Ten analyses to guide reflection on a tumultuous week

Today marks a week since Colombians’ narrow “No” vote in a national plebiscite plunged into uncertainty a peace accord with the FARC guerrillas that took four years to negotiate. A week marked by guerrillas pulling back to jungle safe zones, a newly ascendant Ex-President Álvaro Uribe meeting with his nemesis, President Juan Manuel Santos, for the first time in more than five years, and finally with Santos winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

A week like that doesn’t lend itself to calm reflection. But today is Sunday, most of us don’t have to work, and it’s a good time to step back, seek some solitude, and think a bit more deeply about how this crisis can be overcome without loss of life, and without throwing away all that has been gained since 2012.

A mountain of analysis has been produced over the past seven days. Of the portion that I’ve seen, here are ten that I think would be most useful in guiding that reflection. Most are in Spanish, but Google Translate should give the gist.

—Adam Isacson

  • Explicar el fracaso (“Explaining the failure”), Héctor Abad Faciolince, El País (Spain)

“In Colombia, as in the whole world, the democratic struggle plays out between an old and tired political class (somewhat reasonable, as corrupt as always, and discredited by decades of ferocious criticism from us, the ‘intellectuals’) against another political class that is less reasonable, more corrupt than what is traditional, but charged up with populist slogans and foolishness. Populism, the vulgar demagogy, has triumphed around the world. Berlusconi was the prologue, because Italians are the magicians of ‘trending topics’ and invent everything first. Later came Chávez, Putin, Uribe, Ortega. Will Trump and Le Pen come next? Perhaps. They are all perfect demagogues, kleptocrats who denounce the old kleptocracy. The people prefer to vote for them in the name of ‘change.’ A leap into the unknown? Yes. A leap into the unknown is preferable to the boredom of reasonableness. Reasonableness doesn’t provide votes: it produces yawns. And what the voters fear most is to be bored.”

“The forces that oppose a liberal modernization have won again this time, with the plebiscite. What has been defeated isn’t a model of justice, but a bet on building a true nation through politics, as the great democracies of the world have done, instead of doing so through war, as many nations have done under fascist or communist models. This bet has been thrown in the garbage can by the majority.… So our future could possibly be a peace accord that arrives late, surely irrelevant, that manages to end the war but not to build a stable and lasting peace.”

“The realization of this social and political pact for peace and its implementation can be achieved via different legal channels, compatible with the constitution and the already signed accord. Without trying to be exhaustive, it is possible to mention the following, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages, which we must evaluate: i) an extra-juridical pact that has no legal value but that would be implemented through ordinary legal channels; ii) an adjustment to the accord that could be submitted to a new plebiscite, which is possible because it would be a new accord, and would be backed by the social and political agreement, which would guarantee its triumph and allow the setting in motion of the special implementation mechanisms…; iii) a constitutional convention of limited scope and mixed tasks: to debate and incorporate, without possibility of modification, the consensus topics in the Havana accord (a sort of constitutional fast track), and to discuss the topics of disagreement. I prefer the second option…”

“So far, all declarations have been politically correct and a way forward appears to have opened up. The government would listen to the proposals to modify the accord formulated by those who received majority support at the polls, and later it would bring them to the table in Havana to negotiate the changes. However, the reality is very different and the panorama is darker. For this option to be successful, the proposals from uribismo would need to be moderate, the FARC would need to be willing to renegotiate, and the President would need to adjust the aspirations of one side and the other. And the truth is that none of these three conditions appears to be being met.”

“Which of these scenarios will take shape? Four factors are going to influence heavily the way things turn out. They are the armed forces, citizen mobilization, the international community, especially the United States, and the ELN.”

“In Uribe’s deployment of social media, in his reactionary populism, and in the angry slogans and feelings on display at his noisy rallies, there are uncanny parallels to Donald Trump—and, for that matter, to the anti-E.U., anti-immigrant demonstrations that were held across United Kingdom in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, last June. And, as with Brexit, the No campaign had no realistic alternative at the ready—no better peace deal.”

