War or peace?
Those stark options face Colombians on Sunday as they vote in a referendum that aims to end Latin America's longest guerrilla conflict. They will either approve or reject a peace agreement that would disarm the Marxist rebel group known as the FARC. The conflict began in the 1960s and has killed more than 200,000 people.
The question on the ballot is: "Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and to construct a stable and lasting peace?"
For the referendum to pass, the "yes" votes must outnumber "no" votes. In addition, the "yes" side must garner the support of at least 13 percent of the electorate.
"We have to back the peace accords because we are tired of war," said Jairo Méndez, a farmer, who cast his ballot on the outskirts of Bogotá. "The conflict has hurt everyone: guerrillas, soldiers, farmers, city people. Now is the time to end it."
Should the "yes" vote triumph, the FARC would have six months to gather its 5,800 foot soldiers in special zones around Colombia where they are to turn in their weapons to U.N. inspectors. The FARC has also pledged to get out of the cocaine smuggling business, help the army locate and destroy landmines, and to apologize to its victims. The FARC's long-term goal is to form a left-wing political party.
For its part, the government talks of a peace dividend once the war with the FARC is over. It has pledged to invest huge sums in land reform and to build roads, schools and clinics in the impoverished rural areas that gave rise to the FARC back in the 1960s. It also predicts a boom in foreign investment and tourism.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who signed the peace agreement Monday along with FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, cast his ballot in Bogotá shortly after polls opened this morning. The accord came after nearly four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, and following three failed efforts at peace talks with the FARC dating back to the 1980s. Santos urged Colombians to give peace a chance.
"This is a vote that I hope will change the history of the country," he said. "This will open the path to peace. And peace will lead us to a better future."
However, many Colombians despise the FARC due to the rebel group's involvement in massacres, kidnappings and other human rights abuses. They are also angry over provisions in the accords that would allow rebels accused of war crimes to escape prison if they confess before a special tribunal. In addition, some fear the government intends to raise taxes to pay for its expensive post-conflict development plans.
Should voters reject the peace deal, the government claims to have no Plan B. President Santos has insinuated that a "no" vote would mean a return to war. A cease fire that has been in place for the past year could dissolve while a U.N. team set to monitor the peace accords would be sent home, said Humberto de la Calle, the government's chief negotiator.
But both government and FARC leaders expressed confidence that the "yes" vote will triumph and are already moving forward with some of the provisions in the peace accords aimed at fomenting national reconciliation.
On Friday, FARC commanders traveled to the northern Colombian town of Apartadó where they apologized for a 1994 massacre in which the guerrillas killed 22 people whom they accused of belonging to a rival rebel faction.
"Everyone makes mistakes," FARC commander Iván Márquez told relatives of the victims. "But speaking the truth, pure and simple, can cure wounds of the soul, no matter how deep they are."