Publicado el Juan Gabriel Gomez Albarello

Overcoming the Nixon Complex

The US President Nixon talking with university students at the Lincoln Memorial. Picture by Bettmann/Corbis.
The US President Nixon, talking with university students at the Lincoln Memorial. Fotografía de Bettmann/Corbis.

At times, political leaders of all strands may feel alone. Without a doubt, this feeling intesifies in regimes where citizens have been substantially deprived of their power to hold rulers accountable. This is something that occurs not only in totalitarian systems but also in the so-called democracies, where the corrupting effect of money severly distorts the link between the electors and the elected. Surrounded by people who profit from the status quo or by those who merely are unwilling to defy the prevailing consensus within an inner circle, political leaders may feel that all the messages they get are skewed by base motives. Suddenly then, those leaders feel the urge to get the touch of real people, of authentic people, even and precisely of those ones who vehemently question the soundness of their policies. It happens that those leaders end up doing things such as visiting the Lincoln Memorial, what the US President Nixon did on the 9th of May 1970.

President Santos did pay a similar visit to the Peace Camp installed in front of the Congress Palace, the Capitolio, on the 27th of October 2016. Did he overcome what we can refer to as the Nixon Complex?

For sure, there is a good number of differences between Nixon and Santos that we should bear in mind. To start with, Nixon visited the Lincoln Memorial and got into an impromptu dialogue with university students because of being exhausted by his own anguish. The days previous to his visit were full of ill-fated events. On the 20th of April 1970, Nixon had announced that he had ordered the withdrawl of 150.000 US soldiers from Vietnam as a proof of his commitment to find a peaceful resolution to the war in that country. However, ten days after, the public opinion was shocked by the announcement the very Nixon made of an unexpected escalation of that war: the US intervention in Cambodia. Protests erupted all over in the university campuses. One of them, the student demonstration held at the Kent State University on the 4th of May, had an appalling end: 4 students were killed by the National Guard.

Santos, on the contrary, rides the tide of popular protests in favor of a final peace agreement. He also benefits from having received a major backing of the international community. Through the Nobel Prize Committee at Oslo, that “community” annointed him as a Peace Leader. So far, no one has been killed because of being either in favor of the peace agreements or against them. Admirably, the cease fire with FARC remains intact and no incident has been registered that would derail the peace process. The only stain is the obscure killing of Miguel Ángel Perdomo, Cecilia Orozco’s driver – Cecilia Orozco is a journalist who has been very vocal in her criticism towards former President Uribe and towards many other people who identify very closely with what he stands for.

Among Nixon’s and Santos’ visits there are other relevant differences we should be aware of. Nixon seemed to be trapped on his own makings and became almost delirious about the recollections of his attempts to break free from his own isolation. Santos, on the opposite, has consistently shown willingness to pay heed to people from different persuasions and to adjust his choices to new realities. The contrast between Nixon at the Lincoln Memorial and Santos at the Peace Camp is very telling in this respect.

When Nixon met the students who had gathered to protest against the war, he went into a rambling discourse that exasperated his interlocutors. Some of them felt prompted to require the US President to focus on the unsettling effects the Vietnam War had on the US. In contrast, Santos arrived to a Peace Camp that had requested his presence and addressed him in a very specific way. After being enthusiatically greeted, Santos listened very attentively to the reading of a Peace Camp’s press communiqué and participated in a symbolic exercise of unknotting the peace process. Then, with great composture, he addressed his remarks to the small crowd, and through them, to the entire nation, for he was aware that there were a good number of journalists who shortly would inform us about the entire event. President Santos said that a new agreement with FARC had to be reached before Christmas and that getting to that agreement was a matter of weeks, not of months. The core of his speech, though, was his announcement that, in order to get a popular endorsement of the Peace Accords, he would choose “the option that would polarize the country the less.”

What does it mean? After the victory of the NO option in the Plebiscite, the Colombian Government has held numerous meetings with critics of the Peace Accords, critics who hold similar positions on a range of issues that go from the establishment of a transitional justice mechanism called the Peace Jurisdiction, the amnesty to drug-trafficking related crimes commited in conexion with the armed conflict, the restriction to participate in politics to those members of FARC responsible of crimes against humanity, to the contents of the Agrarian Accord that some see as a threat to their property rights. In Havana, FARC’s Secretariado recently met with members of a Christian congregation who were oppossed to what they perceived as a gender ideology imposed on the country via the Peace Accords. The result of this meeting was a joint communiqué in which both parties expressed their agreement on a number of issues and, apparently, put an end to the myth of the gender ideology. Yet, an agreement of this sort has not been reached on the most contentious issues, the ones I refered to above.

The Colombian Government’s perception of Uribe and his party is that they resort to protracting tacticts in order to press for a different type of agreement with FARC and they also want to capitalize the political momentum for the next congressional and presidential elections, which would be held in 2018. Some people on the press speculate that the Government would move to marginalize Uribe and limit itself to seek an agreement with leaders of other NO groups (in an interview to El Tiempo, Juan Fernando Cristo, Minister of the Interior, said just the opposite). In turn, Uribe and his party might have become more radical and begun to talk about abstaining if a second plebiscite is held. Such an abstention would not be gracious but malevolent, as the NO campaign was, something that one of his promoters candidly admitted four days after the 2nd of October. All this allows us to understand the appeal that the option that less polarizes the country has for the Government. Such an option may involve resorting to Congress, where the Government enjoys a comfortable majority, rather than convoking a second plebiscite.

