Kirk, co-chairwoman of Duke University’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

“Too often, that has meant impunity,” Ms. Kirk said. “The agreement doesn’t really have specifics about accountability.”

To get the rebels’ signature on the agreement, though, Mr. Santos had little alternative to giving them something akin to a “get out of jail free” card, said Jeremy McDermott, of the Medellin-based InSight Crime foundation, which looks at organized crime across Latin America.

“No guerrilla group in the world has ever negotiated under the assumption of going to prison,” Mr. McDermott said. “[And] the FARC could have continued [fighting] almost indefinitely.”

An end to war?

Among backers and opponents of the measure alike, though, many are not convinced the deal will spell an end to guerrilla warfare in Colombia. For one, it does not include the rival National Liberation Army, though the smaller Marxist rebel group announced Wednesday that it was ready to resume peace talks with Bogota.

Noting that the FARC and other guerrilla groups sprang out of the Colombian Communist Party and its splinter groups, Mr. Vargas said no agreement was worth the effort until that political group, too, put its name to it.

“There is no guarantee of nonrepetition,” he said. “If the [Communist Party] does not commit itself, there will be another armed group with a different name tomorrow. The FARC did not create themselves.”

Duke’s Ms. Kirk, on the other hand, said the problem may not so much be former rebels’ political ambitions as an appetite among some to lay claim to the profits from the lucrative drug trafficking that long financed the FARC arms purchases and its larger war effort.

“It has never been about ideology; it has always been about the territory and the money,” said Ms. Kirk, the author of “More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia.” “The influx of cocaine dollars from the United States was a core reason why this war continued for so long. It’s an incredibly destabilizing force.”

Similar experiences in other conflict zones suggest that up to 30 percent of fighters eventually turn to organized crime — drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining, Mr. McDermott said, a rate “not be unreasonable to expect [from] the FARC.”

Such worries prompted Colombian Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez Neira to underline on Wednesday that former rebels will be judged in common courts for any drug or money-laundering offenses committed after the “final agreement” takes effect.

For all of the deal’s flaws and uncertainties, though, a solid majority of Colombians seem to have come to the conclusion that any alternative trumps continuing a five-decade civil war that has caused more than 200,000 casualties, most of them civilians, Ms. Kirk said.

“At this point,” she said, “Colombia just wants to move on.”

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