Colombian Government Trying to Buy Support for Peace Talks?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Recent revelations about Colombian taxpayers’ money being spent on publicity for the country’s ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group have raised questions about whether the government is trying to buy support for the slow-moving and controversial negotiations.

According to Latin Correspondent, “David Barguil, the president of the Conservative Party, shared a document on Twitter [last week] that appeared to show a government contract worth 480 million pesos (about US $200,000) awarded to an NGO called Corpovisionarios. The contract was for ‘creating a citizen mobilization that promotes societal support for the conversations being carried out between the government and the FARC in Havana and thus strengthening the faith and willingness of civil society to affirm that peace is a collective construction that applies to everyone.'”

“Right-wing politicians and Uribistas — supporters of hard-line former president Álvaro Uribe, who has been quite vocal in his opposition to the dialogues  — have seized on the document as proof of government corruption in the dialogue process and accused the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos of needing to pay to appear to have popular support,” writes author Natalie Southwick.

Uribe also accused the government of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private media company owned by Santos’ nephew for “services for the realization of pedagogical activities that allow the generation of spaces of reflection and regional discussion about building peace in Colombia” as well as hundreds of thousands more for the “transmission of advertising, special mentions and other forms of communication of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace” to another media company.

Yet Adriaan Alsema at Colombia Reports notes that the vast majority of the government’s spending on public diplomacy is not aimed at promoting the peace process. Additionally, the sums of money spent on media promotion, including those related to the peace negotiations, are relatively tiny compared to the overall revenues of the large media corporations to which they were made. As Alsema writes, “the $1.3 million spent on for example RCN TV is not close to one percent of the approximately $300 million made by the Colombian television giant that year.”

Nevertheless, this will not stop Uribe from claiming, as he has, that the government is trying to buy support for its policies. Whatever one thinks about the ethics of government money going to a media outlet owned by a close relative of the president, it certainly does not appear that the Colombian government needs to pay for public support of the talks.

As I mentioned last week, some 70 percent of Colombian citizens support a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the FARC. Thus, contrary to the suggestions of the Uribistas, the comparatively small amounts of money spent on promoting the peace talks reflect the Santos government’s confidence in public opinion, not its lack thereof.

If the government thought Colombian citizens wanted an all-out military assault on the FARC, it’s not unlikely the government would follow that policy. In fact, that is exactly what Santos did when he served as Defense Minister under then-president Uribe from 2006 to 2009. The campaign crippled the FARC, who have demonstrated a genuine desire to find a peaceful settlement to the fifty-year old conflict.

Having won re-election largely based on his support for the peace talks, Santos does not feel a need to bring the Colombian or international public on board with the talks. Rather, he is concerned with convincing constituencies with opposition to or reservations about the final outcome of the process. And there is some evidence he may be succeeding. Last week a group of retired military servicemen who had previously supported Uribista presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga announced they would put their weight behind the peace process.

This latest twist in a long-running saga may ultimately have little effect on the final outcome of the negotiations, but it nevertheless remains an insightful example of the public diplomacy strategies on display throughout the process.

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