MEXICO CITY — Colombia’s congress approved a historic peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group on Wednesday night, raising hopes that Latin America’s longest war was finally ending.
The vote came two months after voters narrowly rejected a similar peace accord in a nationwide referendum. But after making changes to the pact, President Juan Manuel Santos decided to get it approved by lawmakers. The war, which started in 1964, has left at least 220,000 dead and drove 7 million people from their homes.
The 130-to-0 decision by the lower house, which came one day after the senate approved the agreement, paves the way for guerrilla fighters to lay down their weapons and enter the political arena. Opponents of the peace deal abstained from voting.
“Gratitude to Congress for its historic support of Colombians’ hope for peace,” Santos tweeted after the vote in the lower house.
In recent weeks, Santos and his team of negotiators scrambled to save the deal, the product of nearly five years of painstaking negotiations with commanders from the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Santos met extensively with opponents who insisted he was giving away too much to rebels guilty of murder, terrorism, kidnapping and drug running.
The government then went back to the bargaining table with the rebels and won new concessions, but the guerrillas would not budge from their insistence that any peace deal allow them to form a political party and run for elected office once they give up their guns.
Many uncertainties remain about the road ahead, and supporters of the peace deal are anxious about how quickly the process might unfold. The government and rebels reached a cease-fire agreement in June, but some analysts said the Santos administration’s unconventional method of winning approval for the pact could force it to spend months on approving implementing legislation, delaying major steps in demobilization of the rebels.
Still, the absence of a dramatic conclusion to the peace process should not detract from the deal’s significance, said Bernard Aronson, a longtime diplomat appointed by President Obama as a special envoy to the Colombian peace process.
“The war has been an open sore for Colombia for five decades,” Aronson said. “Turning the FARC from a violent revolutionary group into a political party is huge for the economy and security of the country. It means Colombia can emerge as a model success story for Latin America.”
Santos, who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 for his efforts to end the war, chose to bypass Colombian voters this time, sending the deal to congress instead, where he enjoys majority support. The revised agreement, a 310-page document, gave Colombia’s justice system more oversight over the deal, offered additional assurances to landowners that private property rights would be respected and re-affirmed the government’s right to use aerial spraying as a technique for eradicating illegal coca.
“This last part of renegotiation was exhausting. It took us to the limit,” Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s peace commissioner and one of the top negotiators, told reporters after the vote. “But now we pass to something more difficult, which is to change the conditions on the ground and benefit our campesinos. And to assure there is safe transit for the FARC and to worry about the security of communities.”
The ultimate goal, he said, was “no more political deaths in Colombia.”
Santos’s decision to pursue a legislative route angered Colombia’s conservatives and raises the possibility that the peace deal will turn into a political football next year when the presidential campaign to replace Santos kicks off. In the 166-member lower house, opponents of the agreement abstained from voting and walked out of the congress in protest.
“We do not support the illegality of ratifying the new accords,” Ciro A. Ramirez, a lower house representative, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
Although the congress ratified the peace accord, it still must pass separate laws in order to implement it and start the process in which the FARC rebels turn in their weapons.
Among those pending measures are a law that would give amnesty for certain political crimes such as a rebelling against the state. Colombia’s normal procedure for approving such laws usually takes many months.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, said the cease-fire could deteriorate during the time it takes to send the measures through the legislative system.
“It's unlikely that FARC’s entire membership would happily sit in their camps, doing nothing while hanging in their hammocks, for that many months of uncertainty,” he said.
To avoid this delay, Colombian authorities hope to “fast-track” the new implementing laws, allowing rebels to begin disarming and moving into U.N. camps in a matter of weeks. However, Colombia’s constitutional court must rule on whether the process can be sped up, because the plebiscite was rejected.
Aronson, the U.S. envoy, noted that on Tuesday, the same day senators in the capital, Bogota, voted to approve the peace deal, a 6-year-old girl was killed by a land mine in the Choco department, one of Colombia’s poorest and most war-ravaged areas. Only Afghanistan has more injuries and deaths from land mines each year.
It was a sobering reminder that Colombia will have a long road ahead, Aronson said. Under the terms of the peace accord, the government has committed to redouble investments in rural infrastructure and the resettlement of families displaced by the fighting. But the new accord also contains assurances to wary Colombian landowners that their property rights will be protected. And it will force the guerrillas to make financial reparations to victims with the money they accumulated from drug profits and kidnapping schemes.
“There’s a huge amount of reconstruction that needs to be done to repair the country and repair victims,” Aronson said. “But if it proceeds as specified, it’ll be a significant transformation of Colombia.”
Miroff reported from Havana. Julia Symmes Cobb in Medellin contributed to this report.