“I see three possible paths: he [Álvaro Uribe] can dedicate himself to delaying and slowing this process as he has been doing, until he arrives—through a figurehead—back in the presidential palace; he can keep his word and not move one iota, obligating all of us to return to war; or he could take this third option which is what I want to suggest to him: change a couple of things in the accord, approve what you can, and appear in the photo as the great redeemer who saved us from castro-chavismo. Today, Senator Uribe, another lie from you is the only thing that can save us.”

  • Así es el país que votó No (“This is the nation that voted No”), Juan Esteban Lewin, Daniel Morelo, Daniela Garzón, Camilo A. Quiroga G., La Silla Vacía

A series of interactive maps, including this one:

“Here, as always, the people aren’t called to build peace, but to approve the peace that the experts design far away from the village and the barrio. Who told Santos that the solemn signing of a peace accord in a tattered country should happen in a VIP ceremony designed only for the international grandstand, in the most elitist city in the country, leaving aside not just the humble people of that same city, but even the national media?”

  • Mentiras (“Lies”), Juan Gabriel Vásquez, El Espectador

“It’s evident: what went on here was a conspiracy in full force, and its objective was to fool the people. Nothing will happen, of course, because those who fooled so many are now—thanks to the same deceit—part of the negotiation, and they now have the power conceded to them by the superstition and the credulity of millions of Colombians. But one day we will have to undergo a test of conscience and define whether the fact that so many uribistas are in jail or fugitives from justice is a persecution, as they monotonously allege, or the natural result of Ex-President Uribe surrounding himself so often with people whose sense of decency is—to say it gently—turned down to a low volume.”

A Post-“No” Recovery Requires Quick Action and Realism About What is Achievable

“The horrible night has ceased,” a tearful Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on September 26, quoting a line from his country’s national anthem. He was speaking before an audience of world leaders—the UN Secretary General, several Latin American presidents, the U.S. Secretary of State—at a joyful ceremony in the Caribbean port of Cartagena, where he and leaders of the FARC guerrilla group signed an accord to end a 52-year-old war.

A week later, it looks like the “horrible night” will go on for at least a bit longer. By a razor-thin margin, Colombians voted October 2 to reject the peace accord. The result confounded pollsters’ predictions and leaves the South American country wondering what comes next.

That is impossible to predict: during the plebiscite campaign, the government made clear that it had no “Plan B” if the accord was rejected. President Santos’s brief concession speech the evening of October 2 made clear that no plan exists.

A return to war is not inevitable. The FARC’s leadership says it will continue to seek peace. The leading proponents of the “no” vote, especially former President Álvaro Uribe, say they want dialogue with the Santos government on a “better” accord. Still, in the new post-plebiscite reality, those who seek war are more likely to get it.

In the best-case scenario, the parties will agree quickly on a new agenda, taking into account the concerns of Colombia’s political right, with a clear timetable. They will move determinedly in a process that revises the accords in a matter of weeks.

A Sobering List of Consequences

If this does not happen, however—in even a “medium-case” scenario in which the negotiations don’t collapse but suffer delays or a sense of drift—Colombia faces a grim list of negative outcomes.

  • The FARC is not going to spend this week concentrating its forces into 26 zones around the country to start an agreed-upon 6-month, UN-verified disarmament process. This plan was just getting underway, with the FARC declaring its troop strength, its weapons stockpiles, and its assets. However, with the accord laying out that procedure now invalidated, the disarmament timetable is frozen.
  • Even if the FARC wishes to undergo this process anyway, it cannot do so, as its members are all technically fugitives. A ceasefire between the government and the FARC, which is still in force, suspends arrest warrants for guerrillas. However, it can be lifted at any time, so the FARC’s members do not have legal guarantees.
  • Without verification or concentration, and without a clear direction for the talks’ future, the ceasefire—which has reduced armed conflict-related violence to mid-1960s levels— may become unstable, especially if efforts to arrive at a new accord drag on.
  • The UN, following two Security Council resolutions, has set up a monitoring and verification mechanism, with over 200 international observers ready to begin work immediately. Now, with no accord to implement, the UN mission’s present role and immediate future are unclear.
  • Peace talks with the smaller ELN guerrilla group, which were already adrift, are not likely to see a formal start in the near future. The Colombian electorate’s delegitimization of the FARC agreement strengthens hardliners within the ELN leadership who are wary of peace talks.
  • A prolonged state of “limbo” may cause a deterioration of FARC command and control over guerrillas in the field. Even if commanders in Havana remain committed to renegotiating, the number of fighters whom they can “deliver” for demobilization may drop as time passes. Fighters who would have demobilized may begin carrying out hostilities on their own, or forming or joining new criminal groups.
  • Efforts to implement a new strategy for reducing coca cultivation, as foreseen in the accord, will be delayed, while coca planting continues expanding rapidly around the country.
  • The White House’s proposed “Peace Colombia” aid package may suffer a deep cut. It was approved by both houses of Congress, but the 2017 foreign assistance budget law has not yet been reconciled, and may be rewritten after the U.S. presidential elections. The lack of a peace accord to implement may cause the US$450 million appropriation for Colombia to fall back to its 2016 level of about US$320 million. Meanwhile, other international donors may similarly redirect foreign aid funds to urgent needs elsewhere in the world, such as the Syrian refugee crisis.

