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Future of Colombia’s new peace deal with FARC rests with No campaign

People celebrate in Bogota on Saturday after the Colombian government and Marxist FARC sign a revised peace deal.


Colombia's Marxist guerrillas were stunned by the country's rejection of a much-heralded peace accord in a referendum last month, and they returned to the negotiating table feeling their bargaining power was sharply diminished. And when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election last week, leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia knew the window for a deal was likely to close quickly. Those factors combined helped government negotiators swiftly secure a new deal with key concessions from the guerrillas, according to Frank Pearl, a member of the state's negotiating team.

"We've been sitting with FARC for four years, but the country was divided, and we didn't have the muscle that we had after [the referendum] on Oct. 2 – after that, it was Yes and No united negotiating with FARC – so the team used that muscle to secure a better agreement," said Mr. Pearl, a Colombian-Canadian who led the secret contact with the FARC (the abbreviation of the group's name in Spanish) that eventually produced years of negotiations in Havana. "And in the last few days, the fact that the timing was running against FARC, for the first time in four years, also helped."

FARC leaders, like the government and most polls, were confident the Yes side would win the referendum, he said, and the results were a shock. "That wasn't only a government defeat, it was mostly a manifestation of society's rejection of what FARC represents. They got the message loud and clear."

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Read more: Colombian-Canadian crucial to peace deal between Colombia and FARC

Earlier: Colombians narrowly reject peace accord to end 52-year war with FARC rebels

The new, modified deal was signed in Havana between government negotiators and FARC leaders on Nov. 12 – six weeks after an original deal was signed in Colombia at a celebratory ceremony, then rejected six days later by a razor-thin margin in the national plebiscite.

On Monday, the government of Colombia shared the new agreement with the leaders of the alliance that campaigned against the first deal; they will release the full text of the deal to the public this week.

Now Colombians are waiting to see whether the powerful political lobby that led the No side to victory in the referendum on the first deal will let this one survive.

President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombians that the new deal addresses 56 of the 57 separate concerns raised by the No camp. These include:

  • The FARC will shortly provide the government a list of all its assets, and these will be used to fund reconciliation and restitution activities with victims of the 52-year conflict. (The rebels have used narcotrafficking to fund their guerrilla war and are believed to have substantial cash and other assets.)
  • The new agreement delineates more of the terms and the precise boundaries of the small municipalities where FARC leaders will spend the period of “confinement” to which they will be sentenced if they are judged by a special tribunal to have made a full accounting of their crimes. (They will not be jailed, which has been a long-time demand of many victims of the war.)
  • “Political” crimes will be assessed differently from narcotrafficking.
  • The agreement will not be embedded in the constitution (which would make its terms difficult to alter).
  • The FARC will not be entitled to special support or concessions from the state in its new incarnation as a political party.

However, it seems that senior FARC commanders, including those already convicted in absentia of crimes against humanity, will still be able to run for political office even before they have served their full terms of restricted movement. This may prove to be the make-or-break aspect of the new deal.

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The announcement of the second deal was greeted with relief in Colombia – as Mr. Santos noted in an address to the nation on Saturday night, there has been considerable anxiety in the country since the referendum, as people wondered whether a "fragile" ceasefire between the FARC and the military would hold.

Yet there are also many questions: The government's chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, Mr. Pearl and the other negotiators sold their original deal to Colombians with a repeated assurance that, while far from perfect, it was "the best possible deal." Now many Colombians are asking how it is that, just weeks later, they managed to reach a new deal with more concessions from the FARC.

Mark Freeman, executive director of the Institute for Integrated Transitions, which has been involved in the peace negotiations since 2014, said there is reason to view the FARC's urgent desire to conclude negotiations as positive. "The FARC leadership, at a very minimum, if not FARC as a whole, do not want to continue with this armed conflict: their commitment to transforming into an unarmed political movement is undeniable at this point, and they're trying to negotiate that as best they can."

The future of the deal now sits with the No campaign and in particular with former president Alvaro Uribe, who led vocal, hyperbolic opposition to the last deal. There were other opponents, including the evangelical and Catholic churches (who did not like language about gender identity and equality in the accord), – but Mr. Uribe's response is the one that will make or break this deal. The Santos government has been exerting itself to woo and soothe him since the referendum loss; his representatives were taken to Cuba for talks, Mr. Santos went to Mr. Uribe's home to tell him in person that there was a new deal, and Mr. Pearl and others have been pushing meetings to talk through the changes in the pact with his inner circle.

"My personal, very strong view is that the No side has to be held to account in terms of an objective review of what has changed and what hasn't in relation to their demands," said Mr. Freeman, a Canadian based in Barcelona.

With an optimism that now looks like hubris, Mr. Santos took the first deal to a national referendum – even though one was not required. He is unlikely to do the same with this one. He has a majority in Congress and could have this deal approved there, even if the No coalition rejects it. But it would then lack legitimacy and face the possibility of being cancelled with a change in government in 2018, when Mr. Uribe is widely expected to run for president again.

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"This deal is meant to create a permanent peace, and for it to hold over time, the more legitimacy it has or can be imbued with the better is it for Colombia over the long term," Mr. Freeman said. "There are different ways of saying 'no' … a soft no could create a feeling of consensus, and that may be the best we can hope for."

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