What’s the matter with this option? Colombia, like many other countries, currently seeks solutions to its problems that are beyond the capacity of the current representative assemblies. The degree of corruption and capture of these assemblies by private interests varies from country to country. Let us just recall the devastating account of congressional politics in the US, where legislators spend more time raising funds than legislating. Things in Colombia may be even worse than in the US. Yet, the point to retain here is that the democratic deficit is one of the most formidable obstacles to overcome in order to make sustainable the peace process. Although negotiating the Peace Accords is made doable by means of restricting it to the elites on both sides, the popular endorsement of those Accords is what would guarantee the success of their implementation.

There is something else to take into consideration. Thanks to a constitutional ammendment approved by Congress on the 7th of July 2016, all bills concerning the implementation of the Peace Accords would be discussed and approved according to a special legislative procedure, one that shortens the terms to deliberate and drastically reduces the veto power of Congress on the President. Nonetheless, the same ammendment holds that this special procedure would become law of the nation once the Peace Accords become popularly endorsed. With a little bit of leguleyism (juridical pettyfogging), the Colombian Congress may pass a new act that would stand for such popular approval. However, the fraud would be so apparent that the blemish on the procedure would finally affect the political validity and efficacy of its outcomes. Another option the President may consider is to do without such an special legislative procedure, but then he would expose himself to all the setbacks that come from all Congress members having the opportunity to exploit the President’s anxiety to get things done. This scenario is really dreadful given that Santos’ period, and with it his political capital, would rapidly come to an end.

A second plebiscite is not exempt from serious risks. It can be lost again – just to mention one example, the Icelanders voted twice rejecting the terms of an economic agreement that benefited European creditors at the expense of the Icelandic people (the 2010 and 2011 Icelandic referendums on loan guarantees). Would the Government, FARC and the UN mission that verifies the implementation of the cease fire and the demobilization process be able to cope with the demoralizing effect of a second NO victory? So far, the NO victory has sparked spontaneous mobilizations and a good deal of imagination from people willing to offer compromise formulas that would salvage the Peace Accords. Who knows what impact would have another NO victory on the country. Would prompt another round of negotiations, that time successful? Or, on the contrary, would polarize it further? Would ignite anxiety within FARC’s combatants and lead them to desert to ELN, the other Marxist guerrilla still in arms, and even to Bacrims (successors of former paramilitary groups, held by the Colombian government to be mere criminal bands)?

I was a staunch critic of the Plebiscite because of the way the rules governing its implementation were modified so that the result sought by the Government would be obtained almost certainly – after being asked by the Government, Congress agreed to lower the electoral threshold of participants needed to make the Plebiscite valid from 50% plus one to 13% of the electoral census. With the previous rule, the 2nd of October Plebiscite would have been held invalid. From a potential of 34.899.945, only 13.066.047 voters cast a ballot, i.e. 37.43% of the electoral census. Yet, this outcome contributed to direct people’s attention to our chronic low turnout rates. We have begun a conversation about the meaning and consequences of allowing ourselves to live under a regime in which only a small fraction of the citizenry takes upon itself the task of choosing who will govern. In the context of this soul-searching exercise, a citizen proposed to launch a campaign called “adopt an abstentionist”, consisting in making each one of us responsible of persistently asking someone who does not vote to consider how important democracy is for him, for his family and for his country.

This has not been the only beneficial effect of the Plebiscite. There were numerous and spontaneous calls to reconciliation made by various victims of acts of violence perpetrated by armed actors, specially by FARC – here I would like to highlight two: the call made by victims of a FARC’s terrorist attack to the elite club El Nogal and the one made by Suso El Paspi, a popular comedian from Medellin, who published a very personal account of the wounds he would see healed if the peace process succeeded. In a manner that recalled the way in which a young French Muslim asked his country fellows to distinguish between Islam and terrorism, Antanas Mockus helped a former FARC combatant to ask the Colombian people forgiveness for her involvement in the armed conflict. Those calls have had an extraordinary appeal, albeit a limited one as the NO victory so shows. A new Peace Agreement, supported by a more comprehensive political and social base, would certainly augment the reach and the intensity of this spontaneous gestures of reconciliation.

As important as those gestures have also been the calls made by those who support the Peace Accords to engage in a dialogue with those who do not. In a country that was held hostage of a polarizing rhetoric during Uribe’s presidency – he did not cease to name FARC terrorists and continously demanded loyalty to his policies in a manner that recall some other authoritarian rulers, the also spontaneous calls to respect the position of those who opposed the Peace Accords are indications of a change in our political culture. True, it may not be a tidal change for most of those calls came from a well-educated middle class that may be out of sync with the popular culture. To name a few, here are a couple of examples: one from Elvira Maria Restrepo, a Colombian professor at the University of Miami; another one from Hector Abad Faciolince, a renowned literary author whose father, a university professor and human rights activist, was killed in Medellin in 1987. Less numerous were the depolarizing exercises held at the bottom of the social scale. One of them, that I found remarkable, was a conversation between a NO supporter and a YES one, held at a popular market place, which concluded with the reaffirmation of their friendship.

For sure, it is easier to make calls to be tolerant than being tolerant oneself. The opuscule Como Conversar com um Fascista (How to Talk with a Fascist), by Marcia Tiburi, written to conjure the hate speech that has become generalized in Brazil, illustrates well this predicament. Tiburi makes a good work showing that violence is in the end the only alternative to engaging in a dialogue with all those we disagree with. Without dialogue, what is left is the nude and crude violence, that old and extreme substitute of arguments and words. She makes the case that the model of the philosophical dialogue has to become a political methodology, one that would allow us to penetrate the mental armor that makes fascists immune to rational arguments. The key of this methodology is to propitiate an existential openness that would make citizen-to-citizen dialogues succeeed. However, as by itself this line of argumentation shows it, this exercise would be doomed to fail if previously none of us carries out the task of reviewing the prejudices that prompt us to call other people fascists and of committing to refrain from calling them so.

With or without a second plebiscite, this is the most exacting challenge that we have ahead, one that Jineth Bedoya, a journalist tortured and raped by paramilitaries in Bogotá in 2000, defined very well in this interview: “We have to begin to disarm people; we have to disarm people’s words for we are killing ourselves more with our words than with the firearms that killed us during 52 years. That’s the call: it is imperative that we begin to reflect on what I do in favor of peace – each one of us [has to aks herself] what she does in favor of peace and, surely, there we would find a road to put an end to so much polarization.”

In the present hour, are we up to this task? Would it be irresponsible to run the risk of a polarizing second plebiscite? If former president Uribe does not get on board, then the probability that his party may activate the basest and darkest energies of the country is considerable. Some people had placed his hope on the moderating effect that a phone call from the US Secretary of State John Kerry to Uribe might have on him, the most radical opponent to the Peace Accords. We only have access to the diplomatic wording of what was said in that call and, to judge by what Uribe has done afterwards, the expected moderating effect is yet to be seen. Being uncertain whether Uribe’s party would finally agree to endorse the Peace Accords, a second plebiscite may turn into another Pandora’s box.

Nonetheless, the probable and positive effects of a second plebiscite are also substantial. With a higher citizen involvement, the cost on cheating on the Peace Accords would increase in a considerable fashion. There would be more eyes enforcing the Peace Accords through informal control mechanisms, which in the end would be more effective than the formal ones. To the extent that the implementation of the Accords depends on many people, at the end of the day that citizen involvement is what would make that implementation work.

Moreover, under a more propitious framework and with a clearer view of the obstacles to surmount, YES promoters from the civil society, not from the political class, might appeal to both people’s reason and emotion successfully. Those promoters would be in a better position to get in touch with ordinary people in an authentic fashion, something that politicians are barely capable to do. However, to overcome the Nixon complex, President Santos would need a higher dose of humbleness, and yet of audacity, to engage ordinary people in their own terms and to prompt them to consider more carefully what entails to vote either YES or NO. This task would imply performing a continuous pedagogical, yet emotional exercise consisting in examining the costs of war (how many people have died; how much money is waisted on weapons, training, etc), the benefits of peace (the absence of killings in regions where FARC operated – something an observer noticed was erroneously discounted by most of the media as a ‘no event‘; how many schools, hospitals, universities, etc. may be built with money directed towards social investments, etc.) and the costs of peace (how reinsertion works, what resources are needed to make it succesful, etc.).

In turn, this effort has to be supplemented with a continuous humanization of all the people who have been involved in the conflict, both victims and victimizers, i.e. showing all the things that makes them human, especially their suffering and their hopes, to wide audiences. Along this line, sharing narratives from all of them, under the motto “Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen” ( quote attributed to Irene Butter), would certainly supply a symbolic repertoire with which many people might find motives to reach those they perceive to be on the other side. Here I would like to underline two things. First, all these are actions that demand skills that usually politicians lack. Second, their social effect partially depend on the comittment of mass media to spread those narratives and those humanized images of all those who took a side in the armed conflict.

Like Nixon, President Santos has to cross a boundary that separates him from ordinary citizens of all sorts. Like Nixon, he has to deal with the fact that the traditional middlemen from the political class would not be of much help for they do not have the skills with which they might carry out the extraordinary doings that a peace process demands. Santos may reach much more people by relying on civil society intermediaries that on the usual political cronies, like César Gaviria and Horacio Serpa, or younger ones like Armando Benedetti and Mauricio Lizcano, just to name a few.

Coda: According to his own account of what he said at the Lincoln Memorial, Nixon shared the following reflexion with the students who gathered there.Ending the war and cleaning up the city streets and the air and the water was not going to solve the spiritual hunger which all of us have, which of course has been the great mystery of life from the beginning of time.” On this point, I believe, Nixon is still right, which means that overcoming the Nixon Complex is a trifle compared with our most ardous and personal task.