Colombia’s new leader and the peace process
Corruption, security, the economy, inequality, soaring cocaine production— and that is just for starters. Iván Duque, Colombia’s new president, has made a daunting to-do list for the four years of his administration. Aged 42, he has youth and energy on his side. He has also named a capable and broadly technocratic cabinet.Yet it is other challenges that are more likely to define Mr Duque’s presidency and the course of Latin America’s oldest democracy.
The most obvious is Colombia’s faltering peace process with the Marxist Farc guerrilla group. Mr Duque came to power in part by criticising the peace deal, which he vowed to change. To do so would be a major mistake. It is difficult, legally. It would consume precious political capital when there is much that is more urgent to do. It would also needlessly provoke the many supporters of the process, even as Mr Duque has sworn he wants to “overcome national divisions”.
Those supporters also include the international community, notably the UN Security Council, which devoted considerable time and resources to helping end a conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Aside from the US administration of Donald Trump, which has since been ambivalent about the peace deal because Barack Obama was so closely involved, international partners should have no truck with any backsliding.
Instead, Mr Duque should take ownership of the peace process, and implement and fund it properly. That would bring a greater peace to the Colombian back country where the disbanding of Farc militias has created power vacuums filled by criminal gangs, guerrilla dissidents and former paramilitaries — and led to the deaths of hundreds of social leaders. Encouragingly, he has begun to talk of “perfecting” the peace process, rather than changing it.
The other major challenge is how to respond to the crisis in neighbouring Venezuela. An attempted drone-led assassination of President Nicolás Maduro last weekend is the latest illustration of how precarious the situation in Caracas has become. Casting around for scapegoats, as ever, Mr Maduro immediately blamed Colombia-based plotters, including the outgoing government. But it is Colombia, home to 1m Venezuelan refugees, that is the victim of Mr Maduro’s tyrannical incompetence, not the other way around.
Mr Duque has said he will be outspoken about Caracas’s egregious failings. That is well and good. Venezuela is a genuine threat to international stability, too often ignored by too many for too long, and Colombia is on the frontline. But responding to it requires a multilateral effort that Mr Duque needs to cultivate by extending, rather than overturning, the international goodwill built up by his predecessor.
The US, so far, has taken the lead in corralling Caracas and providing aid to Colombia to cope with the refugee exodus. The EU and Latin America now need to engage more. In particular, they should enforce stiffer sanctions against Mr Maduro’s cronies who have salted their stolen millions abroad.
Much is at stake for this strategically important country. Colombia is only beginning to emerge from the trauma of a 60-year civil conflict; many of its wounds are still raw. Mr Duque’s controversially close links to former president and strongman Álvaro Uribe make the task of governing harder still. At his inauguration on Tuesday, Mr Duque — who fancies himself to be a Colombian Emmanuel Macron — said he wanted to lead with a “spirit of construction, never destruction”. Colombians will hope the mild earthquake that shook the capital that same morning was a coincidence, not a portent.