Colombia: Lame Duck President?

By Fernando Rojas*

Uribe and Duque

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uriba (left) and President Iván Duque. / Centro Democrático (left), Casa de América (right) / Flickr, modified / Creative Commons

A combination of defections from within his governing team and widespread street protests suggest that Colombian President Iván Duque’s administration may be running out of steam 18 months into his four-year term. Doubts are mounting as to whether he has built a discernible platform for addressing the country’s most pressing social, environmental, political, or geopolitical dilemmas.

  • Soon after his inauguration in August 2018, Duque announced a major tax reform and succeeded in pushing through a promised expansion of incentives and other privileges for large corporations and higher-income groups. His Administration’s first development plan was a potpourri of policy inertia without a clear message or Presidential imprint. Members of his planning team either resigned or were dismissed soon after the plan became law. His other big push was for a gradual reorientation of the peace agreement that two years earlier had ended Colombia’s 50-year insurgency. That agenda has advanced mostly through non-implementation of accord provisions rather than through alternative policies.
  • Duque’s greatest political asset was his endorsement by former President Álvaro Uribe. Unlike former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-18) – another candidate initially backed by Uribe but who subsequently broke from his mentor to launch the peace process – Duque has opted to adhere to Uribista critiques of the accords.

During Duque’s term so far, some policies that had been successful under President Santos have atrophied through inattention.

  • Funds for programs initiated under Santos to secure peace and stability in the countryside have been channeled into communities and municipalities based on political criteria. The Regionally Focused Development Plans (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDET), for example, are managed and selectively funded directly by the President’s office. One of the requirements to support rural communities in conflict-ridden areas appears to be adherence to Duque’s implicit pacification strategy. Most visibly, the government has paid little attention to the killings of more than 100 community organizers – even calling a UN report on them last month an unwelcome intervention in the country’s sovereignty and roughly equating the murders to robberies of cell phones on the street. A long-debated initiative to expand identification of the use of land plots in order to better focus social and economic development policy is increasingly being deployed to formalize land property in its current hands – not in the name of the millions of displaced peasants awaiting restitution of their plots.
  • Government silence on environmental protection has allowed small legal and illegal miners – often protected by guerrillas or paramilitary groups – to circumvent the opposition of communities concerned about the mercury and other poisonous elements such operations dump into water supplies. Powerful international corporations are being granted concessions for extraction of gold and precious metals in mountains that provide water and are home to unique flora and fauna.

Uribe has no choice but to support Duque through the end of his term in 2022, while hoping that political protests do not interrupt his term – for the first time in Colombia since 1953. Duque’s approach to national affairs does serve the interests of many Uribistas, who welcomed the tax cuts and reprogramming of funds from ordinary peasants to peasant-sympathizers or landowners. But political loyalty is a fragile virtue when there is no vison of common values nor transparent consensus on how to make them reality. The riots that shook the government in November, although short-lived, revealed a sort of vulnerability about Duque that could strain Uribe’s patience. Duque appears to be at the mercy of both those who enabled his rise to power and those who want to overthrow him.

March 9, 2020

* Fernando Rojas is a consultant on government management, decentralization, and multi-level governance.

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