Colombia and the FARC guerrilla group on Wednesday announced that they have finalized a peace deal that—if ratified by voters—promises to end the hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war.
As a Colombian who lives in Bogota, the war has often seemed like a distant thing to me, something that happens in remote villages and jungle hamlets that are miles—if not decades—removed from my city’s modern, and relatively safe environment.
But I’m also a journalist who has covered conflict zones and seen the damage inflicted on campesino and indigenous groups by the FARC and the military. So the peace deal makes me feel relieved and hopeful for the people who were living in the crossfire, afraid of being labeled as traitors by the army, or having their kids forcibly recruited by the FARC.
But this peace deal also makes me somewhat anxious about what comes next. Most of Colombians live in cities now, and the big question many of us have is: What concessions have the government made to the guerrillas to get them to give up their guns in the countryside? What sort of country will emerge from this peace deal, and how will it affect our current way of life?
The peace accord that was completed on Aug. 24 isn’t just an agreement to get the Marxist guerrillas to lay down their guns in exchange for amnesty. This was a more ambitious deal that also tackles issues like how to reform the rural economy, how to change the country's approach towards illicit drugs, how to obtain justice for war victims, and how to transition the FARC from a guerrilla group into a political party. It's a plan for national development as much as it is an effort to end the war.
And it's huuuge. It's 297 pages long, to be exact. But is it a “terrific” deal for the country? The truth is most people here don't really know the details yet of what has been agreed to between the politicians and guerrilla leaders in Cuba—a process that took over four years of tense negotiations.
What we do know is that five decades of war between the government and the FARC has killed more than 200,000 civilians. More than 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Thousands of people have “disappeared” and billions of dollars have been lost, as companies retreated from a countryside controlled by guerrillas.
Some companies invested in mines and agro-industry in those areas despite the guerrilla presence, and hired paramilitary units to keep the rebels away from their property, worsening the spiral of violence. Others became accustomed to paying “war taxes” to the FARC, the cost of doing business in areas under rebel control.
So when you see pictures in the media today of Colombians celebrating a peace deal that we barely understand, you have to cut us some slack ;) Peace might still be an unknown, but we're all too familiar with the alternative.
Colombians celebrated the peace deal in Bogota on Wednesday
Peace does come with a price, however. So let’s get back to my anxieties for a second.
Urban areas in Colombia, like my hometown of Bogota, have made some noticeable progress over the past two decades, thanks to globalization, market-friendly economic policies, and sensible social policies.
It's a real contrast to neighboring Venezuela, where radical socialists implemented Soviet-era economic policies and have managed to ruin the local economy to the point where it's now normal to see people standing in long lines for hours outside supermarkets. Food scarcity is so bad that thieves in Caracas have been breaking into the local zoo and stealing animals for meat.
Yet the FARC have repeatedly said that they admire the man who started the mess in Venezuela, former President and “eternal commander” of the revolution Hugo Chávez. So what will that mean for Colombia if the guerrillas-turned-politicians are able to get any leverage over the country's economic policies?
To try ease some of my sense of unease, I took a look at the voluminous peace accords completed yesterday—ahead of the official signing ceremony next month.
Here's my takeaway:
On the political side, the FARC, has agreed to lay down their weapons for a guaranteed political role that includes —for the next two election cycles—five seats in the 100-member senate and five in Colombia’s 166-member house of representatives. The new FARC party will also be guaranteed 10% of all government funds earmarked for political parties, as well as “equitable access” to media, though it's not clear how that will be enforced.
The government has also agreed to create 12 new congressional districts in remote areas of the country that are most affected by the war and have been historically underrepresented. That may or may not lead to more seats in congress for the FARC and their allies.
In the chapter on rural development, the government has agreed to form a “land fund” of 3 million hectares (an area the size of Belgium) to hand out rural property to landless peasants. Rural poverty, after all, was one of the reasons the FARC movement got started.
According to the peace treaty, the land bank will be created through a combination of purchases and by confiscating unused land. This could ultimately lead to clashes with Colombia's agro-industry, particularly cattle ranchers who own large extensions of fallow land.
The rural development chapter also focuses on more standard issues such as infrastructure, technical assistance for farmers, and a program to guarantee that campesino children go to school. There are no communist concessions in there about collective state-run farms, price controls or ending private property as we know it. (phew)
On the chapter on justice, the accord calls for the creation of a peace tribunal to investigate war crimes and investigate the truth about what happened during the darkest episodes of the war. Former guerrillas and soldiers who do not collaborate with the tribunal could face up to 20 years in prison if they are found guilty of human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, torture, sexual crimes, or recruiting children.
But those who committed those crimes and cooperate with the new transitional justice system will face only 5-8 years of “alternative sentences," where their freedom of movement is restricted but will not serve time in prison.
To many people in Colombia, this sounds like a slap on the wrist for serious crimes. It could be the hardest part of the peace treaty for the country to swallow. Considering that Colombia still has to make peace with a second guerrilla group, the ELN, these generous provisions for war criminals could also create a worrisome precedent for future negotiations.
If the FARC is getting such a lenient deal for war crimes, what will the ELN ask for? If there is no punishment at all for extortion, what will stop the ELN from levying its "taxes" on farmers, or kidnapping people for ransom as it continues its rebellion?
In the end, Colombians will have to approve the peace deal in a national referendum that has been set for Oct. 2. Many people like myself might end up voting to approve the deal but with reservations. Kind of like how some Sanders supporters may end up holding their noses and voting for Clinton in November, because the alternative is even worse.
If Colombians reject the peace deal, it'll open a whole new can of worms. Would it mean the FARC goes back to their war camps, or would both sides quickly huddle and hash out a new deal for the country to vote on? Nobody knows.
For now, many Colombians are celebrating the long-awaited arrival of peace. But I'll be holding my breath until October.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.