A Shift to Surrender Negotiations?

Did Colombian voters know about these risks before they voted “no” (or in the case of 63 percent of voters, failed to vote at all) on October 2? Some did: a minority believe that the solution lies on the battlefield, and that the negotiations were premature. But many others believed that their “no” vote was a vote for a better peace accord.

Opponents said that voting “no” would force the government and guerrillas to renegotiate a pact with stronger punishments for guerrillas and soldiers guilty of war crimes. If such talks proceed in Havana, they will push for prison time for FARC leaders (perhaps similar to the five to eight years given to paramilitary leaders after they demobilized in 2006), rather than the nebulous “restriction of liberty” punishment laid out in the accords.

Opponents of the peace accord will also push to rescind the government’s concession of 10 automatic congressional seats (5 in the 102-person Senate and 5 in the 166-person House) for FARC members between 2018 and 2026. They also wish to reduce the ambitious scope of promised investments in rural development programs, which Ex-President Uribe insists Colombia can’t afford.

A renegotiation that waters down these government concessions would result in an accord that looks more like terms of surrender. This is only possible if Colombia’s government is in a position to demand surrender. That is far from clear. For Colombians in urban areas, who have not strongly felt the conflict’s impact in years, perhaps a surrender negotiation seems like the way to go. But consider:

  • In the 12 years between Plan Colombia’s 2000 launch and the peace talks’ 2012 inauguration, the conflict killed nearly 25,000 Colombians in combat, plus a similar number of civilians. The result was a two-thirds weakening of the FARC, from about 20,000 to about 6,000-7,000 members.
  • Would it take a similar effort to weaken the FARC by another two-thirds, which would render them about as strong as the smaller ELN group is today? (Recall that peace talks with the ELN still haven’t started.)
  • Even with this correlation of forces, it took negotiators four long, uninterrupted, intense years of formal talks to achieve the accord that was rejected yesterday. Of those four years, nineteen months were spent negotiating the part of the accord that deals with war crimes.

These are not characteristics of surrender negotiations. The FARC has no chance of taking power on the battlefield. But it still has wealth and the capacity to carry out hostilities in many regions throughout Colombia. A renegotiation on tougher terms is not a certainty. (Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, who tendered his resignation the morning of October 3, seems to recognize this.)

Needed Now: Clarity and Momentum

The way forward is not clear. But it needs to become clear soon. A situation of drift and crisis is unsustainable, and could lead to an outcome that the vast majority of Colombians do not want: either a collapse of the talks and a return to war, or a disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.

As soon as possible, renewed talks need an agenda, possibly a timetable, and a sense of what is achievable.

The international community and the United States have a very important role to play. The administration and Congress must send clear signals that they continue to support President Santos’s negotiation effort, and that they desire a quick resumption of talks with a new and achievable agenda. It is at crucial moments like these that the flexible, supportive role of Special Envoy Bernie Aronson is most important. To the extent that diplomatic efforts can help get things back on track, Washington should spare none.

