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.

Domestic Politics and U.S.-Colombia Relations 

By Sebastian Bitar and Tom Long*

duque and pompeo

Secretary Pompeo and Colombia President Ivan Duque Marquez Visit the Migration Transition Assistance Center in Bogota. U.S. Department of State / U.S. Government Works

Colombian domestic politics and institutions have created obstacles for President Iván Duque during his first year in office, complicating efforts to meet demands from U.S. President Donald Trump and reestablish close bilateral cooperation with the United States. As the hand-picked successor of former President Álvaro Uribe, long Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, Duque was widely expected by many in the United States to fully align Colombia with U.S. priorities. Like his mentor, Duque criticized the Colombian peace process as prolonging drug trafficking, raising Washington’s hopes that he would aggressively confront a spike in coca production that started in 2016.

  • In September 2017, nine months before Duque’s election, Trump publicly threatened to “decertify” Colombia for inadequate cooperation on counternarcotics – almost unthinkable in the Plan Colombia era. Despite efforts, the new government has not delivered to Trump’s satisfaction. Opponents blocked resumption of aerial spraying of coca fields with glyphosate – an herbicide linked to cancer. The new transitional justice high court, known as JEP, refused U.S. requests to extradite a high-profile former guerrilla leader, “Jesús Santrich,” to face drug trafficking charges in the United States, reversing a decades-long tradition of requiring only a U.S. indictment with no judicial process in Colombia. The Trump administration retaliated by suspending the visas of some Colombian justices, provoking a domestic political backlash that has further hemmed in Duque.

The U.S. actions emerge from the inaccurate assumption that Colombian presidents can make foreign policy without regard for domestic opposition and institutions. Much U.S. scholarship and policy commentary on the Andean nation’s foreign policy is marked by a near-exclusive focus on the person of the president on the one hand, and on the role of the United States on the other. In our recent article, “Domestic Contestation and Presidential Prerogative in Colombian Foreign Policy,” we demonstrate the limits of these commonly held views of Colombian foreign policymaking. While U.S. pressure is indeed a heavy constraint and Colombian Presidents, constitutionally and institutionally, enjoy wide latitude in foreign policy, we show that Colombian foreign policy increasingly responds to domestic pressures.

  • The Constitutional Court has emerged as a surprising constraint even on very strong presidents’ foreign policies. In 2009-2010, it was mostly an afterthought for the powerful and popular Álvaro Uribe when he prioritized an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the country through the establishment of military bases – largely ignoring South American opposition. The court’s veto, along with strong public opposition, came as a surprise to the President. Its mandate to go through Congress risked political costs that Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, was unwilling to pay.
  • Colombian presidents have also adapted their foreign policies in the face of potential electoral and Congressional costs. In 2012, during the height of the “China boom,” Santos proposed free trade negotiations with China as a top priority, but manufacturing interest groups – including some of Santos’s close allies – turned the Congress against the President. Santos backed away and embraced a face-saving investment agreement. Perhaps more embarrassingly, when the International Court of Justice issued a ruling on a maritime dispute with Nicaragua that gave Colombia sovereignty over disputed islands but forced a compromise on territorial waters, Santos was faced with electoral political mobilization from his former patron, Uribe. Despite explicit promises to abide by the ruling, Santos revoked recognition of compulsory jurisdiction – long a cornerstone of Colombian diplomatic tradition.

While critiques that Plan Colombia (2001-15) was cooked up by the State Department without deep Colombian involvement are false, Colombian domestic politics were secondary to those of the U.S. Congress. An unpopular Colombian President, Andrés Pastrana, was able to sideline domestic opponents and affect the internationalization of the Colombian conflict – shaping the view of Presidential power over Colombian foreign policy. However, in many ways, that was both an outlier and a turning point.

  • Exaggerated presidentialism, linked to tropes of caudillos and strongmen presidents, can lead to one-dimensional analysis and unfulfillable policy expectations. While domestic dynamics are often considered when discussing U.S. foreign policy, they get little attention in the Latin American context. As the recent episodes above reflect, these domestic constraints have caught Colombian presidents themselves off guard, and the presidentialist assumption can lead U.S. policymakers to make demands that assume Colombian presidents are pliable in the face of U.S. pressure but omnipotent domestically. Contested presidentialism is here to stay. 

 

July 31, 2019

* Sebastian Bitar is Associate Professor in the School of Government at Universidad de los Andes. He is author of US Military Bases, Quasi-bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America. Tom Long is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Affiliate Professor at CIDE, Mexico City. He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence. Their full article was published by the Bulletin of Latin American Research and was co-authored with Gabriel Jiménez-Peña.

 

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.