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FARC deal in hand, Colombia looks toward fall plebiscite on peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Wednesday night, after four years of negotiations. 

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    A man holds a Colombian flag after Colombia's government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels reached a final peace deal on Wednesday to end a five-decade war, in Bogota, Colombia, on August 24, 2016.
    John Vizcaino/ Reuters
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After four years of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a five-decade conflict that has cost more than 200,000 lives may be coming to an end, as Colombians prepare for plebiscite on a controversial deal with the country's largest rebel group. 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced Wednesday night that peace negotiations had come to a close, with an agreement struck between rebel negotiators and the Colombian government. Implementation of that agreement will depend on the outcome of a plebiscite on October 2, when the Colombian people must decide whether to ratify the accord.

"It's in your hands, of all Colombians, to decide with your vote to support this historic accord that puts an end to this long conflict between the children of the same nation," President Santos said in a televised address. 

The half-century conflict has its origins in the late 1940s, when the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a populist leader, sparked a decade-long period of killings known as "La Violencia." In 1964, peasant groups and communist groups allied to form FARC. Since then, ongoing violence between the rebel group and the Colombian government has killed more than 220,000 and displaced more than five million, as the drug trade helped keep FARC financially afloat. 

The most recent round of negotiations, which have taken place in Havana, Cuba, began in 2012. Their length alone is historic, after a series of earlier failed talks: negotiations in the mid-1980s, for example, ended after right-wing paramilitary groups killed 3,000 members of a party allied with FARC. In 2002, a kidnapping and hijacking by FARC ended another round of talks.

The latest talks have been successful in producing a cease-fire agreement, whose terms were agreed upon in June. 

"There's a lesson for other world conflicts in this 'peace first' approach," The Christian Science Monitor's Editorial Board wrote at the time:

It is that peace must be seen not merely as the absence of war but as a tangible reality. For Colombia that reality has been designed through difficult talks to include interim pacts on truth-telling about past abuses, a measure of justice for victims, an eventual coexistence between old foes, and broad economic and social reforms.

FARC's violent tactics and involvement in the cocaine trade have made them widely despised among Colombians, and polls show the plebiscite will likely result in a "yes" vote for the deal. However, Bogotá officials have worried about the potential for low voter turnout: in order for the agreement to be ratified, at least 13 percent of the population must participate.

The agreement itself involved many concessions from both sides. For example, the Colombian government has reserved five Senate seats and five seats in the lower house of the Colombian legislature for FARC until 2026.

If Colombians vote yes on the agreement, FARC troops will have 90 days before they must hand over weapons to United Nations monitors. In return, the Colombian government must commit itself to modifying its anti-narcotics strategy, expanding government presence in rural areas, and carrying out land reform.

Many have cheered Wednesday night’s announcement, with congratulations pouring in from the UN and international leaders such as President Barack Obama, who called the peace agreement, "a critical juncture in what will be a long process to fully implement a just and lasting peace agreement that can advance security and prosperity for the Colombian people."

Yet, despite the praise the agreement has garnered from the international community, some still say that it does not do enough to address decades of violence. Guerrillas willing to confess will be offered reduced sentences, a policy that has earned fierce criticism from those who say it amounts to amnesty. 

"[The] agreement fails to fulfill the rights of those who suffered some of the worst atrocities committed during the Colombian armed conflict," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, "and opens the door to perpetuating the country's cycles of impunity."

Others are concerned that armed gangs will fill the vacuum that FARC will leave behind, particularly where the drug trade is concerned.

Still, negotiators say that they have done what they can.

"We think we've done the best possible job, but it's the Colombians who will judge us," said chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle. "We have to wait for the citizens' verdict."

"I can die in peace," Orlando Guevara, one of a crowd gathered near Bogotá to celebrate the news, told the Associated Press, "because finally I'll see my country without violence with a future for my children."

This report includes material from the Associated Press. 

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