Colombia’s government and the country’s biggest rebel group have reached a historic deal to end a half century of hostilities in one of the world’s longest-running and bloodiest armed conflicts.
President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) as an opportunity to turn the page on decades of political violence that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven more than five million people from their homes.
He said he would hold a referendum on 2 October on the accord. Without their approval implementation can’t begin.
In the capital, Bogota, some 400 people gathered in a plaza to watch on giant screens the agreement being announced by negotiators in Havana after four years of talks.
“We’ve won the most beautiful of all battles: the peace of Colombia,” the chief Farc negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said at the announcement in Havana.
As soon as his speech finished, bringing the televised event to an end, the emotional crowd on the plaza sang the national anthem and shouted “Viva Colombia! Yes to Peace!”
“I can die in peace because finally I’ll see my country without violence with a future for my children,” said Orlando Guevara, 57, crying as white flags symbolising peace waved behind him.
US President Barack Obama welcomed the deal, saying the announcement was “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”.
The accord, whose final text has yet to be published, commits Colombia’s government to carrying out aggressive land reform, overhauling its anti-narcotics strategy and greatly expanding the state’s presence in long-neglected areas of the country.
Negotiations began in November 2012 and were plagued by distrust built up during decades of war propaganda on both sides.
Polls say most Colombians loathe Farc and show no hesitation labeling them “narco-terrorists” for their heavy involvement in Colombia’s cocaine trade, an association for which members of the group’s top leadership have been indicted in the US. Meanwhile, Farc held on to a Cold War view of Colombia’s political and economic establishment as “oligarchs” at the service of the US.
The rebel army was forced to the negotiating table after a decade of heavy battlefield losses that saw a succession of top rebel commanders killed by the US-backed military and the its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.
Santos, an unlikely peacemaker given his role as architect of the military offensive, maintained a steady pulse even as he was labelled a traitor by his conservative former allies and suffered a plunge in approval ratings.
The most contentious breakthrough came in September when the president travelled to Havana to lay out with Farc commander Rodrigo Londono a framework for investigating atrocities, punishing guerrillas for involvement in those abuses and offering compensation to victims.
Opponents of Santos and some human rights groups harshly criticised a key part of that deal – guerrillas who confess their crimes won’t spend any time in prison and will instead be allowed to help rebuild communities hit by the conflict.
In one of the last details brokered in marathon, 18-hour sessions, both sides agreed to guarantee Farc a minimum of five seats in the lower house and five in the Senate until 2026. After that the former rebels will have to prove their political relevancy at the ballot box.