The unrest in Colombia puts the legacy of a president at stake

SEOUL – Iván Duque took over the Colombian presidency in 2018 as a little-known young technocrat in a burgeoning right-wing movement. He exploited public anger over a peace deal that he said had treated the country’s murderous insurgents too mildly. And he warned that his left-wing opponent’s proposals could stifle steady growth.

Three years and a global pandemic later, it is Mr Duque who presides over high unemployment and an angry electorate – and who is on the defensive in the face of the steps he has taken to tame the continuing violence by activists.

Mr. Duque argues that his policies have opened up opportunities for the middle and lower income classes, encouraged entrepreneurship, and paved the way for Colombia to return to its pre-pandemic growth. He also touted social policies that could solve problems with police conduct and social inequality that have led to violent clashes this year, killing dozens of people.

“The three pillars of our comprehensive plan of government, which were legality, entrepreneurship and equality, have produced results,” Duque said last week in an interview in South Korea with The New York Times. . “Obviously, they have been affected by the pandemic. But I think we have demonstrated our resilient spirit. “

Mr Duque’s legacy – and that of his boss, former high-profile president Álvaro Uribe, who still dominates Colombian politics – is at stake. Colombian voters go to the polls in May, when Gustavo Petro, former candidate for election the presidential, former mayor of Bogotá and former member of the guerrilla, could become the country’s most left-wing leader in its history at a time when the leftists are once again claiming victories in South America.

Mr. Duque cannot run again due to term limits, and his party’s candidate has not been determined. Yet his government faces some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. Colombia’s economy, trade and investment from abroad have been hit hard by the coronavirus, which has exacerbated long-standing social tensions over unequal wealth and police conduct .

He has also come under increased pressure to tame Colombian armed insurgencies and accelerate the achievement of the government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, despite his criticism of the terms of the agreement during the 2018 election campaign.

In South Korea, Mr. Duque was looking for trade and investment opportunities, such as the expansion of Korean manufacturers and increased sales of Colombian coffee, avocados and bananas. He even cited the shooting of a South Korean film – Mr Duque has long championed creative investments in fields like the arts and research – in Bogotá.

The president is trying “to get South Korean investors to play big ball,” said Sergio Guzmán, of Bogotá-based consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.

The challenge for Mr Duque, added Mr Guzmán, is that a victory for Mr Petro could undo what he and his predecessors had accomplished.

“He’s a weak president,” Guzmán said. “He’s a lame president. He is a president whose most important legacy will be that his successor cannot undo his own policies. “

Mr Duque disputed this, saying his efforts – including wage subsidies and a proposal to expand access to universities – could help get the economy back on track.

Despite being a protégé of Mr. Uribe, the charismatic leader who stepped up the government’s offensive against the FARC nearly two decades ago, Mr. Duque has never fully embraced the populist mold. Coming from a politically prominent family, the 45-year-old president worked for years in the development bank. He speaks in cut-out think-tank English, “I’m going to give you some very concise numbers,” he said at one point before doing just that.

He was elected after campaigning on increasing economic growth and changing the terms of the peace deal with the FARC, but he soon faced challenges. In 2019, frustration with the lack of opportunities and possible pension changes sparked mass protests. The same is true of a tax proposal this year intended to fill a tax hole exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mr Duque’s tax proposal had merit, said Luis Fernando Mejía, director of Colombian research institute Fedesarrollo, but he seemed unable to sell it to the public.

“It was a very, very good reform,” he said, “but he has not been able to consolidate political capital and create an adequate strategy to push through a reform which I believe , had been very important “.

Mr Duque is also trying to thread the political needle in a polarized time, making it increasingly difficult to please both his party base and disgruntled voters.

Tax protests have become part of the larger unrest over inequality and police violence. Some police officers used brutal and lethal force against the demonstrators.

In the interview, Duque cited his efforts to increase police surveillance and equip them with body cameras. But he said some of the protesters were instigated by “people producing false information” and other instigators to escalate the violence.

Perhaps its most delicate balance is the promulgation of the peace agreement with the FARC. In 2019, his efforts to change conditions, including tougher sentences for war crimes, failed legally. Internationally, he is under intense pressure to implement the deal, but nationally, his party and other conservatives continue to criticize him.

Just weeks before the agreement’s fifth anniversary, more than half of its measures have either not been implemented or have barely started, according to the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, an independent body charged with overseeing the agreement. Opposition groups and part of the electorate say Mr Duque missed a critical window to move him forward.

Duque and his supporters point to the agreement’s timetable, which calls for its principles to be promulgated over 15 years. In the interview, he said he did more than his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to put in place the land reviews and development plans for the peace agreement that would give poor farmers and former rebels jobs and opportunities.

“We have not only implemented, but the issues that we have implemented are going to be decisive for the evolution of the agreements,” he said, adding: “We have made good progress”.

Mr. Duque must also balance competing interests abroad. Tensions have mounted between the United States – Colombia’s longtime ally – and China, a growing source of business for the country. China, Colombia’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, has invested in the country’s mines and successfully bid for engineering contracts.

Mr. Duque said Chinese companies won the work in open tenders and relations with the United States remained warm. “We try to build our relationship with our partners on the basis of investment, trade and common opportunities. But generally I must point out that in the case of the United States, our alliance has been in existence for almost 200 years and we will continue to see the United States as No. 1 ”.

Relations with the United States came to a head last year when members of Mr. Duque’s party backed Donald J. Trump and the Republicans in the election, sparking a rare reprimand of the American Ambassador.

“I think it was not wise,” Mr. Duque said. “I think it shouldn’t have been done.”

These examples of polarization, he said, have complicated efforts to resolve deeply rooted issues. The world is polarized, he said, as people “connect demagoguery and populism with violent sentiments and algorithms and people producing fake news and manipulating the truth.”

He added: “This is why we have focused in our administration not to promote polarization, but to move the country forward in the right direction.

Carlos tejada reported from Seoul, and Julie turkewitz from Bogotá, Colombia.

Kevin E. Boling

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