Weakened FARC Winning the Public Diplomacy War?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, has been listed as a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department since 1997. Many Colombians also refer to the FARC as terrorists, including former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe as well as the country’s armed forces.

However, the guerrilla group has been hit hard by decades of heavy-handed military campaigns by the Colombian state, backed with billions of dollars in U.S. assistance. In 2011, the FARC sued for peace, asking the government to initiate a new process of negotiations to seek a final end to the half-century-old conflict. In 2012, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos accepted.

The peace talks, which have been ongoing since that time, will enter their 32rd round on February 2. While it is clear that the FARC, the Santos government and the people of Colombia all generally want a peace deal, one of the most fascinating aspects of the process has been the public diplomacy campaigns undertaken by various actors attempting to influence the final outcome.

The Colombian government has had to walk a fine line. It must conduct the process with the FARC in good faith and frame both concessions and acquisitions in the negotiations in a positive light for the general public, while simultaneously countering alternative narratives about the talks from the FARC and the right-wing opposition.

For example, Santos’ predecessor Uribe has been very vocal about his opposition to the peace process. Uribe is a popular figure in Colombia, largely known for the military crackdown that helped cripple the FARC, which was led by then-Defense Minister Santos. Last year, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Uribe’s former finance minister, ran for president in his former boss’s term-limited stead under the banner of their new political party, the Democratic Center.

While issues like poverty, crime, education and healthcare featured more prominently in voters’ minds than the peace process, the incumbent Santos and challenger Zuluaga ended up in a run-off that focused heavily on the contrast between the two candidates’ position on the peace negotiations.

During the campaign, Zuluaga said that if he were elected, he would demand an unconditional, indefinite and unilateral ceasefire from the FARC before he would continue negotiations as stipulated under the current framework. Santos won the election and was recently able to achieve an indefinite and unilateral ceasefire from the rebels within the established negotiating process, which has held despite continued attacks on FARC positions by the Colombian armed forces.

The FARC have developed a relatively sophisticated public diplomacy apparatus, including Twitter accounts and websites in Spanish and English that issue public statements and help to explain the peace process from their point of view. In a recent press release from the peace delegation, the group – in uncharacteristically plaintive language – pointed to the unilateral ceasefire and nearly begged President Santos to make it bilateral. “It doesn’t cost you anything to reply to the guerrilla with reciprocity and grandeur,” read the communique.

However, as one panelist at a recent forum on the peace process noted, the Colombian government has not done a particularly good job of communicating the progress of the negotiations to the Colombian public. The government makes loud pronouncements about military achievements against the FARC, but has obscured or kept secret most of the details of the talks.

One reason for this could be what the Washington Office on Latin America recently described as a “a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.”

The military is worried that in the event of a final peace deal, “the main security threat facing Colombians will be organized crime. As WOLA notes, “for the most part, [preventing and investigating crimes] are not military roles…the armed forces, and their budget, will shrink in a post-conflict Colombia. This will be so despite plans to increase Colombia’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and Defense Minister Pinzón’s promises that the armed forces will play greater roles in development projects and the fight against criminal bands.”

There are many signs that this iteration of Colombia’s struggle for peace with the FARC could finally be successful, but undoubtedly one of the key challenges in the coming months will be the public diplomacy efforts surrounding the talks. The Colombian government recently passed a law that would submit any final peace deal with the FARC to a public referendum that would be held concurrent with the country’s elections.

If the Santos administration hopes to wrap up the negotiations and present a peace deal to the Colombian public by the October municipal elections, it will be important to develop a public diplomacy strategy that can better confront the challenges that have hampered the government’s current plan.

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