cuestioname
Social Networks

Colombia: Will "Social" Questions to the Government Work?

“How much money did Popayan sewer planning and drains replacement really cost?”  “How much money was wasted in improvisation?” “Why isn’t there serious sanctions to sex offenders in Transmilenio?” “How do you know pink buses will solve sexual abuse in Transmilenio?”

This is not some press conference by politicians. Nor are the questions being asked by journalists. These are ordinary Colombians trying to get some answers from their leaders through a website called Cuestiona.me.

The website, created by two Venezuelans, is one of the most recent initiatives in Colombia to make leaders, primarily politicians and government institutions, accountable to their constituents.

So far, President Juan Manuel Santos, Green Party leader, Enrique Peñalosa and even Venezuelan opposition leader, Henrique Capriles have been questioned in the forum, which has caught the attention of the local media.

For several decades paramilitary groups and guerrillas have run cities and towns, especially in remote areas with little or no government presence. State actors from the police to the Ombudsman would turn blind eyes to property expropriations and mass killings - they bowed to the interests of the thugs rather than the Colombian people. 

Now, a little over a decade after the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia, and amidst peace talks with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the acronym FARC), the conflict's political dimensions have morphed into criminality. The paramilitaries-turned gangsters, in particular, have retained influence over Colombia’s weak and corrupt institutions.

As pointed out by the Colombian NGO Nuevo Arco Iris, these groups have kept close relations with the security forces and have maintained alliances with local politicians based on protecting their already established economic interests.

A forum like Cuestiona.me could help the process of making these institutions respond to the people, which seems a key step towards achieving peace in Colombia. “We are at the doorway of a post-conflict process and the State must find alternatives for all citizens to have access to those services that they are entitled by the Constitution,” says this professor and director of the entrepreneurship department at business school, CESA in Bogotá.

Having Colombian institutions start a dialogue with the people could be a difficult mission even for garrulous people like Latinos.

“In Latin American countries we are very keen to talk and give our opinion but the truth is that no leader listens to us. And that is the problem that Cuestiona.me is trying to solve”, says Alejandro Quintero, an engineer and one of the brains behind Cuestiona.me.

The interactive platform allows anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or a Google+ account to pose a question, support someone else’s or suggest an answer to one of the queries. Still in its BETA phase, the website has questioned everyone from President Juan Manuel Santos about the destitution of Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo Petro, down to actress Bebsabe Duque about her most recent role on TV.

Although social media is an important tool for Cuestiona.me, so far it has played better for politicians to direct their messages in a sort of monologue, says Quintero. “Social networks can transmit messages but they travel with a lot of noise. It is very easy to lose a trend in one million users and we are trying to solve that problem by channeling the conversation from the bottom up and giving people a stronger voice that will put more pressure on politicians and institutions.”

People love it, says Quintero, because they see the benefits. “On the government side we are reaching out but it will take a bit longer.” With co-founder and developer Oswaldo Alvarez, based in Bogotá, Quintero has contacted mayors of several City halls to promote the platform as a tool that could help them show transparency in office.

In spite of the efforts, no politician has yet answered any of the questions posed at Cuestiona.me. The creators of the forum hope that upcoming elections in May will change that. Quintero says especially around election times, politicians talk to people, but very few times, if any, do they listen to what people have to say or respond to their questions and needs, but we think and hope that elections will be a fertile soil for the initiative to grow.

With an internet penetration of more than 59%, according to internet research firm Internet Live Stats, Colombia could be a promising ground for Cuestiona.me to grow as an effective public forum. But success of the initiative is still uncertain. In spite of Government efforts to provide internet access to 96% of Colombia’s cities and towns and a special emphasis in the public school system, adults in the remote areas where most live on less than 2$ a day and where institutional accountability rates the lowest, will unlikely rely on the internet to speak out their needs.

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Ligimat Perez

Bilingual freelance journalist based in Los Angeles following a career in journalism in Latin America for CNN, Venevision and the United Nations.

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