Peace in Colombia has always been an elusive and idealistic concept. Now it seems support for peace may be for sale to the highest bidder.
Allegations have emerged in the last few days that the Colombian government awarded a lucrative contract to former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus to implement a demonstration in Bogotá supporting the ongoing dialogues between the government and the FARC guerrilla group. His planned march, presented as a show of public support for national reconciliation and “the value of human existence,” is scheduled to take place on March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day.
— Antanas Mockus (@AntanasMockus) February 9, 2015
However, the legitimacy of the march came under suspicion yesterday, when David Barguil, the president of the Conservative Party, shared a document on Twitter 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 about 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.”
— DAVID BARGUIL ASSIS (@davidbarguil) February 9, 2015
Public demonstrations and marches — both for and against the dialogues as well as a number of other political issues related to the country’s armed conflict, including representation of victims and unsolved human rights abuses — are not uncommon in the streets of Colombia’s cities, but such mobilizations are typically convened and organized by civil society organizations or political groups that are upfront about their participation.
The March for Life was being presented as a similar event, organized by a popular former mayor and ex-presidential candidate, with a broad message to appeal to as many people as possible — Mockus had even invited politicians on opposite ends of the political spectrum to participate. Now, however, the validity of the march as a real show of public opinion is in question.
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.
Both Mockus and government representatives have strongly denied the charges. Mockus said that accepting payment for organizing a march would be “as if they had paid me to breathe,” adding that “Colombia cannot continue thinking that every citizen is corrupt.”
He also accused the political right of attacking him because they didn’t like the idea of the March for Life.
Meanwhile, the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace released a statement saying the $200,000 contract was for “designing tools to implement innovative actions to facilitate the understanding of the peace process and strengthen public support.” These tools, the office stated, included focus groups, data collection, conducting surveys and distributing educational materials, among other strategies.
The statement called the planned March for Life an “admirable initiative,” but emphasized that it “has nothing to do with this contract nor any activity of the Office.”
Still, in a country where the dialogues are still a deeply divisive subject and rumors swirl every election season about political parties buying off voters with the promise of a meal, transportation or even a cookie, there is little faith in the honesty of politicians. This latest scandal seems likely to simply push the increasingly partisan edges of Colombian politics even farther apart, with supporters on each side choosing to believe what they want to be true.