A Day To Celebrate–And Many Days of Work Ahead

WOLA looks forward to witnessing the historic ceremony, scheduled for 6:00PM Eastern time in Cartagena, Colombia, at which Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group will sign a peace accord to end a bloody armed conflict that began in 1964.

This is an occasion to celebrate. It is a time to thank all who made it possible: both sides’ negotiating teams, who worked doggedly for four years; President Juan Manuel Santos, who took the initiative to open a dialogue; Norway and Cuba, the two guarantor countries; Venezuela and Chile, the two accompanying countries; U.S. Special Envoy Bernie Aronson; E.U. Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore; German Special Envoy Tom Koenigs; the UN presence in Colombia, the International Committee of the Red Cross; the civil society and victims’ organizations who worked to improve the accord’s content; and the many Colombian and international experts who gave their time to advise the dialogues.

This is also an occasion to pause and reflect, to honor the armed conflict’s millions of victims. In the coming years, we hope and expect that Colombia will fulfill the accord’s commitments in a way that fully and consistently restores and upholds their dignity and holds the victimizers accountable.

The coming months and years won’t be easy. Colombia’s to-do list is long and multi-faceted. Combatants must be disarmed and reintegrated. Tens of thousands of landmines must be cleared. A complex and credible transitional justice system must be set up. Ex-combatants must be physically protected, as should human rights defenders and civil-society leaders. And most challenging of all, Colombia must quickly bring real governance to vast areas where armed groups have long reigned, and where illicit economies continue to thrive.

The peace accord being signed today offers a blueprint for achieving all of this, and for launching Colombia into a new and more prosperous phase of its history. But now comes the difficult work of turning that blueprint into a solidly constructed house, one in which all Colombians can live. This will be expensive, will yield slow results, and will meet some powerful opposition. But making the accords’ commitments into reality is the right thing to do.

For that reason, WOLA hopes that the Colombian people will vote “yes” to approve the accords in the plebiscite scheduled for October 2. And we look forward to monitoring closely Colombia’s effort to comply with its peace accord commitments, as well as the U.S. government’s contributions to that effort.

Excerpts From the August 24 Announcement of a Final Peace Accord Between the Colombian Government and the FARC

The Joint Communiqué

The end of the conflict will mean the opening of a new chapter of our history. It means beginning a transition phase that may contribute to a greater integration of our territories, a greater social inclusion—especially of those who have lived at the margins of our development and have suffered the conflict—and strengthening our democracy so that it may be deployed in all of the national territory, and that it may assure that social conflicts are mediated through institutions, with full security guarantees for those who participate in politics.

Statement of chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle

Surely the accord we’ve achieved isn’t a perfect accord. But with the same honesty and frankness with which we’ve informed public opinion, now I want to make clear that I have the certainty that it is the best possible accord. We all probably would have wanted something more. We here at the table would have wanted something more. But the accord achieved here is the viable accord, the best possible accord.

Many Colombians would want punishment for the FARC. But also, with the same fervor, we would have to ask the same punishment for all responsible. State agents who deviated from their mission, and third parties who financed serious crimes and massacres. The violence of the other cannot justify one’s own violence. With the application of transitional justice, and with the launching of mechanisms for truth and reparations, what is sought is that this society may understand that there is no such thing as “good violence.” That the only legitimate reaction against crime is the democratic power of the state. That straying beyond this path brings the unleashing of violence that feeds on itself and perpetuates the confrontation. Non-repetition is something that we demand of the FARC with firmness. But this should also be a great national commitment. Nobody in the future should encourage forms of the poorly named “private justice.”

In the regular justice system, punishment plays a dissuasive role. The sanctions foreseen in the accord have, instead, a great restorative content. …Many victims wish to heal their wounds, know the truth, and see those responsible admit their guilt. The sanctions contemplated in the Special Justice system fulfill this purpose. It is a case without precedent that, in the middle of a conflict in real time, the antagonists could achieve an accord to punish the most serious crimes.

I thank those who have expressed reservations and criticisms. This is a legitimate exercise. It has also been useful for us at the table. They are not enemies of peace. The enemies of peace are those who have filled social networks with fallacies and myths.

