The Colombian peace process between the government of then president Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) guerrillas sought to end 50 years of war. Negotiations took place in Havana, Cuba, between 2011 and 2016, and the final peace agreement was heralded internationally as the most complete of world peace accords. But in 2016, Colombians rejected the agreement in a polarizing referendum amid a disinformation campaign similar to the Leave narrative in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign in the United States.
A commonly proposed antidote to so-called post-truth politics is for states to increase civic education on key policy issues in order to help people distinguish “fact” from “fiction.” But, as I think many of us are increasingly realizing, it is often impossible to counter disinformation with what we believe to be truthful information, as people do not form opinions based on rationality. Our political views are shaped by emotions, culture, history, and identity—all complex forces, often even contradictory.
I spent a year embedded in the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP), the government institution in charge of the peace negotiations, doing ethnographic research on the government officials (2017–2018). I focused on their attempt to communicate the peace process to Colombian society, both before and after this referendum. They created a strategy called “peace pedagogy,” in which OACP officials travelled the country explaining the negotiations to different sectors of society. I reconstructed its evolution through interviews with government officials and audiences, drawing on a decade of living in Colombia and working with peacebuilding organizations throughout the peace process. And I witnessed firsthand the challenges OACP officials faced by observing their everyday work and lives in Bogotá, as well as dozens of peace pedagogy sessions across Colombia.
The purpose of peace pedagogy was to prepare the public for implementation of the peace accord, help them develop an informed opinion for the referendum, and dispel disinformation. The opposition party, the Democratic Center, led by former president Álvaro Uribe, spread scaremongering narratives about the peace process, claiming it would make Colombia communist, abolish private property, and impose “gender ideology” on schoolchildren, turning them gay and destroying the traditional Colombian family. Government officials in the OACP referred to these narratives as “myths,” which they believed should be countered with “realities.”
The problem with the OACP’s strategy was that it sought to be nonpolitical. The rationale of peace pedagogy was that the peace process involved a body of objective knowledge, on which the OACP was the authority, and that the government should teach Colombians this knowledge. This portrayed the peace process as above politics. But peace is inescapably political: It involves a political settlement between warring parties and negotiations between the government and the political establishment. Peace accords reform political systems and depend on political will for implementation. And, crucially, public support for peace processes is contingent on citizens’ perceptions of national politics.
Rational peace pedagogy
Peace pedagogy was not planned at the beginning of the peace process. In fact, it’s a world first. Peace education, a subfield of peace studies, refers to the teaching and acquiring of skills for nonviolent conflict resolution. In contrast, government peace pedagogy predominantly referred to the dissemination of information, first about the negotiations, then about the final peace agreement. It evolved organically, partly because citizens demanded information about what was being negotiated. The peace talks were bound by a confidentiality principle. All official communication about the peace process needed to be tightly controlled, as anything the government said publicly affected the power balance in the negotiations. This led the OACP to emphasize technical accuracy, to avoid seeming political. Officials memorized a script—an extensive document continually updated as negotiations progressed. This was accompanied by a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, with a clean, technical aesthetic, full of bullet points, statistics, and acronyms. As one official told me, “Our position was always to inform, not promote the peace process.” This explaining reflected a liberal belief that the government’s discourse about peace was not political, but based on objective truths.
People flocked to ask the government questions, filling open-air sports stadiums in small towns and sweaty auditoriums in municipal buildings. But “peace” quickly became synonymous with the political clash between Santos and Uribe. Uribe’s opposition began when Santos initiated the peace talks in 2012, complaining that Santos was negotiating with terrorists. In 2013, he founded the Democratic Center, which explicitly rejected the peace process. Presidential elections were held in 2014, and Santos pledged to complete the peace negotiations if he was re-elected, while the Democratic Center’s candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, promoted disinformation about the peace process, claiming it threatened Colombian democracy. Santos’s victory, by 50.98 percent, suggested that peace had won, but only just. Over time, as the Democratic Center’s emotive disinformation messages took root in the collective imaginary, peace pedagogy became increasingly difficult. As the team’s director told me, discussing early pedagogy efforts in 2012-–2014, “We travelled all over the country, on the receiving end of everybody’s criticisms.”
Throughout the peace process, the OACP gave talks to thousands of Colombians, especially in war-torn areas where communities would be most affected by the peace deal. They also adopted increasingly creative strategies—online courses, workshops with local NGOs, informative booklets tailored to different groups. But in comparison with the rest of the OACP, the pedagogy team was tiny. It began with three people. At its height, it never had more than twelve. The three successive directors of the team over the course of the Santos administration, all women, felt that their work was undervalued compared with the work of negotiating. In retrospect, many of the officials thought that their insufficient communication with the public led to things going “well in Havana, but badly in Colombia,” as one put it.
The attachment to rationality
Santos and his senior ministers and officials shared certain cultural characteristics—they were upper class, from Bogotá, white, and educated in the best universities in Colombia and abroad. Santos, whose family is influential in the Colombian Liberal party, studied at the London School of Economics, and spent many years in London. He was a fan of former British prime minister Tony Blair, and coauthored a book with Blair about adapting the Third Way ideology to Colombia. The pedagogy team, meanwhile, were mostly young, middle- and upper-middle-class individuals from Bogotá, well-educated, and deeply personally committed to the peace process. They tended to see themselves as not political, often saying they were “not santista,” but they were what I call culturally liberal, as opposed to politically liberal: liberal ideology was embedded in their cultural worldview, intersecting with class, region of origin, race, and education.
Of course liberalism varies hugely across time and space, but there are commonalities, including the centrality of the rational individual, and the idea that states can improve society using objective, scientific knowledge—which underpinned the OACP’s notion of peace pedagogy.
The officials valued rationality in and of itself, but also in reaction to and repudiation of Uribe, who they saw as a right-wing, manipulative populist leader. Mauricio Rodríguez, former Colombian ambassador to the United Kingdom and brother-in-law and advisor to Santos, told me he thought Santos’s communication was “too rational and technical”; he should have tried to “sell [peace] emotionally.” But that was not Santos’s style. In contrast, he described Uribe as a charismatic “communicative genius,” who incited “hatred and fear.” This is a global liberal stereotype—the Latin American warlord figure, a captivating orator, folkloric, one of the people—and it reveals more about liberalism’s condescension than about populism per se (see Sánchez 2016 for a discussion). Progressive urban elites usually want to distinguish themselves from this stereotype, framing the use of emotions in politics as uncivilized and irrational. The OACP’s desire to be rational was partly construed in opposition to what they saw as populist politicking.
Distrust of the state
There is widespread distrust of the state in Colombia. Communities in peripheral regions feel abandoned by the state, and the state was brutally violent to civilians during the war. People’s perceptions of the state affect how they receive government officials (see Burnyeat 2017 for an example). This is what Philip Abrams called the “state-idea”—the convergence in people’s minds of the state as a homogenous, transhistorical actor, when really it is a multiplicity of people, institutions, processes, and materialities.
As one official described it, peace pedagogy revealed not just the challenges of communicating about the peace agreement, but, of “communication in general from a state to a citizenry,” which “exposed with greater force what was already there […] that communicating from a state to society involves trust, presence, being there, and making technical language accessible”. Officials experienced how their presence as the government was received, learning about how people perceived the government through their own experience of representing and embodying it. Representing the government to skeptical audiences and translating the peace process for public opinion was a politically and emotionally fraught task, especially in this polarized context.
But the OACP officials also encountered widespread hope. Many communities supported the peace process, while not necessarily being pro-government. One official told me, “The [state–society] relationship was broken, but the peace process was a powerful issue which helped people overcome their distrust, to move peace forward together.”
This was easier when pedagogy workshops ran jointly with civil society organizations. The director of a nongovernmental organization who partnered with the OACP told me, “The distrust in the state was evident, but the alliance with us made it less confrontational.” Presenting a united front diffused the sense that peace pedagogy was simply government propaganda.
The messenger matters
The elite officials were culturally different from the majority of their audiences. Valentina, the pedagogy team director (a pseudonym), was fairly representative of the officials I got to know during my fieldwork. In her late thirties, with the fair skin and dark hair common among upper-middle-class bogotanos, she dressed unpretentiously, in jeans and flat boots. Both elites and grassroots communities found her approachable, generous, and passionately committed to peace. Her uncle had been kidnapped by the guerrillas, and this motivated her to study peace studies at the Sorbonne with John Paul Lederach, a leading figure in the field. She spent 10 years working for the German Development Agency (GIZ) in Sri Lanka, Germany, and Colombia, and was struck by Germany’s “never again” message about the atrocities of World War II, which made her hopeful that Colombia could also overcome its violent past.
Working at GIZ, Valentina witnessed the distrust between communities and the state, and decided the only way the Colombian state would improve was if good people went to work for it. “That’s why I put on the shoes of the state,” she said. “My heart has always been in serving others, and we have to do that from lo público,” a term which conflates the public sector with the public good, suggestive of the Weberian ideal of a state that furthers utopian goals in a rational manner (see Bear and Mathur 2015). She frequently expressed awareness of the state’s problems, saying that in order to change it, one had to strive to “do things differently as the state.” She explicitly contrasted lo público with lo político (the political), which she saw as electoral, as masking hidden interests.
