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On newspaper cartoons in the Colombian Peace Process

The outcome of the referendum in Colombia came as a surprise, but a mapping of newspaper cartoons shows a divergence between the international and domestic framing of the peace process. Español

Laura Copete Trujillo Holly Eva Ryan
3 November 2016
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Newspapers headlines read in Spanish; "Colombia said No", in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara. All rights reserved.

On 2nd October 2016, Colombians were invited to the ballot to vote on whether to accept the terms of a peace deal between the government and FARC rebels, which had been several years in the making. Voters rejected the landmark deal, with a slim majority of 50.2% voting against it. Whilst the referendum’s failure to deliver public endorsement for the deal came as a surprise to many international observers, at a national level there have been signals of public discontent and fatigue with the peace process for some time. We found evidence of this in our study which centred on portrayals of the peace process through political cartoons featured in Colombia’s mainstream newspapers. Not only did this study tell us something about circulating opinions of the peace deal and its proponents within Colombian society, it also highlighted a divergence between the international and domestic framing of the peace process.

The Colombian government and the country's largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have recently taken steps to put an end to more than five decades of violent armed conflict known as ‘La Violencia’. During this conflict more than 220,000 people have been killed, and up to 80% of these have been civilians.

Since 2012 the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, FARC rebel leaders, and public officials from across the Americas have been participating in high stakes negotiations, with the aim of putting the Latin American region’s most protracted conflict to bed. Although the negotiations represent the third major attempt at resolution in the last five decades, there is a sense - internationally at least - that ‘the parties to the conflict have taken stock of both their own past failures and lessons learned from other peace processes’ (Conciliation Resources 2016) and that peace will finally prevail. Indeed, the negotiations have been favourably appraised by a range of influential international figures such as the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, Pope Francis and US President Obama (UN, 2016; Guardian, 2015a; New York Times, 2016). They have also been widely celebrated in the international press (See for example: BBC, 2016; Guardian, 2015b; New York Times, 2012; Washington Post, 2016).

There is good reason for such optimism. The negotiations have yielded partial agreements, accords and/or signs of collaboration on a range of contentious issues including the de-militarization and political re-integration of FARC members, substantive land reforms, curbing the illicit drug trade through a scheme of crop replacement, and the deactivation of landmines. On June 24 2016, Ban-Ki Moon and other prominent members of the international community attended a ceremony to mark the signing of ‘a bilateral and definitive ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, and laying aside of weapons’. This drew the fifth of five substantive items on the FARC-government negotiating agenda to a close, and paved the way for a referendum in October 2016, in which the Colombian people themselves had the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the peace deal.

Quite notably, political parties across the board in Colombia’s congress formed a temporary coalition to promote a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite which would have led to the ratification of the peace deal. Yet, there are powerful voices in Colombia who have been highly critical of the peace process. Former president Alvaro Uribe, leader of the ‘no’ campaign, has voiced his opinion that the government has made too many concessions to the rebels. Angling in on an offer of amnesty for rebels who confess their crimes, he has stated that the arrangement was tantamount to allowing the rebels to ‘get away with murder’. By a very small margin of 0.21% and with a remarkably low voter turnout at 37.4%, on October 2nd 2016, Colombians rejected the peace deal with FARC (Registraduria Nacional, 2016). The referendum results demonstrate not only a polarization within Colombia but also a disjuncture between the popular domestic discourse and the dominant international discourse on the peace negotiations.

Contrary to the celebratory tone of the international press, coverage of the peace deal in Colombia has been more critical. Our recent study mapping political cartoons from Colombia’s major newspapers since 2012 finds that these cartoons mirror a sense of fatigue and disenchantment with the negotiating process. Political cartoons combine graphic art, humour and commentary to produce a contrived snapshot or visual shorthand on the most pressing of current affairs. Where scholars have addressed political cartoons, they have variously described them as examples of expression that embody democratic freedoms (Kuipers, 2011; Maggio, 2007), a medium that simplifies and condenses complex scenarios to enhance their accessibility and familiarity for the public at large (El Refaie, 2003; Brants 1998; Richie 1979), as well as a form of social commentary that feeds off and in turn influences public perceptions (El Refaie, 2003). Together, these insights suggest that - with some limitations - political cartoons can be read as a barometer or even mirror of public opinion through which it is possible to map and interpret evolving discourses of support, critique and resistance to the Colombian Peace process.

In June 2016, we began a process of mapping political cartoons in five major Colombian newspapers: El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Pais, El Colombiano and El Heraldo. Using digitised archives and paper issues we were able to access and analyse a large sample of cartoons going all the way back to 2012We found that regardless of these newspapers’ particular ideological inclinations, their editorial cartoons have conveyed a generalized skepticism of the peace process right from the outset of the negotiations in 2012. In initial stages of the negotiations, cartoons emphasised an uncertainty rooted in the historical behavior of the rebel group and in the failures of previous negotiations with the government. Hence, many of the early signs of progress in the negotiations were overshadowed by the depiction of the FARC`s past actions and the myriad issues remaining to be agreed.

Meanwhile, we found that as time wore on, achievements and milestones in the negotiations were critiqued and overshadowed by depictions of the setbacks. For example, in November 2013, the partial accord on political participation was undermined in the centre-left newspaper El Espectador with cartoons that emphasized the fragility of the agreement. One of these depicted a ‘dove of peace’ walking on egg-shells. Other cartoons served to amplify public anger at the release of photographs showing FARC leaders ‘resting’ - sunbathing and smoking cigars - after the negotiations in Cuba. One cartoon depicts FARC prisoners held in a jungle confine with the statement, ‘tenemos derecho al descanso’ (trans. ‘we have the right to rest’).

Our study of domestic political cartoons also gave us insights into circulating perceptions of the parties to the negotiation. The FARC rebels are repeatedly characterized as untrustworthy and unreliable, with cartoons focusing on events that reinforce this narrative - the kidnapping of police officers and generals, the launch of an attack during a ceasefire. Antipathy towards the FARC is echoed by national polls, where some 90% of Colombians have quite consistently registered their disapproval of the rebel group.

Depictions of the Colombian government and particularly, the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos have shifted over time. Following Santos’ reelection campaign launch in November 2013, he has increasingly been depicted as pursuing the peace negotiations for his own personal agenda and regardless of the cost. Again, this shift tends to mirrors decline in Santos’ public approval ratings, which dropped to just 30% in August 2016.

Given the results of the referendum and the public perception of the negotiations and its parties, there are major challenges ahead for the Colombian government and for its people. Evidently, the effusive support of the international community and international press does not exactly translate into domestic support for the peace deal. This issue of disjunction is brought into sharp focus by the figure of Santos himself, who is at once an international Nobel Peace Prize winner and an increasingly unpopular national president. Santos now faces the tough job of mediating with the opposition and the FARC in order to tackle polarization and apathy within the country. Ensuring peace will also require Colombia to face up to the issues of race-based exclusions and income inequalities. Those communities that have been the hardest hit during la violencia are predominantly indigenous and Afro-Colombian. The voices of these groups are routinely marginalized in Colombia’s domestic politics; their political incorporation is essential for molding a just and lasting peace. 

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