Statement of chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez

Regrettably, in all wars, but especially in those of long duration, errors are committed and the population is involuntarily affected. With the signing of the peace accord, which implicitly brings the commitment of non-repetition, we hope to dispel, definitively, the risk that weapons may again be used against citizens.

To the government of the United States that for so long supported the state’s war against the guerrillas and against social inconformity, we ask that it keep supporting, in a transparent way, Colombian efforts to re-establish peace, always expecting from Washington humanitarian gestures that coincide with the kindness that characterizes the majority of the American people, friends of concord and solidarity. We continue to await Simón Trinidad.

We hope that the ELN may find its own path, so that the peace that we long for may be completed fully, and in so doing involving all Colombians.

President Juan Manuel Santos

Mothers should not bury their children.

Our children, our campesinos, our soldiers, should not keep suffering the mutilations of antipersonnel mines.

We don’t want more young people as cannon fodder in an absurd and painful war.

We Colombians have the right to recover hope in a better future.

With this accord we will stop being viewed as a dangerous country, and more investment, more tourism, and more employment will come.

With this accord I leave in your hands the opportunity to end the war with the FARC.

The former members of the FARC—now without weapons—may gain access to the nation’s political life, in democracy. They must, just like any partisan organization, convince citizens through proposals and arguments in order to be elected.

Until 2018 they will have some spokespeople in the Congress, with voice but without a vote, to discuss only issues related to the implementation of the accords.

Starting at that moment, they will participate in elections with a minimum representation assured for two congressional terms, if they do not achieve the minimum necessary vote.

Colombia’s 52-Year-Old Conflict with the FARC Comes to an End

Negotiators from the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group are to make a historic announcement on the evening of Wednesday, August 24. After 54 months of exploratory and formal negotiations in Havana, Cuba, they have reached an agreement to end an armed conflict that began in 1964.

Both sides’ negotiators posed for a photo last night.

That conflict has killed over 220,000 Colombians, more than 80 percent of them non-combatants. The 7,000-member FARC, the largest leftist insurgency during that period, is responsible for roughly one-fifth to one-third of these killings. (Colombia’s security forces and pro-government paramilitary groups committed most of the rest.) The FARC carried out the majority of kidnappings, use of anti-personnel mines, attacks on population centers, and attacks on infrastructure, and a significant share of forced displacement, recruitment of minors, and sexual violence. It has supported itself financially through extortion and an ever deeper involvement in cocaine production.

Once this accord is implemented, for the first time in most Colombians’ lives, much of this activity will end, and Latin America’s third most-populous country will no longer face an armed group capable of generating violence on a national scale. Though regional challenges will persist, this peace accord is worthy of worldwide celebration.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization that has been closely following Colombia’s peace process since its inception congratulates both sides’ negotiators for four years of hard, disciplined work, with more than 50 rounds of formal talks. We congratulate Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for taking the audacious and politically risky step of launching the talks in 2012. We congratulate Colombia’s military for respecting civilian leaders’ decision to negotiate and for contributing constructively to the dialogues’ latter phases. We thank the “guarantor” countries, Cuba and Norway, and the “accompanying” countries, Chile and Venezuela, for their logistical support to the talks and for helping to keep the dialogues on track at their most difficult moments. We thank the special envoys sent by the governments of the United States, Germany, and the European Union, who played creative roles and contributed ideas.

The agreement to be revealed today is hundreds of pages long (it is not public yet, but earlier drafts in Spanish are here). It will include commitments on five substantive agenda points.

  • Colombia’s government has committed to making substantive investments in the rural small-landowner economy.
  • Reforms will ease the participation of political movements that have been excluded or even exterminated in the past.
  • A new approach to illicit coca cultivation will be based on governance and assistance, with forced eradication a last resort.
  • Colombia will launch a truth commission and a transitional justice arrangement that will grant alternative punishments to those who confess their involvement in war crimes.
  • Through an agreed process, guerrillas will turn over weapons to a UN mission and begin their reintegration into society.

We do not know yet how the negotiators defined some of the accord’s difficult remaining questions. It is possible that some elements, especially transitional justice, could be troubling and require revision by Colombia’s high courts.

