Can Conflict Resolution & Peace Building Survive Right-Wing Populism in Colombia?
“I don’t feel that Duque can jeopardize my legacy,” asserted Juan Manuel Santos, the outgoing Colombian president and Nobel Peace laureate in an interview with the news website La Silla Vacía published on July 7, 2018. Santos’s response might calm down some of the fears of Colombian peace process supporters, as much of them see in the entry into office of the president-elect Iván Duque on 7 August 2018 a serious menace to the ongoing implementation of the peace agreement signed by Santos’s government with the FARC guerrilla in 2016.
But statements made at the 2017 National Convention of the Democratic Center Party have even sparked the fears of those who were confident in the implementation of the peace agreement, as one of its most relevant members asserted that the first challenge to be undertaken by Duque’s political party will be “to shatter this cursed paper called final agreement with the FARC.” Nevertheless, during the presidential campaign which led to his election in May 2018, Duque was able to play a more moderate card by using a double-edged strategy. One the one side, Duque claimed that he we will make some adjustments to the peace agreement and, on the other, he pledged to support the ongoing process of FARC demobilization opened up by this agreement. When starting his government on August 7, Duque will have a comfortable absolute majority in the Parliament, which will secure him the ability to pass any proposed reform. However, the peace accords have been enshrined in the Constitution and, moreover, a ruling of the Constitutional Court obliges the next three governments to implement them.
All well and good, but can we trust Duque’s independence from the hard-liners of his right-wing party? Why should we be cautious about the populist imprints of the Democratic Center? And more precisely, how might the Democratic Center’s populism endanger gender mainstreaming in the peace-building process?
Why Should We Fear the Democratic Center’s Populism?
Contrary to what this question might suggest, I must start by asserting that I don’t reject populism outright. As Chantal Mouffe suggests, there is a necessity of certain forms of populism in order to enhance the agonistic relations that are essential for a vibrant democratic debate to exist. In their defense of populism, Mouffe as well as Ernesto Laclau explain that populism is not an ideology but “a way of constructing the political” (Laclau 2005). It is a way to build a transversal political identity by articulating different political demands. Not limited to concerns of class, populist demands may stem from other cross-cutting social relationships including, for instance, nationality, gender, race, religious belonging, or even environmental relations. A populist chain of demands is not fixed, but rather can be re-articulated or fall apart. That is another reason why populism is better defined as a way of “constructing the people,” and not as an ideology.
To put it shortly, the need for left-wing populist alternatives, that Mouffe prompts, arises as the current post-political consensus has rendered the adversarial model of politics obsolete and has achieved to turn the rule of technocracy into a hegemony. But at the same time, it is precisely the increasing rule of technocracy, with its ability to depoliticize and foreclose any debate about possible alternatives to, for example, measures of austerity, the rules of neoliberal globalization, or the global refugee crisis, what is at the roots of the current global success of right-wing populism.
Unlike a current elite unable to formulate alternative answers, right-wing populist parties claim that they embody the voice of the people, and their ability to construct a collective difference between an Us opposed to a Them is one their basic features. Notoriously, the other key feature of right-wing populism is its ability to build a political identity based on the articulation of a chain of identities and demands against a current elite, who they claim has failed or betrayed the people. And precisely, this recurrent practice whereby a political group labels those who dissent or oppose them, for instance, of being unpatriotic or supporters of terrorism, has been one of the most prominent footprints of Duque’s party Democratic Center. Thus, in order to map the populist architecture of this right-wing party, it is good to start by scrutinizing this practice.
Founded by Duque’s godfather, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the Democratic Center fiercely opposed not only the Havana peace talks all along, but reparation to the victims. Insofar as Santos deepened his commitment to these causes throughout his presidential mandates (2010-2018), Uribe’s response was not long in coming and expressing his fury. Uribe labeled Santos as a traitor who was leaving the country in the hands of a communist menace that he called Castro-Chavism and, moreover, accused Santos of leading the surrender of the country to the FARC. The gendered dimensions of Uribe’s rhetoric are close to the surface, and that, coming from a politician whose war-centered approach to end the Colombian armed conflict and to deal with the coca cultivation entailed a serious militarization of women’s lives, is not surprising. Echoing the sense suggested by Cynthia Enloe, by militarization of women’s lives, I mean a governmental rule that provides a sense of worthiness and normalcy to military –and paramilitary– ideas.
