After 52 years of fighting and nearly four years of grinding negotiations, the Colombian Government and the country's Farc rebel group declared today that they had reached an agreement to end the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas.
The two sides made the announcement in Cuba, where negotiations began in 2012 and where Fidel Castro launched a Communist revolution that once inspired guerrilla insurgencies across the hemisphere. Colombia, a nation of 50 million that is one of the closest US allies in Latin America, is the one place where the war has yet to end.
"This is the final chapter of the Cold War in the hemisphere," said Bernard Aronson, the US envoy to the peace talks, in an interview before the announcement.
More than 220,000 Colombians have been killed in fighting over the past half-century, and nearly seven million have been driven from their homes. But one major obstacle remains for the peace deal to stick.
Colombian voters must ratify the accord at the ballot box in a vote, likely to take place in October, that is shaping up as a showdown between the country's two most prominent political rivals.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on the peace accord, will be campaigning for Colombians to approve it. His nemesis, former President Álvaro Uribe, is leading the drive to sink the deal. He and other critics say it is too favourable to Farc leaders, whose guerrilla war tactics included kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder.
Polls asking Colombians if they will vote to approve the deal have produced mixed results.
If approved by Colombian voters, the peace deal would become law, and the Farc would begin demobilising its 7000 fighters at designated camps and "protected zones" with monitors from the United Nations. The rebels - formally known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - would have 180 days to fully disarm under the terms of the agreement.
Aronson said he expected the Colombian Government to publish a final text of the treaty within days, setting in motion the plebiscite process. In the next two weeks, Farc commanders are planning to return to their remote camps in the mountains and jungles of Colombia, where they will begin preparing rank-and-file soldiers for disarmament and demobilisation. A formal signing ceremony will probably be held in Colombia in late September or October, ahead of the plebiscite, Aronson said.
The breakthrough follows days of marathon negotiating sessions between the government team and the guerrilla commanders. A final sticking point has been the timing of a blanket amnesty that will be offered to lower-ranking guerrillas who face only charges of "rebellion," in contrast with more senior Farc members accused of committing more serious crimes. Under the terms of the accord, those Farc members will be able to avoid prison if they fully disclose their role in the war and make reparations as part of a truth-and-reconciliation process.