Will the Colombia Peace Deal Last?

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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono at a news conference in Havana on August 28. Reuters

The last moments of Latin America's longest war may be remembered as a race to the finish line.

Negotiators from the Colombian government and the country's largest guerrilla force spent nearly four years trudging toward some middle ground in the ideological chasm separating them, only for the climax to take place in a caffeine-fueled, six-day Cuban binge.

Photos show high officials and insurgent commanders mingling closely, draped over chairs and huddled around touch screens as they composed the final words to bury their 52-year feud.

"Today we are handing to the Colombian people the transformative power that we have built over half a century of rebellion," waxed Iván Márquez, lead negotiator of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as he joined in the announcement on August 24 of a final peace agreement to end the guerrilla uprising. The historic news was broadcast on all the country's television and radio stations.

The journey traveled by Márquez and his comrades—from the waspish attacks on global capitalism that marked the start of negotiations in 2012 to the conciliatory glances toward a democratic future—is astonishing.

It has not been a simple path. The FARC signaled its greatest concession to hard legal realities last year when it agreed that its members could be tried for wartime crimes, and if not jailed, at least "deprived of liberty." Nearly two years were spent in contentious arguments to finally achieve that breakthrough.

The announcement of the peace deal has prompted euphoria and high expectations in many quarters. But neither Colombian society at large nor the guerrilla rank and file—some 15,000 in total, including armed combatants and urban militia—have advanced as far toward moderation as their elected or appointed leaders might like.

Behind the closed doors of Havana, the deal slowly sprouted under the guidance of Cuban and Norwegian diplomats, and the pragmatism of highly educated negotiators on both sides: the government's peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, who studied philosophy and philology at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and Márquez, who specialized in law in the former Soviet Union.

Back in Colombia, however, the public remains poorly educated about the contents of the peace agreement, and often misinformed about its many bedeviling details. (The final deal is 297 pages long.)

The majority urban population retains vivid memories of the FARC's kidnappings, coca cultivation and bomb attacks, and the mockery it made of a previous peace process—when it was handed the freedom to roam 42,000 square kilometers of land, but showed zero interest in reaching any compromise.

Colombia's leading political idol remains Álvaro Uribe, the president who waged a frontal, U.S.-backed war on the FARC, and who is now leading the charge against the peace agreement.

A plebiscite on the peace deal is due on October 2, and Uribe is trying to make it a referendum on the government's performance across the board. President Juan Manuel Santos has seen languishing ratings in areas such as crime and economic policy. Uribe, meanwhile, is exploiting public unease by firing off volleys of semi-truths and anti-Communist innuendo from his hyperactive Twitter feed. Some public opinion polls show that the deal could be defeated at the ballot box.

The former president insists that peace should be possible on terms resembling a surrender by the FARC. Uribe has criticized the deal in scathing terms as based on "chavismo"—the left-wing program of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—which "lets narco-terrorists get elected" and hands the guerrillas "total impunity."

But those who know the FARC understand that public rejection of the accord would likely be greeted by a shrug, and maybe the resumption of life in their jungle compounds. British historian Malcolm Deas has captured the irony nicely: "Uribe offers the peace that Colombians want and can't have. Santos offers the peace they don't want, but might have."

Should the deal emerge victorious from the plebiscite, a rather different set of threats arise. The accord with the FARC determines that combatants should gather in 28 cantonment sites for six months, where they will hand over their weapons and learn the art of making a living as civilians.

Not all fighters may like it. A faction of one guerrilla front deep in the Colombian Amazon has already broken ranks, seemingly because of its interests in the cross-border cocaine trade.

Others might follow, or join up to the various criminal groups, or possibly swap to the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's other guerrilla force, which remains combat-ready and is strongest along the Venezuelan frontier.

Some combatants may decide the political grievances that drove them to war—such as Colombia's gross inequalities in land and income, or its traditions of feudal and paramilitary violence—remain unchanged. Close to half the rural population lives in poverty, while over 40 percent of land is in farms of more than 500 hectares.

To address these schisms, a U.N. mission will be on hand in the short term to oversee the disarmament process. But the prevention of the targeted killings of former guerrillas and the promise of a decent law-abiding future for former combatants will depend on the sustained commitment of all Colombian authorities.

The Colombian state now has a window of opportunity to prove to outlying rural communities and former fighters that it is not just a purveyor of violence and neglect.

With the plebiscite, disarmament and the initiation of new rural development, the next six months are critical for the historic peace agreement to actually shape the future. Events on the ground in Colombia will determine whether the Havana conclave was just a photo finish or the start of long-term reforms.

Ivan Briscoe is the Latin America program director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent conflict worldwide. He is based in Bogotá, Colombia.