Colombia, for many years Washington’s closest Latin American ally, has a new president-elect, Iván Duque. The early signs are very encouraging, if a bit uncertain.Colombiansand Americanscan breathe a sigh of relief that Duque has triumphed over his chief rival, left-wing politician Gustavo Petro, a staunch supporter of neighboring Venezuelan strongman Nicholas Maduro.
A strong, pro-liberty government in Colombia could help in keeping pressure on the failed Maduro regime while undermining the rationale for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, a foolhardy proposal allegedly considered last summer by President Trump.At 41, Duque represents a new generation, one mostly foreign to the ideological struggles brought about by the narco-terrorist guerrillas that waged war on the state for half a century and the paramilitary groups that were part of that scene.
Although his candidacy sprang from former president Álvaro Uribe’s right-leaning Democratic Center party, Duque is unburdened by the baggage many associate with “Uribismo.” He holds of degrees from Georgetown and American University, has worked at multilateral organizations, is the author of several books on politics and economic policy, and was an advisor to the finance minister back when Juan Manuel Santos, the outgoing president, held that position.
In a country with a strong juridical tradition that has suffered under illiberal left-wing populism and the gradual squandering of economic and human resources, Duque represents civil society’s protest vote against the deterioration of legal institutions.
Duque claims he aims to restore the judiciary, unleash the people’s entrepreneurial spirit, including the “orange economy” (various cultural and creative industries whose potential to boost the country’s wealth he was among the first to tout), champion free trade, and prevent the forces of tyrannyclosely allied with neighboring Venezuelafrom gaining traction at home.
Like millions of Colombians, Duque has grave concerns about the government’s peace accord with the narco-terrorist FARC.
Signed in Havana in 2016, the deal granted amnesty to rank-and-file members of the guerilla group and promised that their bosses responsible for human rights violations would not be sent to jail. A special transitional justice system, created to exercise jurisdiction over the crimes committed, is supposed to emphasize truth-telling, making reparations, and in some cases doing community service. The FARC was also granted ten seats in Congress, and special electoral districts have been drawn in areas where it still commands a strong influence.
Duque has maintained that he will respect the essence of the peace accord but plans to introduce some punitive measures so that human rights violators are held more accountable for their crimes.
While Duque’s position has been a source of controversy, the need to overhaul the deal’s implementation is clear. Former commander “Jesús Santrich,” a FARC negotiator who was awarded a seat in Congress and who sits on the council charged with supervising the rollout, has been charged with continuing to traffic in narcotics, the major source of funding for the FARC.
Irrespective of where one stands on the issue of drug legalization, such criminal activity violates the letter and spirit of the agreement, which indemnifies only trafficking that took place before it was signed. Evidence that other former negotiators are also violating the agreement has also surfaced. The outgoing government of Santos, however, has been reluctant to bring them to justice.
With all this occupying the country’s attention, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro has taken advantage of the situation, unleashing common prisoners among the thousands of Venezuelans who cross the border with Colombia on a daily basis.
This context, as well as the fact that his opponent in the second round was a former guerrilla who once sympathized with Hugo Chávez, significantly helped Duque. Now he must prove that he is not a stooge of Álvaro Uribe, as his critics claim. He must also show that amending the peace accord in no way constitutes an attempt to bring back the violence that terrorized Colombia for decades, and that his vision of a booming free-enterprise economy will come with real efforts to dismantle a bureaucratic labyrinth that has taken the sparkle away from a once relatively prosperous economy.
The support Duque won in the second round from other parties, and his solid electoral victory over his rival, suggest he can put together a majority in the new Congress, which was elected months ago, and will go into office with the benefit of significant amounts of good will. The rest is his responsibility.