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Colombians See Vote as a Means to Secure Peace, if Not Justice

After 52 years of armed conflict, there are hopes of peace in Colombia.

The first lady had a small dove tattooed on her wrist. University students decorated once-bombed buildings with white balloons as a symbol of peace. People talk of an end to the crushing violence that has long racked this country.

But at the same time, as they prepare for a referendum on Sunday on a peace deal reached by the government and the country's largest rebel group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, many Colombians are also expressing doubt and resentment.

Billboards have been erected bearing the face of the FARC leader, Rodrigo Londoño, who uses the alias Timochenko, warning about the possibility that he could become president. Many of those victimized by the rebels complain that justice was not done. And former presidents have banded together to denounce the deal.

Walter Coronado, 36, a factory worker in Bogotá, the capital, was chased by the rebels from his ranch in Tolima, a province in the center of the country, in 1998. To him, the agreement "is unfair, a vile lie, a blasphemy."

"It's not fair for them not to go to prison without repentance," Mr. Coronado said. "We should negotiate with truth, justice. These murderers should pay."

The peace deal would bring an end to a conflict marked by massacres of civilians by the rebels, paramilitaries and the state. Some 250,000 people died, five million were displaced, and more than 25,000 disappeared.

Despite the bitterness left by that legacy, many Colombians long for peace, and polls indicate that the peace deal will easily win approval this weekend.

Rosa Silva, 70, who sells corn to tourists for feeding the pigeons in the Plaza de Bolívar, the main square in Bogotá, moved here 20 years ago from Achí, a rural town in the coastal province of Bolívar, after the father of her children was kidnapped and murdered. She said she would vote for the agreement, "to stop the killing of innocent people, to put an end to so much violence."

For Colombians, the changes of the past week have been dizzying.

First, the FARC rebels gathered in the Amazonian region for their last national conference as an armed organization. After the usual workshops and outdoor concerts, the rebels ratified the peace deal and promised to lay down their weapons.

Then, on Monday, President Juan Manuel Santos and Mr. Londoño signed the final agreement in Cartagena in the presence of Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, shaking hands in a scene once unthinkable for generations of Colombians. Mr. Londoño acknowledged the FARC's responsibility in the war and asked victims of the conflict for forgiveness.

The peace deal is a road map for the FARC to rejoin Colombian society, outlining a series of reforms aimed at bringing the rebels into the political system, addressing drug trafficking through crop substitution and allowing for reduced prison sentences for rebels who lay down their arms. It would also establish a system of reparations for victims of the conflict.

Humberto de la Calle, the chief negotiator for the government, said the agreement would "recover rural areas, improve our political system and contribute to solving the drug problem," which "is something that should matter to all Colombians."

The disarming of the guerrilla group, which at last count numbered roughly 7,000 rebels, will be verified by the United Nations. After signing the agreement, the FARC has 180 days to deliver all its weapons, which will be melted down into three monuments: one in Cuba, where the agreement was reached; one at United Nations headquarters in New York; and one in Colombia.

The guerrillas will be grouped in "transition" areas throughout the country to begin their adjustment to civilian life. They will be paid about $210 a month for two years, receive about $685 when they leave the transition areas and be entitled to funding of up to $2,750 to start businesses.

The agreement also stipulates that the FARC will create a political party that must participate in the elections of 2018 and 2022, and guarantees to its political organization a minimum of five of the 102 seats in the Senate and five of the 166 in the House of Representatives during those two periods.

The most controversial part of the peace deal is a so-called transitional justice system, which would allow for amnesty and reduced sentences for all but the most serious crimes.

Opposition to the agreement is being led by former President Álvaro Uribe, now a senator, and his political party, Centro Democrático. They want to return to the negotiating table and achieve more concrete commitments from the FARC. Andrés Pastrana, another former president, also opposes the agreement.

Francisco Santos, who served as Mr. Uribe's vice president and is a cousin of President Santos, said the deal would not lead to genuine peace because many rebels would not face prison or provide reparations to their victims, and because Colombian democracy would suffer a blow by giving political space to terrorists.

The agreement, he said, "sends a terrible message to society: Crime does pays off."

Whatever the outcome, the peace deal and referendum are seen as a watershed moment for Colombia.

"You don't choose where you're born. You don't choose who your parents are or which country you have to live in," said Antanas Mockus, a civic culture expert. "But in times of rebirth you can choose: I want to be reborn in a Colombia that respects human rights. I want to be reborn in a Colombia in which nobody uses weapons as a political tool."

The four-year peace process is also seen as important in creating a national identity in Colombia.

Rodrigo Uprimny, a professor at the National University and member of Dejusticia, a legal research institute, said Colombia lacked a national identity because of geography, strong regional identities and the absence of a modern foundational myth.

"We need a myth that is not aggressive but democratic," he said. "And nothing is better than a peace agreement reached not through military triumph but as a result of dialogue and negotiation."

Rafael Pardo, the minister who would be partly responsible for carrying out the agreement, said the deal went far beyond the immediate aims of the FARC and the government.

The peace deal, Mr. Pardo said, aims to close the gap between a modern, urban and liberal Colombia and the other Colombia, which still feels neglected and poorly represented.

"This is the reunification of the country, just like the two Germanys," he said. "We have two Colombias."

Achieving that goal will be a challenge in a country long used to war and disappointment.

"Colombia will never have peace," said Berta Gaitán, 57, who sells sweets in downtown Bogotá. "They kill and steal," she added, referring to the armed groups that have ravaged the country. "What kind of security is this? What peace? I've lost faith."

But Alejandro Franco, 24, a student involved in weekly peace demonstrations, disagreed. The agreement includes topics that should have been discussed "a hundred years ago," he said.

He struggles to understand how people can object to the agreement. "If war is not at the top of the public agenda anymore, that is already historic. Now we can start talking about important things," he said. "I'm really excited."

[Source: By Paula Duran, International New York Times, Bogotá, 01Oct16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 03Oct16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.