Feminists, as Meger reminds us, “have documented the role that discourse plays in constructing gender symbolism and naturalizing hierarchies of dominance and subordination.” Moreover, she claims, “the discourse of counterterrorism is not only a means of delegitimizing insurgencies but also of feminizing them” (Meger 2016: 90). Uribe’s strategy to deny the FARC guerrilla belligerent status during his mandate was not an exception in this respect. But here, in order to sabotage Santos’s peace process, Uribe was able to use the discourse the other way around. Crafting an analogy between the Havana peace talks and military surrender, and equating Santos’s peace politics with a betrayal to the long effort of the Colombian Army against the FARC’s terrorist menace, Uribe sought to turn the military and their supporters against Santos. And in fact, in the view of public opinion, Uribe succeeded in creating a climate of distrust between the executive and the military. In Uribe’s populist rhetoric, Santos’s peace politics meant the dishonor and emasculation of the Colombian National Army, rendering both the long military struggle against the FARC as if it has been of no value and the sacrifice of Colombian people in the war of drugs as if it would have been in vain.
But, just as Santos counteracted the effects of Uribe’s rhetoric by including the military at the negotiating table, so too the Democratic Center was also able to reframe its chain of equivalences (interests-identities) and to keep its populist architecture going. In this endeavor, another maneuver particularly gendered that serves the purpose of securing to Uribe’s party a large section of the Colombian electorate was set in motion during the campaign on the plebiscite for peace that took place on October 2016. At that time, the Democratic Center orchestrated a misleading campaign that led not just to the resignation of Education minister Gina Parody but, even worst, to the rejection of the Havana peace accords. In what has been one of its most successful attempts to destabilize Santos’s government, the Democratic Center appealed to the religious beliefs and fears of the Colombian electorate by directing its attacks to the mainstreaming of gender in schools and to the inclusion of the term gender in the Havana accords. Crafting a discourse to stir up fear among the growing Christian community (Protestant and Catholic), the Democratic Center targeted as its new scapegoat the minister Parody. Blaming her for smuggling a supposed gender ideology into the schools and into the peace agreements, this party claimed that the inclusion of such foreign gender ideology would jeopardize the heterosexual basis upon which the traditional Colombian family is grounded. In the aftermath of such a defeat in the plebiscite, which journalist Maria Jimena Duzán has called “The Night of Tears”, Santos managed to achieve a new peace deal which included amendments and clarifications suggested by sectors of the “No” vote. Approved by the Colombian Congress on December 2016, yet the new peace accord maintained the use of the gender-based approach, which broadly speaking was referred to as the recognition of equal rights for men and women. Despite the fact that Colombia has not issued a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325, the final peace agreement has been recognized for having incorporated 122 gender-specific provisions.
In its ambitious architecture, the Colombian peace agreement with the FARC seeks to tackle the following aspects: First, what have been identified as the causes of the war, and which, worthy to mention, have underpinned the FARC insurgency’s political grievances, such as inequality in land access and concerns related to territorial control. Second, factors and dynamics that fuel the war, being the most significant drug trafficking and others such as illegal mining. Third, socio-economic and political inequalities that have allowed human rights violations, which include but are not limited to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political beliefs or affiliation. Four, the peace accord aims at offering to the victims a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. Thus, going beyond the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of the FARC guerilla, the final document addresses the above-mentioned aspects in six chapters: (1) comprehensive rural reform, aimed at reducing the socio-economic gap between urban and rural areas which, worth mentioning, involves measures aimed at bringing about sustainable development; (2) political participation, with a view on enhancing democratic pluralism broadly understood; (3) DDR of the FARC members in order to guarantee their political, social, and economic integration into civilian life; (4) comprehensive solution to the drug problem which promises to overcome the over-criminalization produced by the war on drugs and, instead, involves a comprehensive plan with an equity-based and gender-based approach for the substitution of crops tackling the structural causes that lead families to cultivate illicit drug crops; (5) comprehensive system of transformative transitional justice; and (6) system for the verification of the implementation of the agreement.
So far, so good. But can we be sure that in his attempts to adjust the peace agreement, the newly elected president Duque could resist its political party’s tendency to resort to right-wing populist strategies?
