oscar ivan zuluaga

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.

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.

Colombia election only one step in long road to peace

On June 15th, Colombians went to the polls to choose their next president. Former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga had pulled off an upset win in the first round of elections on May 25, besting the incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos by a margin of 29.3 to 25.6%. After the defeat, Santos went on the offensive, attempting rouse the supporters around the county who had stayed home and contributed to the low voter turnout that cost him a win…

Read this piece in its entirety at Upside Down World.

Colombia’s Presidential Election and the Prospects for Peace with the FARC

Colombia has been at war for over 50 years. The internal armed conflict between the government and the Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC after their Spanish acronym, originated in the aftermath of a bloody period of political violence during the 1950s known as “La Violencia,” or “The Violence…”

Read this piece in its entirety at Truthout.

Colombia: Vitriol, violence and threats of strikes as election approaches

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 13 April to 19 April 2014.

report from the Washington Office on Latin America entitled “Ending 50 Years of Conflict” expressed confidence in the potential of ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC to realize a final deal by the end of this year. The report also called on the US to increase financial and diplomatic support to ensure that Colombia can meet post-conflict challenges, such as “bringing government into lawless areas; demobilizing and reintegrating combatants; assisting displaced populations’ return; protecting rights defenders; helping to fulfill accords on land, political participation, and victims.” US aid to Colombia has been declining by an average of 10-15% per year for the past few years.

Colombia’s military spending rose by 13% in 2013, one of the largest increases in the region. Military spending throughout all of Latin America increased by 2.2% in 2013, bringing the total regional increase since 2004 to 61%. Colombia spends more than any other country in the region on its military as a percentage of GDP, and is second only to Brazil – the largest country in the region – in total expenditures. The majority of Colombia’s military spending is directed at fighting armed groups like the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as violent organized crime groups.

President Santos reaffirmed his commitment to the peace negotiations with the FARC in an interview with W Radio. He criticized the FARC for ongoing attacks during the negotiations, saying “What objective are you seeking? What military advantage does it give you? None, it only undermines the confidence of the people in the peace process.” The FARC were suspected of bombing another section of the Panamerican highway this week after a similar attack on April 1. Last week, three policemen were killed in an ambush by FARC forces.

Santos also criticized opponents of the peace process as “lords of fear,” perhaps referring to one of his main rivals in the upcoming presidential election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who (along with his highest-profile supporter, former President and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe) has been critical of the negotiations.

In an interview with a Colombian news outlet, the leader of the ELN, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (alias “Gabino”), said that his group is seeking peace talks with the government. The ELN is not party to the ongoing negotiations between the government and the FARC. Gabino slammed the Santos administration and Colombia’s “oligarchy” saying that they have “no desire” for peace, “they are thirsty for blood and violence” and they “get rich with war…They are selfish, arrogant, warmongering. They despise the humble and only look at them as a work force that enriches [the powerful].”

Two policemen were killed in the northeastern department of Arauca. RCN Radio attributed the attack to the ELN, which is known to be active in the area, but neither that group, nor the FARC have claimed responsibility for the killings. An unidentified group intimidated a work crew making repairs to an oil pipeline in the northeastern region of the country and torched their truck. Last week, repeated ELN attacks on an oil field in that area forced roughly 500 employees to be put on leave.

In the interview, Gabino also expressed outrage over the political dismissals of former Senator Piedad Cordoba and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and admitted that there were minors associated with his group. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office demanded that the ELN disclose the number of minors in their ranks.

The ELN is Colombia’s second-largest armed group after the FARC, with about 2,000 troops. President Santos has indicated his willingness to begin a peace dialogue with the ELN in the past.

Headlines:

According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia has the 10th highest murder rate in the world, even though the country’s homicide rate has dropped by nearly half since 2002.

Colombia is the eighth-worst country in the world for impunity in attacks on the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Members of the U’wa indigenous group met with Colombia’s ministers of mines and energy, the interior and the environment after refusing to allow repairs to the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline following attacks from rebel guerrillas that had damaged it.

Four members of the Colombian military were sentenced to decades in prison for killing civilians and presenting them as combat fatalities in order to boost their “body count” in the country’s armed conflict. The ongoing “false positives” scandal has involved hundreds of members of Colombia’s military. In an July 2013 report, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it had found that the armed forces and civilian collaborators had killed 3,896 civilians since 1986.

