The western hemisphere’s longest running conflict formally ended on Monday with the signing of a peace deal between Colombia’s government and Marxist rebels that President Juan Manuel Santos hailed as a ray of hope in a “world full of strife”.
An audience of more 2,000 people, dressed in white to symbolise peace, hugged and cheered “no more war” as Mr Santos and his arch-adversary Rodrigo Londoño, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, shook hands and agreed to end a 52-year conflict that has left more than 250,000 people dead and 7m displaced. Mr Londoño’s Farc, Latin America’s largest Marxist group, will now become a political party.
Ban Ki-moon, one of a dozen invited foreign dignitaries that also included US secretary of state John Kerry and Cuban President Raúl Castro, said: “Today Colombia is saying good bye to decades of violence and sending a bright flair of hope to the rest of the world.”
The EU on Monday removed Farc from its list of terrorist organisations, in a show of support for the peace deal. The US says it is reviewing Farc’s terrorist status and has pledged almost $400m to support the peace deal.
The peace agreement must first be ratified on Sunday in a polarising national referendum. The most recent Gallup survey suggests two-thirds of Colombians support the peace process but private polls show a tighter race.
Mr Londoño, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, won an unexpected ovation after he opened his speech with the simply stated message: “From now on our only weapons will be words.” He then meandered through Colombian history and Marxist discourse for 20 minutes in his first nationwide address as a civilian politician.
But the 57-year-old ended with a long-demanded apology for the atrocities Farc has committed since it formed in 1964. “In the name of the Farc, I offer a sincere apology to all the victims.”
One of those victims, Clara Rojas, a Colombian politician who was kidnapped and held by Farc for six years, told the FT: “It’s very emotional to hear both sides say there will be no more deaths … I loved it when he asked for forgiveness.”
A visibly moved Mr Santos told his counterpart: “Changing bullets for ballots, weapons for ideas is the bravest decision … I will defend with all my determination your right to express your ideas in a democratic regime because that is the essence of freedom within the rule of law.”
There was a moment of dark humour when three jet fighters roared overhead, scaring much of the audience, who crouched reflexively in their seats. Showing early skill as a politician, Mr Londoño said: “I am sure they did that this time as a salute to peace and not to drop bombs.”
Mr Santos quickly reassured him that was the case, and then invoked the words of Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian writer, by saying the peace accord “was Colombia’s second chance of earth” — a fate famously denied to the characters in the closing words of the Nobel laureate’s best-known novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.