Ivan Duque: Under the Shadow of Populism
Since he was picked up as the Democratic Center’s official candidate, Ivan Duque was depicted for many as Uribe’s new puppet; a shadow from which Duque has not been able to free himself. And that despite the active support of the media, which facilitated him to elude any serious public debate. The media played its part directing the spotlight towards Duque’s experience working at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and thereby helped him to build a pro-business profile. In the meantime, Duque refused to attend various debates, and notoriously a debate organized by women’s movements and feminist organizations, so-called “The Women Ask.” Yet, the Democratic Center could not afford to overlook the LGBT constituencies. Hence, it found a way around not just to repair the rifts caused by its misleading campaign on gender ideology, but to counteract the fears of the LGBT community that the Democratic Center will re-open the so-called anti-gay referendum. Without hesitation or shame, Uribe rushed to give a hand to his protégé by addressing a public statement to the LGBT sector and declaring that the Democratic Center will respect all acquired rights.
As for the peace process, Duque maintained his positioning as a moderate politician by emphasizing that he will adjust the agreements rather than shatter them. However, history might repeat itself and, hence, Duque might face serious difficulties to maintain a margin of autonomy from his party. As it happened with Santos, any step Duque might take in an opposite direction from Uribe’s rightist approach or from the Democratic Center’s hard-liners could cause him to be labeled as traitor.
The latest developments show that Duque’s government has begun to reshape the peace-building process even before its entry into office. Just some days after Duque won the presidency, the Congress passed a reform proposed by his party which weakens the power of a backbone institution created through the Havana agreements, so-called Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish). The JEP is a transitional justice mechanism whose main function is to investigate and prosecute serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the Colombian armed conflict. Since the creation of the JEP, the Democratic Center has argued that this tribunal places on equal footing guerrilla members and the military. Thus, recycling the argument according to which the peace agreement undermines the honor of the Colombian Army, the Democratic Center succeeded in obtaining from Congress approval of a reform that obliges the JEP to create a special chamber to judge military personnel. Law scholars, such as Rodrigo Uprimny, have argued that this measure disarticulates the entire transitional justice architecture, while others have warned that this reform leaves over 2,000 military personnel who have expressed their intention to appear before the JEP in a legal limbo. But beyond that, what this amendment suggests is that the attacks to the peace-building process that Duque’s right-wing party may put in motion will be brutal, though not necessarily frontal. While keeping his technocratic façade, Duque can be tempted to resort to populist tropes and strategies aimed at disarticulating the institutions created through the peace agreement.
For instance, Duque might cast doubts on their design or on the neutrality of the functionaries appointed to work at these agencies asserting that they are ideologically biased. Thereafter, he can use that argument as a pretext to change their organization, turning them into dysfunctional agencies unable to accomplish their mission. Even starker, Duque’s government might provoke a division between the traditional poor and the victims. For instance, and given the huge cost of victim reparation programs, hard-line factions of his party can spread rumors asserting that, because of such expenses, the government might be obliged to reduce social investment for the poor. Or finally, as a report of the International Crisis Group has warned, the government might render transitional justice institutions inefficient by starving their operational budgets.
Yet, by way of conclusion, the Colombian peace-building experience does not suggest that we should reject all forms of populism, or that populism is antithetical to peace building and democratic rule. If the tropes used by populism include, for instance, those related to gender equality and respect for diversity, populism can help societies to bring about transformative justice and durable peace. In contrast, when the tropes and mottos adopted by populism work to promote patriarchal masculinities, to undermine democratic pluralism or to maintain inequalities, it is most likely that the only kind of post-conflict context populism can help to bring about is one ruled by an oppressive peace.
Note: at the time of submitting this article (July 2018), the Colombian Supreme Court announced that it has widened a criminal investigation to include Ex-president Uribe on charges of bribery and intimidation of witnesses. This investigation stems from another case concerning alleged participation of Uribe in the formation of death squads during the 1990s.
My grateful thanks go to Lucy for permission to use her cartoon. I would like to thank also Carine Middelbos for her invaluable comments and editorial support.
Sonia Garzon-Ramirez received her PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest. Her area of study includes the intersections between feminist theory, transitional justice, peacebuilding and critical race theory. Her current research focuses on societies of the global South experiencing democratic or post-conflict transitions. It explores questions concerned with how to make transitional justice truly transformative, how to transform resistances to peacebuilding into agnostic relationships, and the nexus between transitional justice, peacebuilding and socio-spatial justice.