Two young men were found dismembered in Buenaventura, the port city considered to be one of the most dangerous areas of Colombia. The deaths were the first murders reported since the army took over security operations in the city in late March. For more on the situation in Buenaventura see our previous post.

Seven members of the Urabeños gang were killed in an army operation in the department of Antioquia.

Colombian miners said they will join with farmers in a nationwide strike planned for April 28, less than a month before the country’s presidential elections. For more on the planned strike, see our previous post.

Colombian authorities arrested 15 members of the criminal group known as “La Línea” who were accused of assassinating a businessman last year for failing to make a $50,000 extortion payment.

Colombian police arrested 5 men wanted for extradition to the United States to face charges of cocaine trafficking.

Members of a neo-Nazi group known as Tercero Fuerza (“Third Force”) allegedly vandalized a Bogotá graffiti mural honoring the thousands of victims of violence committed against the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union or “UP”), the political party co-founded by the FARC in the 1980s. The UP performed better during the 1986 elections than any other leftist party in Colombian history. However, after the election, a brutal campaign of assassination and murder by right-wing paramilitaries brought about the massacre of 4,000-6,000 UP members, including the party’s leader, Jaime Pardo.

To Watch:

Colombia’s success in combating the production of cocaine within its borders is likely pushing drug traffickers to use product sourced from Peru. “We are seeing the same phenomenon as 30 years ago, when coca base arrived from [Peru and Bolivia] and they produced [cocaine] hydrochloride here,” said the chief of the Anti-Narcotics Police General Ricardo Restrepo. Restrepo said that the port of Cartegena is particularly affected because of its status as a major point of departure for containers, especially those destined for European markets.

One of the oldest crime syndicates in Medellín, the Oficina de Envigado, apparently wants to lay down its weapons. According to two of the group’s self-proclaimed leaders, the demobilization “won’t happen overnight” but their desire to dismantle the gang is fueled by the feeling that “those who have been victimized most are [their] own families.”

The FARC may be selling coca plantations and cocaine labs to the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel in anticipation of a peace deal with the Colombian government. The FARC are estimated to control a majority of the country’s cocaine trade.

Extra:

Acid attacks against women in Colombia are receiving increased attention after a wealthy woman was victimized. According to Colombian officials, more than 900 cases of acid attacks have been recorded in the last 10 years.

Criminals in the US, Central America and even Colombia appear to be using homemade guns more often. As Fusion puts it, these weapons are “unserialized, unregistered and totally legal – and they’re being used to kill people.”

World-renowned Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away this week. President Santos declared three days of national mourning for the “most loved and most admired compatriot of all times.”

Colombia: With election just weeks away, presidential campaign heats up

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 30 March to 5 April 2014.

The preliminary round of Colombia’s presidential elections will be held on May 25 of this year. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of votes in the first election, a run-off between the two top-finishing candidates will take place on June 15.

This week, the Centro Nacional de Consultoria (National Consulting Center) published a poll showing former Bogotá mayor and Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa finishing 26% to 18% behind the incumbent president Jose Manuel Santos in the first ballot, but beating him in the June runoff 46% to 36%. These results are consistent with previous polling.

Also this week, Peñalosa accused president Santos of “playing politics” with the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC. Peñalosa has said that he supports dialogue but has also said that he would not support a military ceasefire between the combatants while the talks proceed.

Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga, backed by former president and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe, has been critical of the peace process and has challenged Santos for not withdrawing from the talks following the torture and killing of two policemen by the FARC.

Conservative presidential candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez has said that, if elected, she would put a deadline of four months on the talks. Leftist candidate Clara López of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Poll) has been a consistent supporter of the peace talks.

Zuluaga and Uribe’s far-right party made a strong showing in Senate elections a few weeks ago, but it seems increasingly likely that the second round will be a closely-contested race between the relatively centrist candidates Santos and Peñalosa. Most Colombians support a diplomatic solution to Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict, but they are also increasingly skeptical about the prospects that a deal will be reached.

Headlines

Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, a member of the Conservative party, publicly criticized the peace talks between the government and the FARC, saying a possible deal with the government would be a “slap in the face” to the victims of the FARC’s crimes.

