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LATIN AMERICA | 11-08-2018 10:58

Duque takes power in Colombia – and a long list of challenges awaits

President Mauricio Macri flies to Bogotá for swearing-in ceremony of new leader aligned with former head of state Álvaro Uribe.

Colombia swore its new president, Iván Duque, into office this week – and the new leader immediately promised to “make corrections” to a peace deal with FARC rebels that has divided the country and to crack down on lingering armed groups still roaming the countryside.

President Mauricio Macri was among the regional leaders who flew to Colombia to attend in Duque’s inauguration in Bogotá.The Argentine head of state left on a private flight Tuesday morning for the CATAM military airport in the Colombian capital, arriving just after noon.

The president was welcomed at the airport by the Vice-Minister of Multilateral Affairs Adriana Mendoza andArgentina’s Ambassador to Bogotá Marcelo Stubrin.

“[It’s] a joy to be here again for this visit, bringing you a very fond greeting from the Argentine people,” the president said as he received an honour guard from the Colombian military.

Macri met with Duque privately during his time in Colombia and also scheduled one-onones with the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who represented US President Donald Trump at the ceremony and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera.

Several other regional leaders attended the ceremony, including Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera and Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno.


The main event, which was overshadowed by rain, took place at the Plaza de Bolivar, next to the Colombian Congress, where outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos handed over the presidency to his successor.

Duque, the 42-year-old protégé of powerful right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, now faces the task of implementing the historic accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that ended a half-century of bloody conflict, but which remains on shaky ground. He will also have to deal with burgeoning coca and cocaine production that has strained relations with key ally Washington and negotiate a peace with another holdout guerrilla army, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

“The moment has come for all of us to unite to fight against illegal groups,” Duque said in his inauguration speech, promising to get tough on crime, drugtrafficking groups and other armed and rebel groups.

The new president said he believed in “the demobilisation, disarmament and reinsertion of the guerrilla base” into society under the accord with the FARC. But he added that “we will make corrections to ensure that the victims receive truth, proportional justice, reparations and not a repetition” after a conflict that left at least 260,000 dead, some 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

In another nod to conservatives who have demanded tougher negotiation terms with rebel groups, Duque said he will push for a constitutional reform that makes it impossible for the government to grant amnesty to individuals who have been involved in drug-trafficking and kidnappings.

Duque will have to lead peace negotiations with the ELN, a guerrilla army of some 2,000 fighters that began talks with Santos, his predecessor. Duque said the talks with the ELN will hinge on whether the group ceases its attacks on Colombia’s military and accepts international monitoring.

“We have to construct a culture that respects the rule of law,” Duque said.

Duque’s detractors fear he will be little more than a puppet for Uribe, the ex-president who led a referendum defeat of the initial version of a peace accord with the FARC rebels. Uribe, whose father was killed by a guerrilla group during a 1983 kidnapping attempt, is still backed by millions of Colombians, though he is perhaps equally detested by legions who decry human rights abuses during his administration.


On Tuesday, hours before the inauguration ceremony, thousands gathered at squares in the capital and a dozen more cities across Colombia to express their opposition to Duque. At the rallies, protesters bore white flags and signs that called for the preservation of the peace deal.

“We are ready for dialogue,” said opposition Senator Iván Cepeda, one of Duque’s and Uribe’s fiercest critics. “But we are also ready to mobilise and exert our opposition if he enacts policies that limit peoples’ rights.”

Duque is taking office as a spate of attacks and the killings of social activists have underlined that peace remains a relative term.

On Monday night, a motorcycle bomb exploded outside a police station in the western province of Cauca. The ELN last week kidnapped three policemen and a soldier in an attack that highlighted the government’s struggle to bring law and order to the most remote areas.

“If Duque is not able to solve this problem and find a way to bring the state into the countryside, we’re going to keep having the same problems we’ve had for decades,” said Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia’s Rosario University.

The new president has promised a harder line against drugtrafficking that includes bringing back the aerial fumigation of coca crops, a policy that was stopped by Santos’ administration three years ago over health concerns, but is supported by the US government. Cocaine production has doubled in Colombia over the past two years, according to estimates.

Duque has undergone a quick transformation from unknown technocrat to president of South America’s second most populous nation, thanks in large part to the support of Uribe.

Just four years ago, Duque was a Washington suburbanite with a job at an international development bank. It was there that he developed close ties to Uribe, assisting the former president when he taught a course at Georgetown University.

In 2014, Uribe propelled Duque into the political limelight when he encouraged him to return to Colombia to run for a Senate seat and placed him on a list of newcomer candidates that he urged his multitude of supporters to elect.

Within Uribe’s conservative Democratic Centre party, Duque’s reputation as a more moderate voice can at times put him at odds with the solidly right-wing faction. Uribe’s support is thus considered crucial for Duque to rule with the full backing of his party. But he will need to build a broader alliance to pass laws in Congress.

In the weeks since his easy victory over leftist ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro, Duque has signalled both his loyalty to Uribe and a conviction to chart his own path. While many of his Cabinet picks have ties to Uribe, there are also a number with no links to a traditional political party.

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