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Colombia's peace deal with the FARC could still fall apart

The biggest hurdle is obtaining public support for the peace agreement in a referendum to be held on October 2, with polls hinting that a Brexit-style upset is possible.
Imagen por Fernando Vergara/AP Photo

Laura Rosa Vélez knows the pain of Colombia's half-century-long civil war. In 1989, a paramilitary group allied with the government rolled into the poor, conflict-ridden coastal town of Buenaventura, and killed her husband.

The devastated housewife fled and started over again in the capital Bogota. She was one of 6.9 million Colombians estimated to have been displaced by the conflict.

On Wednesday night, a peace deal between the government and the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, put an end to that war. That night, Vélez was dancing at a street party in front of a big screen showing the announcement of a final peace deal in Havana, Cuba.


"I don't have words for the happiness I feel," she said. "Colombia is a country that has learned how to forgive."

But, while many celebrated the promise to end the war that began when the FARC formed in 1954, the peace accord still has some serious obstacles to overcome before there really is no turning back.

The biggest hurdle is obtaining public support in a referendum in which "Yes" votes must amount to at least 13 percent of registered voters — approximately 4.5 million people. This requirement, which translates into a required 26 percent turnout, was kept deliberately very low to almost guarantee validity.

Getting the most votes, however, may prove more difficult with most observers saying that failing to do so would almost inevitably bury the deal that took four long years to negotiate, even though there would still, theoretically, be a way to keep the peace deal alive.

President Juan Manuel Santos' original promise to put any peace accord to the vote was initially seen as a maneuver to garner public support for the peace process. Now his announcement on Wednesday night that the referendum will be held unexpectedly soon, on October 2, hints a little at panic.

"It will be the most important election of our lives," Santos said of the plebiscite in a televised statement. "Colombians: the decision is in your hands. Never before have our citizens had within their reach the key to their future."


The international community has rushed to congratulate Colombia on the deal. The United States has provided Colombia nearly $10 billion in aid since 2000, and President Barack Obama, who earlier this year pledged to continue sending aid to Colombia to help fund the implementation of peace, personally called Santos to congratulate him on the final accord.

Related: Some Colombian rebels won't give up the fight despite a peace deal

Hillary Clinton also jumped to express her support. "As president, I'll ensure that the United States remains their partner in that process," she said on Thursday. "The people of Colombia deserve nothing less."

But not everybody is gushing about the deal. Polls are fluctuating between predictions of which side will win the referendum.

The No charge is led by Santos' former boss, Alvaro Uribe. As president of Colombia, Uribe led a brutal military campaign against the FARC between 2002 and 2010, funded by massive US aid. Santos was his defense minister at the time.

Now Uribe says the deal is too lenient on the FARC, because it appears to pave the way for the rebels to escape jail time for wartime abuses if they submit to a special tribunal. The accords says a guilty verdict will lead to "restricted liberty" but it leaves it up to the tribunals to define what that will mean.

Related: How a French woman became a Colombian rebel

Juan Nicolás Téllez, a student who was wearing a Yes t-shirt at a Bogota public screening of the announcement, said he fears the vote could end up going the way of the Brexit referendum, in which British voters shocked the world by deciding to leave the European Union — despite polls to the contrary.


"I'm scared about the referendum," Téllez said, among the crowd that waved Colombian flags and sang the national anthem. "There are parts of society that are against the peace deal, not just Uribe, but obviously including Uribe who spreads lies and hate and fear."

A Colombian man who says he has only known war attends a street party to celebrate the announcement of the peace deal (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

There are also many potential pitfalls on the path to actual peace, not least the inevitably complex process of demobilizing the estimated 7,000 FARC fighters.

One of the partial accords leading up to this week's final deal requires the rebels to leave their hideouts and jungle camps and gather in 23 "temporary hamlet zones for normalization" within five days of the final accord being formally signed.

These FARC members, many of whom have been fighting government forces for most of their lives and will in the initial stage remain armed, are supposed stay in these zones for six months under the supervision of unarmed officials from the United Nations. After that, the accord allows the former combatants to form a political party.

Colombian media has widely reported that the signing ceremony will take place in Colombia in about a month's time, which would mean that the referendum would take place while the "zones" were filled with armed rebels, at least some of whom were not particularly keen on giving up the fight.

Many watchdog groups have already predicted that a significant number will choose to remain outlaws, even though those who do demobilize have been promised automatic pardons for the crime of rebellion.


The FARC's Armando Rios First Front, a 200-strong unit, said last month that it would reject the peace deal and carry on fighting. The FARC's leadership subsequently disowned the rogue front, while the president promised that anyone who refuses to demobilize will go to "jail or the grave".

Some observers also point to the various other armed groups waiting in the wings to occupy the territories left behind by the demobilized FARC.

One is the country's second-biggest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army or ELN. Others include paramilitary groups, the best known of which is the Urabeños. There are also a number of less famous, but not necessarily less destructive, criminal gangs dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal mining.

"It's a huge and historic achievement," Adam Isacson, director of the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America research center, said of the peace deal. "Colombia will still have a massive organized crime problem, and it will still have great social injustice, but it is impossible to take on any of these challenges without first ending the FARC conflict."

Related: Colombia finalizes peace deal with FARC rebels, ending half-century war

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan