The defeat of Colombia’s referendum in October of 2016 was a shocking development. Liberal and left-wing observers failed to predict that voters would be won over by the Right’s fear-mongering anti-peace campaign.
In Colombia, ideological vestiges of the Cold War have been refashioned to direct fear and anger towards a fictional “gender ideology” that supposedly poses a spiritual threat to Christian values. In the lead-up to the peace referendum, right-wing groups were able mobilize the imaginary threat of a queer, communist conspiracy to generate panic and turn it into political capital.
It’s time we grappled with the gruesome consequences of a political conjuncture in which online media figures, conservative religious movements, and a generalized politics of fear all intersect to shore up support for the Right, even in a country poised to overcome a persistent conflict that has raged for more than fifty years.
The War on “Gender Ideology”
After four years of negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Popular Army (FARC-EP), an end to Colombia’s long internal conflict seemed near. But in October 2016, with only 37 percent of the almost 35 million eligible voters showing up to the polls, the peace agreement was rejected by a margin of just 50.21 percent.
A few days after the failed referendum, Juan Carlos Vélez, manager of the campaign opposing the peace agreement, was interviewed by La República, a well known newspaper in Colombia. According to Vélez, the success of his campaign was due to two factors: 1) the importance of digital social networks over other media sources, and 2) a differential approach to messaging that targeted different class audiences.
The anti-peace right targeted high- and middle-income Colombians by telling them that they would be responsible for the economic burden of the agreement — “the cost of peace.” Meanwhile, among low-income voters, the Right stirred fears about possible reductions to social welfare as the national budget changed to prioritize the reintegration of ex-combatants. But inflecting everything was an angry hysteria about sexual diversity — a specter of creeping cultural deviance which the Colombian right successfully associated with the proposed peace agreement.
In Vélez’s words, “We were looking for people to go out to vote while pissed off.” In this, Vélez and his collaborators were clearly successful. But to understand why this tactic was so effective, it’s necessary to go back months before the referendum.
In August 2016, the streets of large cities like Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, and Medellin were filled with thousands of people dressed in white shirts waving Colombian flags. They carried banners and chanted “the only guideline the kids need is the bible.” These mobilizations were convened through social media and endorsed by both Protestant and Catholic leaders. The marchers criticized the government’s intention to open up a discussion about sexual diversity in public schools and railed against the institutionalization of what they referred to as “gender ideology.”
Oswaldo Ortiz, a Youtube personality and so-called “digital pastor,” exemplifies how conservative groups successfully used social media to link this fear about sexual diversity to opposition to the peace agreement. Ortiz is a thirty-something lawyer and a self-proclaimed “heterosexual activist” in a crusade against what he calls the “gay lobby.” In his Youtube videos, Ortiz mixes a conservative religious agenda with an easy-going, modern attitude. His videos show him jogging, often using hashtags such as #runningwithjesus.
Like conspiracy-minded commentators in the United States and elsewhere, Ortiz is obsessed with revealing the pernicious influence of “gender ideology” in Colombian society at large.
In one video, Ortiz presents footage of Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator during the peace process. The clip shows de la Calle at a press conference, repeating, “You are not born a man, you become a man. You are not born a woman, you become a woman.”
In another video, Ortiz features the Argentine reactionary Augustin Laje, whose latest book (The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion) argues that sexual diversity, feminism, and environmentalism replaced proletarianism in leftist politics after the fall of the Soviet Union. The book’s cover features an image of Che Guevara wearing striking red lipstick, superimposed over a rainbow flag.
In the interview, Laje defines gender as the cultural aspect of human sexuality. It becomes an ideology, he says, when the cultural aspect displaces the “natural” determinations.
In a similar vein, popular evangelical pastor Alejandro Ortiz recently wrote — in an article addressed to “atheists, gays, lesbians, extreme environmentalists, feminists, and evolutionists” — “the day will come when God will put the saved on his right hand, and on the left — yes, on the left – the accursed. The evangelical right has arrived to Colombia, and arrived to stay”.
While it’s true that the Colombian congress began implementing a nearly identical peace agreement just a month after the defeated referendum, the Colombian population remains politically polarized, which poses significant challenges for any future reconciliation.
The Politics of Fear
In Colombia, drummed-up hysteria over “gender ideology” channels public support for the right wing by linking Christian fundamentalism with anticommunist rhetoric. “Gender ideology” evokes the specter of a conspiracy threatening traditional values like Christianity, heterosexuality, and market liberalism — and allows the Right to mobilize fear in the service of their political agenda.
This tactic is nothing new. Throughout history, fear has proven to be a dangerous and effective political tool. During the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear attack kept the American population on guard, allowing the militarization of everyday life. More recently, the “clash of civilizations” narrative that laid the groundwork for the “war on terror” has successfully mobilized fear in the service of NATO’s crusade against Islamic fundamentalists. Today, the upsurge in racism and xenophobia in the United States, materialized in Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” recalls the right-wing fantasy of an armed Christianity capable of meeting the threat of hostile heathenism.
Colombia is no exception. In the 1980s, the National Restoration Movement (MORENA) was formed as a paramilitary front under the auspices of wealthy cattle ranchers, drug dealers, and politicians. The movement, led by paramilitary leader Ernesto Baéz, claimed that its purpose was to defend traditional Christian values in Colombia.
In his book The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads, anthropologist Aldo Civico describes how Colombian paramilitarism won support among the population:
Support has also come from common people, who are often thankful for the kind of order that [the paramilitaries] provide or, at a minimum, have seen them as a minor and necessary evil to exterminate the brutes — the guerrillas, but also the desechables, literally the disposable people, the scum of the earth such as drug addicts, petty thieves, and homosexuals. The paramilitaries have functioned like a sanitation department, disposing the waste.
When Oswaldo Ortiz was criticized for promoting hate speech, he claimed that he faced persecution from “Christianophobes” in the “Gay Lobby.” When his Facebook and Youtube accounts were closed due to complaints, Ortiz declared that he and his followers were subjected to a “Digital Genocide.” Like alt-right reactionaries in the US and elsewhere, Ortiz attempts to flip the arguments against him by posing as a victim of hate speech whenever his “right” to promote hate speech is denied.
But since the implementation of the new peace agreement, at least twelve social leaders have been killed in 2017. Pro-agreement activists risk their lives as the government dismisses the existence of paramilitary activity in departments like Caquetá, Choco, Antioquia, Cordoba, Cesar, and Valle del Cauca. In this historical context, the article by evangelical pastor Alejandro Ortiz — entitled “Christians Are at War with the LGBTI Community” — reads like a call to arms. There are victims of violence and persecution in Colombia — but they’re not members of the Christian right.
As the Colombian peace process continues to unfold in uncertain conditions, we must remain attentive to the fear-mongering tactics of Colombia’s hateful right-wing — tactics that have already proven troublingly successful, and that may prove successful again.