Can a Group Chat Unite a Polarized Colombia Around Peace?

In Colombia, a wide range of political and civil society actors have united under the Defend the Peace (Defendamos la Paz, DLP) movement, using social media—specifically, the WhatsApp messaging app—to connect, organize, and advocate for policies that involve the full, prompt implementation of the country’s historic 2016 peace deal. 

The DLP movement arose as a response to the government’s hostility towards the accords. It has played a key role in organizing massive protests, as well as issuing pluralistic jointly drafted letters to major decision makers that are difficult for President Iván Duque’s administration to ignore. At a time when Colombia—similarly to many countries in the Western Hemisphere— is facing stark political polarization, this WhatsApp group has emerged as a way to connect actors on both the left and right, with the common aim of protecting, building, and consolidating a peace that has eluded Colombia for the past six decades.

The rise and impact of the “Defend the Peace” movement

The first DLP meeting in February 2019 came about as a response to President Duque’s decision to reject the law that would give legal standing to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), the transitional justice mechanism envisioned in the 2016 peace accords. Although Colombia’s Congress and the country’s Constitutional Court had already passed the law, Duque proposed reforms aimed at undermining the very foundations of the peace deal. 

In light of the executive branch challenging a fundamental pillar of the peace agreement, members of Colombia’s Congress and concerned civil society leaders formally launched a movement with the stated aim of guaranteeing that the 2016 accords are fully implemented. To facilitate communication and advance discussions on possible actions, they created a WhatsApp group chat. 

“Today, the DLP group chat has more than 250 members, ranging from liberal, progressive, and conservative members of Colombia’s Congress, as well as academics, civil society, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous leaders, journalists, demobilized leaders of the FARC, former army commanders, and local and international NGOs such as WOLA.”

Following Duque’s rejection of the JEP in February 2019, the DLP addressed their first letter— written before they had formally given the movement a name—to UN Secretary General António Guterres asking that they help ensure the JEP’s’ institutional integrity and the safety of its judges. Mr. Guterres responded in kind and urged President Duque to allow the JEP to function as established by the peace accords. 

Today, the DLP group chat has more than 250 members, ranging from liberal, progressive, and conservative members of Colombia’s Congress, as well as academics, civil society, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous leaders, journalists, demobilized leaders of the Revolutionary Armed of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, former army commanders, and local and international NGOs such as the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The group chat has sparked multiple sub-groups: several cover specific regions of the country, another is a networking space just for youth leaders.

Using WhatsApp and Twitter as an organizing tool, the DLP helped mobilize a protest in which citizens marched in favor of peace and against Duque’s rejection of the JEP law. By May, Colombia’s Congress voted against the president’s proposed reforms, and the Constitutional Court ordered Duque to put pen to paper and ratify the law. 

The DLP’s methods are as pluralistic as they are effective. Through 2019, the movement has produced several public letters, drafted jointly and democratically, addressed to major decision makers, advocating in defense of the peace accords. The chat is ruled by cordial and supportive discourse, where specific political platforms are only mentioned within the wider context of advocating effectively for peace. Members of the chat rapidly defuse arguments that stray away from the topic at hand and could cause friction by reminding each other of the greater goal of peace implementation. The DLP movement covers such a wide and pluralistic range of Colombia’s political spectrum and thought leaders that it makes the messaging tough for the government to ignore.

Other jointly drafted letters produced by the DLP include petitions to the UN, to the ELN asking for cease-fires, and to the OAS asking for consistent support for implementing peace. 

The DLP further demonstrated its power and reach in helping organize the July 26 march calling for greater protection for social leaders, spanning across 80 cities in Colombia and over 40 cities worldwide with hundreds of thousands of attendees. In Washington, 54 civil society organizations hosted their own DC march, receiving support from multiple members of the U.S. Congress.

Indeed, the July 26 march resulted in so much mobilization that even President Duque—whose government has convoluted the numbers concerning the killing of social leaders— participated in the march while in Cartagena. He was nevertheless heckled by the crowds of protestors. 

The DLP’s success in mobilizing a popular movement—both online and offline—points to their ability to bring together a wide range of political factions around the common goal of defending the peace accords. Political differences exist among DLP members, but common ground is found and concessions are made in the interest of pursuing an outcome which by necessity, the DLP argues, must be treated as above politics as usual: protect, build, and consolidate peace that has eluded Colombia for the past six decades. 

Polarization around the peace accords

How did the FARC peace agreement become one of the most polarized political issues in the country? In 2016, as the four-year negotiations process came to an end, President Juan Manuel Santos put the peace agreement to a vote in a referendum, keeping to a promise he had made to the Colombia people.

However, Santos had failed to adequately socialize the contents of the accord. This, and a rampant misinformation campaign on the part of those who opposed the accords on the basis that it was too lenient on the FARC, led to 50.2 percent votes against the agreement and 49.8 percent in favor. The vote would split the country down the middle on one of its most historic decisions.

The 2018 presidential elections further exacerbated polarization. Candidates who favored the full implementation of the 2016 agreement failed to unite around a single candidate; those who saw the agreement as overly lenient managed to consolidate around Iván Duque from the right-wing Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party.

Duque has insisted on unity since his inaugural speech and has even stated that, contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he will not “shred the accords.” Yet a year into his presidency, it’s hard to see any real efforts to advance the accords, let alone unify Colombia. His attacks on the JEP, the lack of funding for peace initiatives in his four-year development plan, and, as stated by a DLP letter, his administration’s “progressive dismantling of verification and international accompaniment to the peace process,” all point to his intentions to subject the peace accords to a slow death

“With three years left in office, Duque should examine ways he can work alongside DLP, which offers him a space to ground his conciliatory speech, getting robust implementation back on the agenda while making concessions with a wide array of political actors.”

Nothing underscores the political cost of an unsatisfactory first year in office like the results of the 2019 regional elections, in which centrist candidates supportive of the 2016 agreement won mayorships in Colombia’s three largest cities. Both extremes of the political spectrum— including Duque’s partylost significant political ground in what was once strongholds. This was a clear sign that the electorate was not happy with the stagnant, polarized debate that has characterized Colombian politics for the past few years, and was more interested in advancing alternatives.

Neither Duque’s base nor the opposition appear to be happy with this recalcitrant implementation, leaving the president with a 29 percent approval rating. With candidates backed by former president Álvaro Uribe—leader of the Democratic Center and Duque’s mentor— suffering electoral defeat, and with Uribe’s approval ratings falling to the lowest in his career, it is clear that Colombians feel more represented under the wide umbrella of DLP than by the current anti-accord government. This has also been apparent in Colombia’s Congress, where Duque has an atrocious record of passing legislation he has supported. The president has generally been unable to work with a majority that, although more ideologically akin to his party, has sided with the pro-accord opposition organized under DLP.

But it is not too late to turn things around in Colombia. With three years left in office, Duque should examine ways he can work alongside the DLP, which offers him a space to ground his conciliatory speech, getting robust implementation back on the agenda while making concessions with a wide array of political actors. This struggling administration can turn things around by changing course and advancing the peace accord. For Colombia, this would mean implementing the prescribed systemic changes aimed to bridge its most polarizing chasms of historical inequality, sectarianism, and violence. 

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