What is happening today is just an announcement and (probably) the publication of the accords’ text. The parties will not be signing any documents yet, and it will be a while before the FARC begins turning in its weapons. Several steps remain, as WOLA described in a commentary published last week.

  • The FARC leadership will meet somewhere for its “10th Conference” to approve the accord. This is a necessary step for top leaders’ buy-in. It could also be a moment when internal dissent about the agreement manifests itself among guerrilla units. This is unlikely to be a big issue—FARC leaders have been informally discussing the accords for years, and many of them have spent time at the table in Havana—but it could be a hurdle on the way to demobilization.
  • Colombians will approve or disapprove the accord in a plebisciteto be held at least a month after President Santos sends the accord text to Congress (which could happen as soon as next week). The outcome of this vote is not certain, as the negotiations’ political opponents, like former President Álvaro Uribe, have garnered heavy news coverage. Though some pollsshow more than 60 percent of Colombians inclined to vote “Yes,” others show the two options in a virtual tie. Our guess is that, if the plebiscite is held in the afterglow of a final accord, a majority of Colombians will vote “Yes.” If Colombians should vote “No,” however, the peace accord may not go forward. President Santos and his negotiating team have said that they would not try to negotiate a new agreement.
  • Colombia’s Congress must approve a law that will amnesty guerrilla fighters accused of the political crime of “sedition” (not war crimes). The FARC have made clear that its members will not turn in weapons without a legal guarantee that they will not be arrested. Passage of an amnesty law (or a similar non-arrest guarantee) may hinge on the definition of “connected” political crimes: for instance, if guerrillas used the proceeds of drug trafficking to fund their “sedition,” can the drug trafficking be amnestied? (The answer will probably be “yes,” but some debate is likely.)
  • Once these issues are settled, we can expect a big, celebratory accord-signing ceremony, probably in Colombia. (This ceremony might occur shortly before the plebiscite.)
  • The day the final accord is formally signed is a watershed moment that the peace accords call “D-Day.” It formalizes a full, bilateral cessation of hostilities, and sets in motion a 180-day timetable for the FARC membership’s concentration in 31 gathering points around the country (23 village-sized zones and 8 encampments), at which they will gradually turn over weapons to a UN monitoring and verification mechanism. The FARC’s 7,000 members (plus an undetermined number of militia members and support personnel) will then enter into reintegration programs and convert to a political movement, while guerrillas and soldiers accused of war crimes will enter the transitional justice process.

The timetable for these steps is anyone’s guess, though sources are telling Colombian journalists that it could be completed very quickly—by early October. Deadlines and target dates have slipped before, though, so this process could take longer.

Once these steps are finished, Colombia will face serious challenges in the post-accord period. The FARC’s exit from the drug trade will not mean the end of the drug trade or the powerful, violent organized crime groups that participate in it. The 2,000-member, 52-year-old National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group remains active in some regions and has not yet begun formal peace talks. And strong doubts surround the Colombian government’s ability to fill the security vacuum and implement accords in at least 281 of the most poorly governed of the country’s 1,100 counties (the number comes from Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation).

Despite the challenges, the benefits of a peace deal are clear and compelling. As the database managed by the Colombian think-tank CERAC has shown, even the de-escalation that has accompanied the talks has probably prevented between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths. The past 13 months have seen the least political violence in Colombia since the conflict began half a century ago.

This accord is far from perfect, and huge challenges lie ahead. But the achievement being announced today is monumental, and worthy of celebration. WOLA salutes those who made it possible, and encourages the U.S. government and Congress to be as generous and patient with Colombia’s peace effort as they were during the armed conflict’s most intense years.

Explaining Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite

Updated August 26, 2016

Note: this post reflects our current understanding of the plebiscite situation, which is very complex and hinges on details of Colombian law. We may revise the text; if we do, we will indicate all revisions clearly. Any revisions suggested in the comments will receive serious consideration.

Throughout the nearly four years of Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos has promised to submit a final peace accord to a vote, so that it could enjoy the legitimacy of a public mandate. This idea is commendable, but risky: polls have usually shown a solid but not overwhelming majority of Colombians supporting the peace talks, and strongly opposing key elements like alternative punishments for human rights abusers, or allowing former guerrillas to participate in politics. The possibility that a “No” vote could undo the entire peace effort is too great to be dismissed.

