Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.

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