A Warm Washington Welcome for Colombia’s Controversial Ex-President

August 24, 2022

Responsible Statecraft

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On August 7, Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla and past mayor of Bogotá, was sworn in as the president of Colombia.  That same day, Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque, left office with an abysmal approval rating.  In the words of the New York Times, “Duque’s failed policies (…) made him one of the most unpopular leaders in Colombia’s recent history.” 

Yet he may still have a bright future in Washington, DC.  Just two days after Petro’s inauguration, the Woodrow Wilson Center, based in the heart of the US capital, announced that the former president had been selected as one of the Center’s distinguished fellows.

History won’t remember Duque kindly.  While president, he partially dismantled Colombia’s historic peace accord, with disastrous consequences for poor communities of color in conflict zones. He oversaw the massive repression of protests against his economic policies, resulting in dozens of deaths of young demonstrators.  He and his allies interfered in domestic politics abroad, including in the US 2020 elections.  

Yet, starting in the fall, Duque will get a $10,000 monthly stipend and have a cushy office a couple of blocks away from the White House.  What gives?  Why is a prominent DC think tank, one that receives significant US government funding, awarding a fellowship to a much-reviled former president with a disturbing, blood-stained record?  

The answer lies perhaps in the extraordinarily close relationship – “the exceptional partnership” as President Biden put it – that has existed between the governments of the US and Colombia. Leaders like Duque have vigorously supported many of Washington’s policy priorities, in Colombia and regionally. In exchange they’ve received unconditional political backing and billions of dollars of assistance from the US administration.  Under Colombia’s new left-leaning president, this relationship appears to be changing course, triggering anxiety within the US foreign policy elite.

Duque was elected in 2018, thanks largely to the endorsement of his political mentor, the ultraconservative former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).  During his presidency, Uribe carried out a scorched earth military offensive against leftwing guerrilla groups, with unprecedented logistical and financial backing from the US under the “Plan Colombia” initiative.  Outside of Colombia’s devastated conflict zones, Uribe remained a popular figure, despite his reported links to murderous paramilitary groups and drug-traffickers.  Duque – who took to referring to Uribe as the “eternal president” – promised to carry on with his hardline policies.  

His first target was the 2016 peace agreement that ended the long, tragic war between the FARC guerrilla insurgency and the Colombian state.  During the five-decade war, 450,000 people were reportedly killed. At least 205,000 of these killings were carried out by paramilitary forces with ties to Colombia’s security and police establishment, according to an independent Truth Commission created under the agreement.  Declassified archives show that the US government was aware that the Colombian military carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings and worked in tandem with paramilitary groups, yet relations between the Pentagon and the Colombian army grew deeper.  US security aid continued to flow, to the tune of $7.7 billion between 1996 and 2016.  

The peace accord earned Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) the Nobel Peace Prize.  It also earned him the wrathful ire of his erstwhile ally Uribe.  Duque’s 2018 presidential campaign, in which Uribe featured heavily, focused on opposing the agreement. Once in power, Duque found various ways to cripple it. He drastically reduced funding for crucial programs, including institutions responsible for transitional justice. He diverted funds intended to finance programs designed to address gaping land ownership inequality and allow coca growers to transition to licit crops.  

Worst of all, Duque failed to properly enforce security guarantees for thousands of demobilized FARC fighters and community leaders.  Under Duque, state security forces were largely absent in conflict areas or wouldn’t deploy when they were needed.  As a result, illegal armed groups have multiplied and violence has surged to levels witnessed during the height of the armed conflict. While Duque was in office, 930 social leaders were killed and 261 massacres took place in which 1144 people were killed, according to human rights group Indepaz.  

Sadly, Duque’s disastrous record as president doesn’t stop there. Duque’s presidency was marked by the largest protests in contemporary Colombian history.  Though ostensibly a response to Duque’s unpopular economic, education and healthcare policies, the country’s ever-increasing levels of poverty and income inequality (the highest in Latin America) were also factors that triggered far-reaching outrage among young Colombians. The massive protests were met with fierce, violent repression by police and military forces.  More than 80 individuals – mostly young demonstrators – were killed, many others were tortured or subjected to sexual assault.

