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Hall of infamy: Iván Duque Márquez

Colombia
Credit: Enrique Shore/Alamy

JOB: President of Colombia

REPUTATION: Conservative technocrat opposed to Colombian peace accord

When Iván Duque swept to power in the summer of 2018 as the head of the rightist Democratic Centre Party, one of the main points of speculation from pundits was whether he was simply a frontman for his good friend, Colombian political boss and former president, Álvaro Uribe. He is certainly a younger, prettier face with educational credentials from Georgetown University and other US institutions (although exaggerating his connections with Harvard). He has written several books mostly lionizing market opportunities and has multilateral experience, mainly in the financial sector. But it was Uribe’s sponsorship that put Duque on the political map.

Uribe is the founder and leader of the Democratic Centrists, under whose banner Duque made his Presidential run. Uribe is perhaps Latin America’s most famous rightwing populist, with long-suspected connections to the Medellín drug trade and the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and its paramilitaries. Uribe broke with his old Social Party of National Unity when his former protégé President Juan Manuel Santos started negotiations with the FARC guerrillas to end Colombia’s bitter 50-year-long civil war. While Santos won the Nobel Prize for the 2017 peace deal finalized in Havana, it has remained a controversial issue in Colombian politics. In 2018 the entire Colombian political establishment (including Santos) came together in a joint effort to support Duque against the leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro.

Duque, like Uribe, is an opponent of the Havana Accords on the grounds that they are too lenient on FARC militants. But unlike Uribe, who wants to revoke the deal, he was willing like most Colombians to accept it as a fait accompli. Instead, Duque’s strategy was to not implement any of its provisions, such as promised rural development in poor communities and protecting former FARC combatants. Over 200 ex-FARC activists have been murdered since demobilization, in addition to more than 700 social leaders, organizers and human rights defenders. Duque has either been unable or unwilling to put a stop to this carnage.

Duque is part of the swing back to the Right that has plagued many Latin American countries in recent years. In the case of Colombia, where there was never a Bolivarian pink tide for social justice, Duque has blamed the country’s problems on neighbouring Venezuela and its besieged Chavista experiment as well as the fraught peace deal to propel his rise to power. The rest of his programme has been more or less boilerplate neoliberalism – austerity cuts affecting workers and pensioners, privatization giveaways to the corporate sector, ignoring environmental laws and indigenous rights. By November 2019 Colombians had had enough and hundreds of thousands hit the streets of Bogotá and other cities. Despite being largely peaceful, they were met with violent riot squads. Duque called not for negotiations but a vague ‘national dialogue’. Then along came Covid-19. At the time of writing, Colombia had suffered over 300,000 cases of the virus. Yet Duque has seen an uptick in support as even the minimalist aid he has provided in the face of a pandemic has been welcomed by a desperate population. However, the long-term chances of this popularity lasting seem pretty remote given Duque’s commitment to the structures of inequality and the ruthless methods of his mentor Álvaro Uribe.

LOW CUNNING: Duque talks a good line when speaking from international pulpits whether on human rights, fighting the drug trade or climate change. But, as they say, ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. Despite the UNDP identifying Colombia as ‘at high risk from climate change impacts’, Duque’s government has lifted restrictions on oil and mining companies, encouraging fracking and endangering previously protected natural reserves.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: Colombian cartoonist Matador portrayed Duque as a pig during the election with the caption, ‘Oh no, I’m the only Uribista who is not a pig’. Neither Duque nor Uribe supporters were amused – threats varied from legal action to death. A chastened Matador withdrew the cartoon. While Duque needs Uribe’s support he strives to stay clear of his mentor’s sordid reputation.

Sources: Il Manifesto; The New York Times; Colombia Reports; openDemocracy; Global Americans; Financial Times; The New Republic; Agence France Press; Americas Society

New Internationalist issue 527 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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