More than 6 tons of cocaine have been seized in Colombian ports so far this year. Shipping drugs through Colombia’s busy ports, through which millions of containers filled with a wide variety of goods travel each year, remains one of the most popular ways to smuggle drugs into and out of that country.

Two policeman were killed in southwestern Colombia early Friday morning, allegedly by elements of the FARC rebel group. No official evidence has been presented confirming the rebels’ involvement and the FARC has not taken credit for the attack.

Authorities in Bogotá arrested a man who goes by the alias “Machaco.” Machaco allegedly acted as finance chief to Henry Castellanos (alias “Romagna”), a major guerrilla leader of the Eastern Bloc of the FARC.

Six FARC guerrillas were killed, four captured and four surrendered as part of “Operation Maximus,” an army operation taking place in Nariño province. The army also seized various firearms and 50 kilograms of cocaine. Also this week, FARC guerrillas in that region used dynamite to blast a hole in a portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Police have arrested 14 people from the Cali-based gang known as “La Libertad,” who were accused of recruiting child soldiers by falsely promising to sponsor their pursuit of a future career in professional soccer.

More people were killed by land mines in Colombia during 2013 than in any other country, with 368 injuries, including 49 deaths. Vice produced a highly compelling documentary on this issue last year entitled “Colombia’s Hidden Killers.” You can watch it for free here.

FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez said that the rebel group is “willing to reach an agreement” regarding the use of land mines, which he pointed out are also used by Colombian government forces. According to official data, antipersonnel mines have killed at least 2,000 people since 1990, wounding thousands more.

Residents of the northeastern city of Cucuta took to the streets, protesting the worsening economic condition of the region, which is suffering from impeded trade with neighboring Venezuela. 80% of the city’s businesses were closed and 70% of the city’s public transport was forced to suspend the service. More than 450 riot police were called in to break up the protests, which Cucuta Public Security Secretary Ruby Johana Ascanio claimed were illegal because they didn’t follow the proper procedure to obtain legal permission.

A Colombian court struck down a rule allowing aerial fumigation of suspected coca crops in national parks. The court also ruled against the Ministry of Defense and the National Police, saying that the government can be held responsible for damage to legitimate crops, contamination of drinking water, and poisoning of local populations. Colombia’s minister of justice recently asked the United States to shift the focus of its anti-narcotics aid to Colombia away from crop eradication and fumigation efforts.

To Watch

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that Fundacion Karisma, a Colombian NGO focusing on human rights in the digital age, along with other Colombian NGOs, sent a letter to the Colombian President requesting the ability to participate in a high-level commission at the Organization of American States (OAS) responsible for revising and analyzing the national intelligence legal framework. According to the EFF, ‘This secretive committee currently includes government officials, national security experts and “selected” private sector companies—but no representatives from the NGO community.’

At the conference organized by the OAS, the Colombian Government released a report stating that they had discovered over 40 websites where illegal drugs are bought and sold.

In other cyber-security and surveillance news, a recent report from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine contained a document that indicates that former Colombian president and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe was one of more than 100 world leaders selected as a target for NSA and GCHQ surveillance. According to the article, “An internal NSA description states that employees can use [the “Target Knowledge Database”] to analyze ‘complete profiles’ of target persons.”

FARC rebels continue to attack oil pipelines in the run-up to the presidential election next month. Complicating matters, the U’wa indigenous community will not permit repair crews to enter an area of eastern Colombia until the government cleans up environmental damage and provides more security assistance. The blockade is one of a wave of protests in recent months by rural and indigenous groups over oil companies’ environmental damages and hiring practices.

Extra

The department of Valle del Cauca, home to the cities of Cali and Buenaventura, was the most violent area of the country for the fourth straight year during 2013. With a homicide rate of 85 per 100,000 residents, Cali is one of the most murderous cities in the world, while Buenaventura has gained a reputation for horrific gang violence. InSight Crime reports that the battle between the Urabenos and Rastrojos gangs for control of the strategically-important port of Buenaventura is straining the resources of the Urabenos, who will likely fail to win the city. Nevertheless, the bloody war will almost certainly continue for some time, causing even more civilian casualties and displacements than it has already.

Dr. Ginny Bouvier’s blog “Colombia Calls” has a thorough round-up of political developments related to the most recent round of peace negotiations between the FARC and the government, which recently ended. The negotiators began a new session – their 23rd – on Friday.