Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a controversial peace agreement on November 16, 2016, with Colombia's Marxist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The country's 52-year war with FARC guerrillas claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions of people displaced and tens of thousands of people missing. The negotiations for the historic agreement to end the longest-running conflict in Latin America took four years to negotiate, amid great uncertainty and objections. Formal peace talks started in the Cuban capital, Havana, in 2012. The final agreement included complete disarmament of the FARC, and assistance in helping the rebels reintegrate into civilian life.
Colombia is a country with a long history of violence, inequality, and repression of peasants in rural areas by the elites. Prior to the establishment of the FARC, countless innocent people were killed in a 10-year bloody civil war called La Violencia, triggered by the assassination of Liberal Party presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948. The mass riots that followed ignited major conflict between the Liberals and the Conservatives. This ended when the two parties united to form the National Front in 1958, a deal in which the parties agreed to rotate the presidency in a bid to end the civil war. The Colombian Communist Party offered an alternative to the rural communities who had suffered the most during this period and who distrusted the elites, the government, and the army, who had fought for political power.
Origins of FARC
Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, a Liberal soldier who had fought in La Violencia, gained followers in rural communities and founded the FARC in 1964. The founders of the guerrilla group were mainly peasants fighting for their rights and land reform and against inequality and political persecution. The FARC became a powerful, armed wing of the Communist party, inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1950s. During the many violent years of the armed conflict against Colombia's government, the rebels ambushed army patrols, blew up pipelines, and targeted civilians. They also engaged in drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping to finance the organization. The FARC became the largest insurgent group in Colombia and was on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Negotiations for Peace
In 1984, the government of Colombia negotiated the first peace talks with the FARC under President Belisario Betancur. They reached an agreement that promised reforms and allowed the FARC to form a left-wing political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). However, this agreement was broken when the succeeding president was elected in 1986, and thousands of FARC members were killed by right-wing paramilitary groups. A second round of peace talks was held in 1998 under President Andres Pastrana, but the FARC did not end hostilities during the negotiations, which ended in 2002. Pastrana later opposed the peace deal brokered in 2016.
The FARC finally agreed to come to the negotiating table again in 2012, after suffering a series of defeats at the hands of Colombian security forces, who received funds and training from the U.S. government in support of their battle against the rebel group. By late 2016, senior FARC leaders had been killed, and the number of active fighters was estimated to have dropped from 20,000 to around 7,000. Cuba's Fidel Castro and then-president of Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez, urged the FARC to change its strategies from military to political and to seek peace.
In September of 2016, a peace accord was signed between President Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timoleón Jiménez, or Timochenko. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attended the formal signing ceremony, which was televised from a former rebel stronghold in the south of Colombia. Guests at the ceremony were dressed in white to symbolize peace. The crowd applauded as Londoño apologized for the rebels' crimes saying, "In the name of the FARC I ask sincere forgiveness to all the victims of the conflict and for all the pain we may have caused in this war." The FARC agreed to stop drug trafficking, hand over all weapons, and transition to a political party.
Nevertheless, the Colombian people found it hard to forgive the FARC. Voters rejected the agreement in a referendum in October of 2016 in a narrow "no" vote. Opponents of the peace process claimed that the peace agreement was too soft on war crimes committed by the rebel group, that it did not hold them accountable for the deaths and kidnappings, and that it rewarded the FARC by allowing the movement to establish a legitimate political party. In addition, the deal included amnesty for jailed FARC rebels.
Despite objections, President Santos signed a revised 310-page peace accord in November of 2016 in a small ceremony in Bogota. In his speech, Londoño said, "Our only weapons as Colombians should be our words. We are putting a definitive end to war to confront in a civilized manner our contradictions." A joint statement by the guarantors of the peace process, diplomats from Cuba and Norway, read, "We have reached a new final agreement to end the armed conflict, which incorporates changes, clarifications and some new contributions from various social groups, which we have gone through one by one. Building a stable, lasting peace must be the shared commitment of all Colombians, and one that helps polarization be overcome while including all social and political voices." The revised peace deal was signed and sent to Congress, bypassing a second referendum.
In December of 2016, President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Colombia. The Nobel committee made the announcement before the peace agreement was rejected by voters. In his acceptance speech, Santos stated, "Ladies and gentlemen, there is one less war in the world, and it is the war in Colombia."
In the final historic step of the peace agreement, on June 27, 2017, U.N. observers shut and locked the last containers containing more than 7,000 weapons that had been turned over by members of the FARC. The short ceremony took place in a demobilization camp. The rebels wore T-shirts rather than combat fatigues; they were officially declared civilians and were handed government ID cards. To symbolize the transition from violence to peace and in honor of the victims of the long conflict, Colombian musician Cesar Lopez played a guitar made from an AK-47 assault rifle. President Santos hailed disarmament, saying, "This is the best news for Colombia in 50 years--this is great news of peace.... Today we see the end of this absurd war." FARC leader Rodrigo Londono said, "Farewell to arms, farewell to war, welcome to peace. Today doesn't end the existence of the FARC; it ends our armed struggle."
Jean Arnault, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Colombia said in a statement, "In a world convulsed by old and new forms of violence, by conflicts whose protagonists appear irreconcilable ... a successful process constructing peace in Colombia is also reason for hope and a powerful example for the international community."
Colombia after the Peace Accord
The weapons collected from the former rebels will be melted down and used to create war monuments in Bogota, Havana, and New York. However, many opponents to the agreement still harbor doubts as to whether the former guerrillas will follow through, and whether they have indeed given up all their weapons. Despite their willingness to demobilize, some rebels have expressed fear for their lives and concerns about FARC members reintegrating into civilian life. Naida Lopez, a woman who was with the rebels for two decades after the military killed her parents, expressed the concerns of many as they enter a new phase in their lives, dependent on the government for protection, "For every guerrilla fighter, their weapon has always been their most loyal friend, which has always accompanied them. Some people have names for their rifle."
Colombia remains divided over the president's decision to sidestep the results of the popular vote. The referendum was an expression of the people's refusal to ignore the violence they had lived with for so long. The decision to bypass their vote against peace with guerrillas makes for an uncertain future, should the current president's opponents take power when he steps down next year.
The peace accord marks a new era for Colombia, and the transition of the FARC to a legal political party. FARC leaders plan to launch a legitimate left-wing party. They do not want to be viewed as defeated or surrendering and are preparing to develop their political agenda further through democratic means. The accord also marks a new beginning for couples who were members of the FARC. Female members of the rebel organization were ordered to use contraceptives or to have abortions, as babies were considered a liability. Rebels are now becoming parents; peace has led to a baby boom and hope for the future.