She described to me her first experiences in speaking to skeptical communities as the OACP: “I never imagined it would be so difficult to be the government, but also, in my case, white, female, from Bogotá, and young. All those things count against you. You have to be conscious of them and manage them. Not deny them, recognize them.” Speaking as the government was already a disadvantage; the cultural difference aggravated this.
Conversely, it helped when peace pedagogues shared attributes with the audiences. A theologian was hired to do pedagogy with religious sectors, and told people, “I don’t support the peace process because I’m working for the government. I’m working with the government because I support the peace process, due to my Christian principles.” In contrast, a young civilian woman addressing war-weary military audiences found her positioning an obstacle: “They asked me, ‘Is this your first job?’ They interrupted me constantly, and didn’t believe anything I told them.”
Communicating from the government is political
When Santos announced there would be a referendum on the deal, he proclaimed that its 300 pages would be disseminated widely, for Colombians “to have all the information,” saying, “Nobody will be able to say they did not have the chance to know the agreement.” This cast the referendum—an electoral exercise—in terms of rational deliberation. Yet as anthropologist Jonathan Spencer points out in the Sri Lankan context, politicians who claim to be above politics often use this claim politically, to transmit the idea that they are superior to their opponents. As former first lady Michelle Obama said of Donald Trump’s political bullying in the 2016 election, “When they go low, we go high.” In the liberal imagination, referenda allow citizens to choose or legitimate policies. But this ideal of public rationality obscures the confrontational character of electoral politics. Santos believed he could silence Uribe’s opposition by winning, thereby securing the future of peace. But his gamble did not pay off. On October 2, Colombians rejected the peace accord by just 50.2 percent.
The government then spent five weeks meeting with No campaigners, listening to their objections, and renegotiating with FARC. A new agreement incorporating almost all the No campaign’s demands was signed and then later ratified by Congress. Implementation began on December 1, 2016, but the Democratic Center continued opposing the peace accord to garner support for the 2018 presidential elections.
The OACP blamed themselves for having been “too rational” and “not emotional enough” in their communication about the peace agreement. Valentina told me, “We had thought that doing peace pedagogy meant narrating the peace agreement,” maintaining “technical rigor,” and “being faithful to what had been agreed.” But the referendum was “a wake-up call; we needed to connect with people’s emotions.” They tried a new strategy, working with artists, journalists, and teachers from different regions to create new “pro-peace narratives” through cultural productions such as songs and graffiti. But it was too late. Uribe’s successor candidate, Iván Duque, won the presidency on an anti-accord platform.
Today, although implementation continues, Duque has been criticized for undermining the peace process and allowing a new cycle of violence to emerge, with murders of activists and demobilized FARC members spiraling. As hate crime spiked in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, so Duque’s victory strengthened the polarization created by the peace referendum, legitimating hatred against various others.
Ultimately, while the Santos government expended great efforts in negotiating with the FARC, they failed to dedicate the same efforts to mobilizing society around peace. Government–society relations were the fatal flaw in the peace process.
Liberalism, as a cultural system and set of world views, shapes the logics of many political elites in Colombia and beyond. The idea that an impartial government can teach society about peace, and educate people to vote in their own best interests, is a deeply liberal one. The Colombian case shatters the fantasy of rationality, which haunts liberal reactions to post-truth politics. The project of explaining in polarized contexts, as if the OACP’s pedagogy speeches and the peace agreement itself were predicated on objective truths, fails in not recognizing that political ideologies are intertwined with culture, and that peace is always political.
The OACP’s experience offers valuable lessons about tackling disinformation. Rational communication has limited power to dispel lies, especially in electoral contexts. And citizens’ perceptions of the state affect how officials are received; no government–society communication is ever nonpolitical. Getting officials in charge of a policy to meet directly with local communities who will be affected by it is valuable, but officials need to acknowledge historic distrust and work to overcome it, which they can do by making alliances with civil society organizations to facilitate trust building, and by considering the cultural and socioeconomic differences between them and their audiences.
Political marketing strategies can sway voters temporarily, but equipping a society with tools to make lasting social transformations takes time. Just as violence is reproduced culturally, ending violence and building peace in Colombia is a task that requires cultural change, and the structural reforms promised in the peace agreement. The challenge we all face, as we reevaluate the role of information in the post-truth era, involves a deep connection between pedagogy and politics: educating citizens who can scrutinize governments critically, and channeling emotions toward better political futures.
Charlotte Corden is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is fascinated with the power of hand-drawn images to reveal and describe complex truths. Her first graphic nonfiction book, written by Alisse Waterston, is Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning (2020).