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Colombia’s president scrambles to save peace accord with FARC rebels

A supporter of the peace deal signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, wave a flag during a rally in front of Congress, in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (Fernando Vergara / Associated Press)
By Nick Miroff Washington Post

BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombia’s president tried Monday to keep alive an agreement to end Latin America’s longest-running war after a shocking rejection by voters, but his opponents made clear their price for joining the effort will be steep.

President Juan Manuel Santos invited Colombia’s political parties to an emergency meeting Monday and asked them to form a big-tent coalition to rework the deal and make it more appealing to the voters who spurned it in Sunday’s referendum by a narrow margin.

Santos told Colombians that a month-old bilateral cease-fire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would remain in effect. He ordered his negotiating team to return to Cuba, where the peace talks were held, to resume contacts with FARC leaders.

But despite Santos’s rescue attempts, the peace process was thrown into the lurch. Former president and senator Álvaro Uribe, who led the campaign against the accord, did not even attend the emergency meeting, nor did the leaders of his party.

The path forward was further muddled by a statement Monday from FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño – known as Timochenko – claiming that the peace accord is legally binding because it was signed by Santos. But that was not the Santos government’s interpretation when it insisted on a voter referendum.

With the deal at risk of collapse, a half-century war that has killed more than 220,000 could easily flare up again, a scenario that seemed unimaginable before Sunday.

The possibility of peace in Colombia – a key U.S. ally in South America, and the continent’s third-largest economy – now comes down to two critical questions. How much are the guerrillas willing to give up for an rewritten accord? And how badly do Colombia’s polarized political parties want to work together to end the war?

It may be impossible to produce a viable 2.0 version of the agreement unless the Santos government can get Uribe and his supporters behind it. Uribe’s party issued a statement saying it remained willing to discuss the formation of a “national pact.” But Uribe, the son of a cattle rancher who was killed by the FARC, is the guerrillas’ longtime archenemy.

He may offer a form of amnesty to the rank-and-file troops of FARC’s nearly 5,800 fighters, but he will almost certainly insist on a peace deal with far tougher terms for FARC commanders, who have maintained they are not willing to go to prison.

Rebel leader Timochenko said Monday that the FARC remains committed to ending the war. But he now faces a major test of leadership.

He and other commanders could reject Uribe’s terms, and they would have few logistical obstacles to ramping up the war again. The majority of their guerrilla units remain in their jungle hideouts. They have their weapons and their traditional sources of revenue, with Colombia’s illegal coca output booming.

But a return to combat may be a huge psychological challenge for ordinary rebel fighters, who have been preparing for the transition to civilian life and reuniting with their families. Many are exhausted or maimed by the war, and while the FARC’s commanders are safe and comfortable in Cuba, ordinary fighters may be less willing to grind out a new battle of attrition.

On the government side, the question is how much Uribe is willing to help fashion a new offer to the rebels. The opposition leader may be in no mood to offer Santos a political bailout, especially since their parties begin to maneuver ahead of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election.

Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the “best case scenario” for the peace accord would be for the rivals to reach a consensus on a path forward with a new timetable for negotiations.

“In the worst case, the parties can’t agree, and without that clarity, the existing cease-fire is unlikely to hold,” said Isacson, who was in Bogota.

Uribe wants to scrap the “transitional justice” element of the deal that would have allowed FARC leaders to avoid prison if they fully confessed their crimes and made reparations to victims. He has likened this to “total impunity” for rebel commanders whose tactics included bombings, kidnappings, murders, drug trafficking and the forced recruitment of minors.

Uribe has also opposed provisions in the accord that would have granted the FARC 10 seats in Colombia’s Congress through 2026, and he signaled that the agreement’s commitments on new investments in rural development - the thing the rebels were most proud of - are unaffordable.

Sunday’s results were a gut-punch to the Santos government and the peace deal’s supporters. Like the British citizens who chose to break with Europe in the Brexit vote, a majority of Colombians opted for uncertainty over the assurances of their leaders, panning the heavily promoted accord Santos had signed with FARC leaders in a lofty ceremony less than a week earlier.

The government’s agreement with the FARC had taken nearly six years to negotiate and won winning the support of the United States, the United Nations and Pope Francis. Ringo Starr even recorded a song for it.

It didn’t matter.

“If Colombians were dinosaurs, we would vote for the meteorite,” read one meme circulating on social media among crestfallen supporters of the peace deal, unable Monday to fathom why their compatriots hadn’t gone along with what seemed to them to be an obvious, rational choice.

But this country’s half-century conflict is an unconventional one, a Cold War fight stumbling through the 21st century in a haze of drugs, land disputes and the quirks of Colombian politics. That a modernizing, middle-income nation of 50 million would still have thousands of heavily armed guerrillas living in the jungles and fighting for Marxist-Leninist revolution in 2016 says more about the fragmentation of Colombia’s geography and culture of political violence than it does about ideology.

“Every Colombian wants peace,” the cliché here goes.

But most Colombians have been living with this war all their lives, and Sunday they showed they are willing to risk a little more belligerence to achieve a more satisfying way to end it.

Santos’s attempt to negotiate an armistice was the fourth try at a negotiated peace deal, and no other has come nearly as far. But it was also his idea to hold a final referendum on the accord, to fortify it with a democratic mandate.

He framed the choice as a matter of war or peace, life or death, all or nothing. The majority of Colombian voters didn’t see it that way. In fact, 62 percent of them didn’t even show up to cast ballots Sunday.

“About 70 to 75 percent of Colombians live in urban areas, and for people in cities the conflict is not one of their main life concerns. It’s just something they see on TV,” said WOLA’s Isacson, noting that the battles are generally in rural areas. “For them, it wasn’t worth going out in the rain and voting on.”