BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's president said Wednesday that government negotiators and leftist rebels are putting the final touches on an important peace deal that they hope to announce in the coming hours.
"Today I hope to give historic, very important news to the country," President Juan Manuel Santos said at an education event Wednesday.
Earlier government negotiators told local news media that all major obstacles to a deal have been cleared up in around-the-clock sessions taking place in Cuba for the past week. But some representatives for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are cautioning on social media that some details remain to be worked out.
Speculation that a deal was around the corner went into overdrive after the government published a photo Tuesday night of negotiators in a circle and smiling under a headline reading: "The day is coming. We're on the road to peace."
Once negotiations conclude, the accord must still be ratified by voters in a plebiscite. But just the wrapping up of talks opens the possibility for future generations of Colombians to put behind them more than 50 years of political bloodshed that has claimed more than 220,000 victims and driven more than 5 million people from their homes.
The accord would commit Colombia's government to carrying out aggressive land reform, an overhaul of its anti-narcotics strategy and an expansion of political protections for leftist activists and traditionally marginalized groups.
Negotiations began in November 2012 and were plagued by distrust built up during decades of dehumanizing war propaganda on both sides. Polls show most Colombians loathe the FARC and show no hesitation labeling them "narco-terrorists" for their heavy involvement in Colombia's cocaine trade, an association for which members of the group's top leadership have been indicted in the U.S. Meanwhile the FARC held on to a Cold War view of Colombia's political and economic establishment as "oligarchs" at the service of the U.S.
The rebel army was forced to the negotiating table after a decade of heavy battlefield losses that saw a succession of top rebel commanders taken out at the hands of the U.S.-backed military and its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.
But overcoming the lingering mutual acrimony took longer than expected and led to a number of near- collapses during the talks. President Juan Manuel Santos, an unlikely peacemaker given his role as architect of the military offensive, throughout maintained a steady pulse even as he was labeled a traitor by his former conservative allies and suffered a plunge in approval ratings. Last September, he traveled to Havana to announce a breakthrough alongside top rebel commander Rodrigo Londono.
That advance, the most-contentious of the process, laid out a framework for investigating atrocities, punishing guerrillas for their involvement in those abuses and offering compensation to victims.
But in a move harshly criticized by conservative opponents of Santos and some human rights groups, guerrillas who confess their crimes won't spend any time in prison and will instead be allowed to serve out reduced sentences of no more than eight years helping rebuild communities hit hard by the conflict.
Another toad to swallow, as Santos calls the concessions he's had to make, is the sight of former rebel leaders occupying seats in congress specially reserved for the FARC's still unnamed political movement. The exact number was among the last details being hammered out in marathon 18-hour sessions taking place in recent days.
"We haven't slept but it was worth the effort," Sen. Roy Barreras, among political reinforcements sent in by Santos to work on the deal, told Caracol Radio from Havana.
A peace deal is unlikely to lead to any immediate security improvement in Colombia's long-abandoned and lawless countryside.
There's also concern that as the rebels integrate into Colombian society, well-organized criminal gangs will fill the void and fight among themselves for control of the lucrative cocaine trade that kept the FARC well-armed much longer than other Latin American insurgencies. While Colombia's homicide rate has fallen sharply over the years, it remains among the world's deadliest countries, with violence driven largely by its status as the world's top supplier of cocaine. The much-smaller National Liberation Army will also remain active although it's pursuing a peace deal of its own.