Colombia: Is War Really More Popular than Peace?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

In an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last spring, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos lamented that his “rivals have been quite effective in sowing the seeds of skepticism around the peace process” that is currently underway between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. “Waging war is much more popular than negotiating,” Santos said. 

However, according to a recent survey, only 28 percent of Colombians believe that the best solution to the conflict lies in a purely military defeat of the rebels. The rest believe the end of the conflict should come through a negotiated resolution (41 percent) or a unilateral disarmament by the FARC (30 percent). Despite the relative lack of support for the former option, these hard-liners played a prominent role in Colombia’s most recent presidential election, nearly costing the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos a second term in office.

Former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, along with his right-wing Democratic Center (CD) party colleagues, have been among the most outspoken opponents of the peace process, viewing it as a negotiation with terrorists. In addition, they have long claimed that they are victims of political persecution by the moderate ruling government, and have implied that the peace process is an underhanded effort to bring the far-left FARC members into the mainstream political sphere in order to increase the representation of leftists in congress.

Adding weight to (and at the same time casting doubt upon) their claims is the fact that the former head of the country’s intelligence service under Uribe has been charged with spying on Uribe’s political opponents while he was president, and Uribe himself is being investigated for his connection to a mass murder carried out by paramilitaries in Antioquia in 1997 while he was governor of that state.

However, Uribe has another problem. Almost everybody except he and his cohort support the peace process. The UN, the OAS, the U.S., the pope, and the vast majority of Colombia’s citizens support a definitive end to the half-century old conflict. The major sticking point is not the negotiations themselves, but rather the structure of the final agreement that they could bring about.

Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983, has been making his case against the peace talks to the Colombian and international public for years. But despite his status as former head of state, a current senator and one of the country’s most popular political figures – not to mention his 3.5 million Twitter followers – Uribe’s anti-peace message has by all appearances failed to persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with his stance.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, “Good policies are easily sold. On the other hand, selling bad policies or ameliorating the damage they cause to diplomatic relations, seems to be the main concern of public diplomacy.”

Uribe’s public diplomacy campaign against the peace negotiations isn’t exactly well-thought out – in fact, it seems to be largely in the service of his own political career and those of his allies – but when compared with the Santos government’s similarly weak and discombobulated messaging about the talks, it points to my earlier conclusion that good policies (like the peace talks) almost sell themselves.

Uribe and a gaggle of CD politicians are currently attempting to travel to the U.S. and meet with American officials to make their case, but if Uribe hopes to derail the peace talks and plunge the country into what President Santos predicted could be “another 20, 30 or 40 years of war,” he’ll have to seriously step up his public diplomacy game at home first.

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