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Colombia struggles to build trust in the state as peace process rumbles on

A deluge of information isn’t the way to win people over. EPA/Christian Escobar Mora

In the Colombian peace plebiscite of 2016, 50.2% of voters rejected the Havana Accords signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla movement. This they did after a sensationalist No campaign exploited a lack of informed public opinion, using questionable “facts” to stir up fear and hatred, among them such as “Santos is giving the country over to the FARC” or the idea that the peace agreement created a “gender ideology” that would teach homosexuality in schools.

Colombia’s State Council ultimately found that many of the No campaign’s claims constituted “generalised deceit”, despite the fact that the government had been formally required to make the terms of the referendum as clear as possible.

In the run-up to the vote, Colombian society, especially organised civil society such as human rights organisations, universities and local communities called urgently for the state to disseminate and explain the accords so people could vote in an informed manner. This demand was even enshrined into law by the Constitutional Court, which ruled the state had “the duty to inform citizens in an objective, impartial and sufficient way on the issue they are going to decide about” in order to uphold “the right to information”.

Educating an electorate about a complex peace process was never going to be easy. Nevertheless, starting in 2014, the government began to disseminate and explain the Havana Accords. The work was picked up by social organisations, academics, journalists, international organisations and state entities – in particular the Presidential Office for the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP). The OACP created a so-called “pedagogy team” that travelled the country explaining the agreement. They met with military members, civil servants, the business sector, rural communities and social organisations.

But the team’s work proved to be in vain. In the end, turnout was low, and Colombia voted No. After the unexpected result, the OACP tried to analyse where it had gone wrong – and, on reflection, many of its workers believed they had gone about it in entirely the wrong way.

Another way

In the words of one of the OACP members I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork with over the last year: “Society needs to feel security, tranquility and trust”, but “we were communicating technical things”. As another pointed out, the agreement as written is “like a brick” – a 310-page tome whose technical complexity makes it practically unreadable for most ordinary people.

To keep the work going, they therefore created after the vote various projects which seek to communicate the peace process in a way that engages people’s emotions. The premise is that the implementation of the accords (which were renegotiated after the plebiscite and ratified by Congress) is only a starting point, and that the peace process cannot succeed unless Colombian society gets behind it.

One project, called “In Thou I Trust” is trying to to create new narratives that promote pro-peace mindsets to counter the No campaign’s “post-truth” slogans, many of which are still circulating. These narratives are generated in workshops between OACP and regional civil society groups representing people whose voices have long been silenced. As one team member explained to me: “The FARC gave up their weapons and no one celebrated the end of 50 years of war. We have to change that, and we have to do it with the voices of citizens in the regions.”

Mobilising for peace in Bogota. EPA/Juan Paez

This all sounds hopeful indeed, but there are big challenges to overcome. The most obvious is the upcoming 2018 presidential election, where the future of the peace process has become one of the most polarising issues. But on a deeper level, the Santos government that negotiated the peace deal has never really given serious thought to the complex ways in which Colombians perceive the state. Instead, the government has underestimated the scale of the task.

Trust deficit

The Havana Agreement includes 70 different mechanisms designed to involve citizens in implementing the peace process, which would necessarily mean working with and through the state. But that will be close to impossible unless the state can change the way many Colombians currently perceive it.

As several anthropologists have detailed, various groups in Colombia feel deeply mixed emotions about the state. They want it to “be present” and implement promises of rights and citizenship – but at the same time they are angry at a history of direct state violence and “abandonment”. They want the state to make amends for its past misdeeds, but also believe it never will.

In many ways, the peace process is less about the FARC than about a deeper process of state-building. Colombia is fragmented by geographical and racial divisions, unequal patterns of colonisation and uneven investment in infrastructure.

The upshot is that participants in OACP projects are often sceptical about making any alliances with the state at all. In one meeting I attended, a woman said:

The conflict has a political, social and economic background. The power structures have generated this abandonment, a cultural legacy in which violence, poverty and exclusion have been normalised. These meetings, convened by those who are supposed to ensure the fulfilment of the agreement, will they really lead to deep changes? Many things are going unfulfilled. I do not see any political will.

The OACP is trying to give people a new opportunity to express these emotions to compassionate state representatives. Many of the officials I’ve met are deeply committed to “doing things differently”. Among them are people who previously worked in NGOs and international agencies, and who now hope to transform the state and its relationship with society from the inside. They have to quickly thicken their skins; it’s not easy to be frequently confronted with accusations about “the state” that overwhelm their own ability to take responsibility.

But the ultimate test will be the next government’s behaviour in terms of the continuity of the Santos’ administration’s peace policy. It’s simply not enough to send out a small team of well-intentioned state officials to be sympathetic interlocutors. If the government fails to honour the commitments acquired in the Havana Accords, and implemented them convincingly, it will only reinforce many Colombians’ deeply cynical attitudes towards the state. That will make it much harder for society to recognise its own duty to participate in peace-building – and in turn, put the hard-won peace process on the back foot.

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