Santos’s proposal for a plebiscite to approve the eventual accord became law last December. The FARC accepted the idea in principle in May. It received a formal green light on July 18, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed its review of the law [PDF], making modest changes.

What happens next—and what might happen next—is confusing. Here, in question-and-answer form, is our understanding of how the plebiscite is likely to move forward, based on a close reading of official documents and media coverage, and conversations with Colombian experts.

When might the plebiscite happen?

It must take place at least one month, and no more than four months, from the date that President Santos notifies Congress of his intention to convene it.

But here the timetable gets cloudy. Several things must happen in a closely orchestrated way. In order to do that, though, the plebiscite’s implementers will have to cut through some circular logic, in which B can’t happen until A is completed, yet A depends on B being completed.

On the evening of August 24, after government and FARC negotiators announced agreement on a final peace accord, President Santos announced that the plebiscite would take place on Sunday, October 2.

The timetable could look something like this (Note that, as indicated in the graphic, the positions of the amnesty law, the final signing, and the plebiscite have changed):

  • Negotiators in Havana finalize the peace accord. This requires agreement on how ex-combatants will be reintegrated into society, and on several points of disagreement that the draft accords inked since 2013 had postponed for later. (One such point—how judges will be selected for the tribunal that will decide war-crimes cases—was resolved by an agreement announced on August 12.) Nailing down all of these questions could take several more weeks, in the most optimistic of scenarios. After a week and a half of marathon sessions in Havana, government and guerrilla negotiators reached a final peace accord faster than expected. The parties announced the agreement on August 24. Once the accord is finalized, Colombia’s government must now undergo a huge effort to ensure that citizens know what it says.
  • The FARC leadership meets somewhere to hold its “10th Conference,” where they will discuss and make a final decision about the accord. This is necessary to guarantee mid-level commanders’ buy-in.
  • The government and FARC sign a final peace accord. This would happen at a celebratory ceremony, probably in Colombia, with many invited international delegations present. Much credible speculation surrounds Friday, September 23 as the target date.
  • FARC members begin to concentrate into 23 zones and 8 encampments around the country, where they will begin a six-month, UN-verified process of disarmament and demobilization. The June 23 accord [PDF] for a cessation of hostilities and disarmament calls for the FARC to begin concentrating its members within five days of the final peace accord’s signature.
  • On October 2, Colombians vote in the plebiscite to approve or disapprove the peace accord. If Colombians vote “No,” this timeline stops. Meanwhile, in its July 18 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decreed that the amnesty law (the next step on this list) cannot be enacted unless citizens have first approved the peace accords plebiscite.
  • Colombia’s Congress passes a law that, as agreed in the December 15 accord [PDF] on Victims, would amnesty the political crime of “rebellion” (sedition). Without this law, FARC members will not begin to demobilize for fear of arrest. “If there is no amnesty law, there will be no final accord,” FARC negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in early August. The FARC have backed off of this position. The final accord suspends arrest warrants for FARC members until the amnesty law is passed. It also—in 29 of its 297 pages—lays out the text of the amnesty law that will be sent to Congress immediately after the plebiscite is approved. This will not be easy either necessarily be an easy step, as Colombia’s Congress must decide to what extent guerrilla fundraising activities—so-called “connected crimes” like extortion and narcotrafficking—count as “rebellion” if their purpose was to raise money for the FARC’s war effort. It is also unclear whether, at this point, Colombia would have to release thousands of FARC members serving prison sentences for “rebellion.”

These items may not necessarily occur in this order.

For one thing, the The Colombian government would prefer to hold the plebiscite after the final accord signing, so that voters are motivated to choose “Yes” during the honeymoon phase following a national celebration of peace. But the signing triggers the FARC’s concentration into zones within five days, and the FARC understandably resists leaving its members concentrated and vulnerable if Colombians end up voting “No” and nullifying the peace accords. It is still unclear how this complication might be resolved, though with only 7-10 days between signing and plebiscite, it may turn out to be a minor issue.