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Colombia's peace accord isn't a done deal yet

'It's going to be very difficult to repair in a few months 50 years of war, 50 years of hatred, 50 years of division, 50 years of atrocities,' Colombian President Santos told reporters in 2012. Photograph: (Getty)

New Delhi, Delhi, India Sep 29, 2016, 06.18 AM (IST)

By Giles Gibson

When I landed in Colombia's high-altitude capital city, Bogota, in March for a reporting trip in South America, the country was buzzing with rumours.

For four years, the Colombian government had been holding exhaustive talks in Havana, Cuba with representatives from Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or the FARC.

On an almost daily basis, rumours would flood social media about a deal finally being signed. Local and foreign journalists flinched every time their phones buzzed.

One tweet from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about an ''important announcement'' sent local media into meltdown. But it was a false alarm. The country continued to hold its breath.

Six months on and with the accord finally sealed, it's difficult to convey how central the war with the FARC is to the country's national identity. If you are Colombian and under 50-years-old, you will never have known your country to be at peace.

And even though this week marks the signing of the peace accord in the colonial city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, the waiting isn't over yet.

Before becoming final, the deal must be ratified by the Colombian people in a referendum vote on 2nd October. While polls indicate the deal will pass easily, the debate goes deep into a central political divide.

Current president Juan Manuel Santos was Defence Minister under former Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe. As minister in charge of the military, Santos was central to Uribe's tough crackdown on FARC rebel strongholds.

But when he took the top job, Santos suddenly changed direction. He immediately started laying the ground for peace talks with the FARC, preaching a message of reconciliation.

Uribe is a towering figure in Colombian politics and he has fought against the peace deal every step of the way.

The October referendum is therefore about Santos versus Uribe as much as it is about peace versus war.

And even its biggest supporter has never been completely confident.

"I'm optimistic but cautious. I think it is going to be much more complicated than we think. It's going to be very difficult to repair in a few months 50 years of war, 50 years of hatred, 50 years of division, 50 years of atrocities," Santos told reporters in 2012.

It's that long history of violence that explains why the country's appetite for revenge could be just as strong as its appetite for peace.

Many Colombians feel let down by the terms of the peace deal. After a conflict that killed a quarter of a million people, some question why the FARC isn't facing total justice.

But others say allowing the guerillas back into society as a legitimate political party is the only way for Colombia to leave guns and conflict behind.

As the referendum looms on 2nd October, there's even more at stake than a 52 year wait for peace.

The credibility of a president, Colombia's national identity and a country's ability to forgive are all on the line.


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