Can Colombia rework its FARC deal without jeopardizing peace?

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Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos acknowledges the applause while addressing people who worked for the peace accord to be approved in the recent referendum, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, at Narino Palace in Bogota, Colombia, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino   - RTSR9BJ

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We go now to the nation of Colombia, where one of the most brutal and long-lasting civil wars in South America appeared to be coming to a peaceful end earlier this month.

But the landmark peace agreement between the government and rebels was narrowly rejected in a nationwide referendum. Now both sides are struggling to pick up the pieces.

Special correspondent Nadja Drost and her producer, Bruno Federico, have this report.

NADJA DROST: It happened barely more than a month ago, but it seems like another age, a moving and hopeful ceremony in the port city of Cartagena to mark what many Colombians never thought possible: the armed insurgency FARC and the government signing off on a peace agreement to end 52 years of war.

In front of hundreds at the shore, a women’s choir sings a goodbye to war and a welcome to peace. They brought their traditional songs of mourning to the ceremony from here, Bojaya, a town reached only by river in the isolated northwest of Colombia, in a church, where they commemorate those who lost their lives in what has become a symbol of the war’s brutality.

on May 2, 2002, hundreds of residents were taking shelter in this church from fighting between paramilitaries and FARC guerrillas, when the guerrillas launched a homemade mortar round. It landed inside the church, killing 79 people, over half of them children.

Later, thousands fled, tearing apart the community. Since then, the church has been rebuilt and maintained in memory of the victims and survivors like Macaria Allin.

MACARIA ALLIN, Bojayá Resident (through translator): I was here with my three children. The cylinder bomb fell over there. This whole area was full of people. Everyone who was around here died, everyone. No one was left alive.

NADJA DROST: The village was eventually abandoned, its residents displaced throughout the region, until it was relocated a mile upstream. Since the massacre, Bojaya has continued to suffer the worst of the conflict, caught in the crossfire of FARC guerrillas fighting the army and paramilitaries, the river and its banks converted into a large cemetery.

Maxima Asprilla is one of the women who sang in Cartagena.

MAXIMA ASPRILLA, Bojayá Resident (through translator): When I was singing — and that’s why we sang with such emotion and effort — the only thing I was thinking was, we want peace.

NADJA DROST: Perhaps because of being so hard-hit by the conflict, Bojaya residents voted overwhelmingly, 95 percent, in support of the peace accords. Now, with the peace deal rejected nationally and mired in uncertainty, many here fear they may have lost their only and long-awaited chance to live in peace.

MACARIA ALLIN (through translator): We feel abandoned, betrayed. We thought they would support us, those who have lived the war. The half-country who voted for no turned their back on us.

NADJA DROST: The peace process, throughout its four years of negotiations, has generated fierce political debate. And the criticism by vocal opponents prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to call the referendum, with the hope that a show of public support could strengthen the deal.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, Colombia: Many people warned me against it, but I said this is something that I believe will be positive for the whole process. The decision backfired because we lost by a very small margin.

NADJA DROST: With only 37 percent of voters bothering to go to the polls, and the no side winning by a mere 53,000 votes out of 13.5 million, there is perhaps no one more consumed with why the deal was rejected than the man who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for its signing.

Why do you think that Colombians voted against the peace accords?

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Of course, there’s been a lot of misinformation, a lot of lack of information. And maybe I’m a bit responsible for not being more effective in this process of telling people what the agreement was all about.

NADJA DROST: The peace accords were defeated by a no campaign led by Santos archrival and former President Alvaro Uribe and his Central Democratic Party. But the campaign has been questioned over the claims it made to voters: that the country would become a socialist state like Venezuela, or that FARC leaders would receive impunity for their crimes.

Rodrigo Uprimny, a constitutional law expert close to the peace talks, says the no campaign even made claims that had nothing to do with the peace accord.

RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Legal Expert: They say to them, these peace accords are going to destroy your family because this peace accord is in favor of homosexuality, which quite clearly is not true.

NADJA DROST: Ivan Zuluaga, the Central Democratic Party’s director and a former presidential candidate who lost to Santos in the last election, says the no vote’s victory sends a clear mandate to overhaul the agreements.

IVAN ZULUAGA, “No” Campaign: They have to recognize that Colombians vote for it, so they have to accept not only the government, but even the FARC deep changes, fundamental changes.

NADJA DROST: FARC leaders have said they are open to making some changes, but warn it will be difficult change the agreement’s core.

We traveled via river from Bojaya to visit a FARC unit. Mid-level commanders known as Pablo Atrato and Natalie Mistral, a French citizen, led us to a camp where their troops, like thousands of others spread out amongst jungle enclaves, are waiting amid the uncertainty.

Both Mistral and Atrato were at negotiations in Havana.

PABLO ATRATO, FARC Commander (through translator): After years of negotiations, to resolve all this in two or three months, I don’t think it’s possible.

NADJA DROST: The peace accords will grant immunity to much of the FARC’s rank-and-file, but those accused of crimes against humanity will receive alternative sentences in exchange for confessing the truth, not jail, but restrictions on their liberty.

But many in the opposition say that is unacceptable.

IVAN ZULUAGA: They have to go to jail five years. If they are in jail, they are not able to be eligible politically. And, instead of that, the treatment says, and the agreement with the FARC says, that they aren’t going to jail and they can be eligible for any major president or congress, for example.

RODRIGO UPRIMNY: But that’s — that’s the deal. If you want an armed political — an armed political actor like the FARC to become a peaceful political actor, then you can not block them to make politics. That’s the crucial issue in a peace accord.

NATALIE MISTRAL, FARC (through translator): I’m not willing to spend time in jail, and I’m not willing to let my superiors go to jail either. To serve jail time would nullify us politically. It’s unacceptable within a peace negotiation.

NADJA DROST: While Santos has said his government is trying to satisfy the no side, he has made clear there will be disagreement on issues in reaching a new agreement.

But Santos’ government and the FARC face an enormous challenge: making sufficient changes to the peace agreement to gain broader support of the public, without making the tectonic-shifting changes that could break it down.

PABLO ATRATO (through translator): The risks are that this gets drawn out and we end up again in a spiral of war. I think that’s how it could end up, if we’re not capable in the next two or three months to find a way out of this.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: I am absolutely determined not to allow the country to go back to war with FARC. The FARC doesn’t want it. We don’t want it. And we’re trying to find the best and the most rapid path to get out of this situation, and that’s to have a new agreement as soon as possible.

NADJA DROST: Santos told us he hopes to get a new peace deal by the end of the year. But delay could jeopardize the current cease-fire.

Bojaya residents like Maxima Asprilla are finally feeling peace in their town, and have seen changes among the FARC.

MAXIMA ASPRILLA (through translator): After having signed the cease-fire, they got into a different mode and the tension went down.

NADJA DROST: In fact, the FARC even apologized to the community last year.

MAN (through translator): We ask you to forgive us.

NADJA DROST: After so many years of singing lamentations for their dead, these women hope to have a reason to compose a song in celebration of life, and the peace they so badly want.

“We Colombians,” they sing, “ask that war not repeat.”

But whether Bojaya’s plea for peace is answered is far from certain.

From Bojaya, Colombia, reporting with Bruno Federico, I’m Nadja Drost for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can see more of Nadja’s interview with the Colombian president on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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