Duque and officials in his government downplayed security force abuses and frequently portrayed the protests as attempts to destabilize the government on behalf of terrorists, narcotraffickers, foreign governments and political opponents like Gustavo Petro.  Speaking at a May 2021 event at the Wilson Center, Duque referred to the pre-electoral context and made barely-veiled references to Petro and his team as “people that might want to (…) build their aspirations on chaos.”  At the same event, and while protests continued to rage in Colombia, Wilson Center president Mark Green told the audience “the Duque government is a key partner and ally of the US. Our values – our political, economic and strategic interests – they overlap in so many ways.”  

Indeed, for all his faults, President Duque was a loyal ally to the United States.  Much like his mentor Uribe, he supported key US priorities, even when they were harmful and counterproductive.  He continued prosecuting the US-backed drug war – an aggressive, militarized approach that often criminalizes whole communities and focuses on crop eradication at all costs.  He joined the US in supporting aerial fumigation of coca plantations, despite serious concerns raised by the World Health Organization and others regarding the toxic impact of fumigation on the health of local inhabitants and on the environment. 

Colombia’s Truth Commission has strongly criticized the US approach to counternarcotics policy, blaming it for hardening the country’s armed conflict.  Nor does it appear to have worked: cocaine production in Colombia has been steadily on the rise and is now at three times the level seen in 2012.  

Duque – like most of his predecessors – has also been a consistent promoter of US policy objectives in other parts of Latin America.  He firmly supported the Trump administration’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, openly supporting military coups there and allowing mercenaries and dissident Venezuelan soldiers to train in Colombia.  

Like the US administration, he was quick to welcome the ouster of Bolivia’s democratically elected president Evo Morales by the military and far right politicians.  In Ecuador, Duque’s attorney general – a close friend – intervened aggressively in the country’s 2021 elections in a clear effort to undermine left-leaning candidate Andrés Arauz and bolster the flagging campaign of Washington’s candidate, Guillermo Lasso (full disclosure: Araúz is currently an economist at my organization, CEPR).  Duque’s political allies, including Uribe, even meddled in the US 2020 election, openly supporting Trump and Congressional candidates in South Florida.

Nevertheless Duque later had excellent relations with the Biden administration. At every opportunity, he trumpeted his support for Biden’s Latin America policy, which in many ways is a continuation of Trump’s policy.  When Biden received biting criticism from many regional leaders for barring Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Duque used his summit speech to launch a long tirade against the three countries. Duque drew accolades in Washington for offering temporary protective status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants, while also supporting the US sanctions that have been responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Venezuela and contributed to the surge in out-migration.

The Biden administration has rewarded Duque handsomely, with a number of high-level events with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and with Biden himself.  At a White House ceremony in March, Biden designated Colombia as a Major Non-NATO Ally, a boost for Duque’s political movement just two days ahead of Colombia’s parliamentary election.  The US administration also made its political preferences perfectly clear ahead of Colombia’s June presidential election.  Senior US diplomats issued statements of concern regarding fears of Russian, Cuban and Venezuelan intervention in the election, with the unstated implication that they supported Petro.  US Officials also pointedly avoided meeting with Petro ahead of the election, while meeting with other leading candidates.

Duque is now a distinguished fellow (much as Uribe became a visiting scholar at Georgetown University following his presidency).  Petro is president. To his credit, Biden called Petro after his election and told him he looked forward to working together on climate policy and the implementation of the peace accord.  But it may take time for the US administration to grow accustomed to the idea that Colombia is no longer the principal agent of its interests in Latin America.  Already, Petro has restored diplomatic and trade relations with Venezuela and made clear that he has a very different vision of drug policy from the one the US has promoted for years. 

It remains to be seen whether the US administration will truly accept the new political reality in Colombia or whether it will try to undermine or even try to remove the government there, as it has done so many times before in Latin America.

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