Colombia’s Congress passed an amended peace accord with the country’s largest rebel group late Wednesday, nearly two months after voters rejected an earlier version of the deal in a national referendum.
The passage is a victory for President Juan Manuel Santos and signals the end of the continent’s longest-running civil conflict, but opponents who wanted the deal submitted to a national plebiscite are raising objections.
Santos’ negotiators worked out the deal with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, during nearly four years of talks in Havana. But Santos faces challenges in executing and financing terms of the accord now that he has bypassed voters to push it through.
“Tomorrow a new era begins, an era of peace with this adversary we have had for 52 years,” Santos said Wednesday during a graduation ceremony for officers at the nation’s largest military academy.
The House of Representatives voted 130 to 0 to accept the deal a day after the Senate voted unanimously for it. Opposition legislators in the Democratic Center party led by former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of the deal, boycotted the vote in both chambers. Nineteen representatives abstained in the House.
Voters narrowly rejected the original version of the accord in a nationwide plebiscite Oct. 2. Many thought terms of the deal were too generous to the FARC, which has been at war with the state since 1964.
Santos nevertheless was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize days later for his efforts to end the conflict.
After several meetings with Uribe and his allies following the plebiscite, government negotiators returned to Havana and incorporated 50 changes into the deal.
Among the changes were clauses placing greater restrictions on rebels’ movements and requiring the rebels to disclose drug trafficking routes. They must also give inventories of their assets to be used in paying reparations to war victims.
But Uribe and other critics said the accord signed by the government and the FARC on Nov. 24 was still too lenient. Rebels are guaranteed access to congressional seats and will be given minimum house arrest terms for war crimes.
Even with a peace deal finally passed, the path ahead may not be as smooth as Santos and the FARC would like. They await a crucial constitutional court decision, expected in the coming days, on whether Congress can use “fast track” authority in passing 30 or more enabling laws to implement the deal.
If such authority is given, the disarmament process should begin by New Year's and end in four to six months, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
But the court could deny such authority because the revised peace deal was not put to another nationwide vote. In that case, Santos would have two options: hold another plebiscite to obtain the accelerated legislative powers, or submit the enabling laws to the normal legislative process, which could take up to a year and half.
Among the enabling laws to be passed are those needed to set up transitional justice tribunals, restitution procedures and land reform.
At the top of the peace accord’s legislative agenda is an amnesty law that would absolve FARC members of the crime of rebellion. They have said they will not begin moving to 27 specially designated “relocation zones” until such a law is in place to guarantee they won’t be arrested, Isacson said.
A cease-fire has been in effect since July 2015, but observers fear it may not hold if implementation bogs down.
About 300 United Nations monitors are in Colombia and prepared to oversee the relocation of rebels and their disarmament. They will collect and store the rebels’ weapons in locked cargo containers until the accord is fully implemented.
Isacson said passage of the deal could raise the curtain on a new era of peace. Conversely, the political divisions in Colombian society could make it difficult for Santos to get the billions of dollars in funding he needs to implement the deal.
“A perennial worry is whether the Colombian government has the ability to implement this accord, [a concern that is] compounded by the lack of money right now,” Isacson said, referring to recent budget shortfalls caused by the decline in export revenues from coal and oil.
Kraul is a special correspondent.
7:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and context about the amended peace deal.
This article was originally published at 6:15 p.m.