This Presidential Hopeful Wants to Rewrite Colombia's Peace Deal - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This Presidential Hopeful Wants to Rewrite Colombia's Peace Deal

This Presidential Hopeful Wants to Rewrite Colombia's Peace Deal

By Wesley Tomaselli


If Iván Duque wins the 2018 presidential election, he’s set to rattle the fresh peace accords.

By Wesley Tomaselli

Aikido, the art of peace. That’s what Colombian Sen. Iván Duque is riffing on at 10 p.m. from the front seat of a bulletproof Toyota as I sit squeezed between two bodyguards. The Japanese martial art is a discipline he mastered as a teenager and, today, as one of the most vocal opponents of Colombia’s peacemaking administration, he still draws on its lessons. “I use it everywhere in my life,” he says. “It’s about how you approach an attack.”

Presidential hopeful Duque and his party, Centro Democratico, have been under attack for months for trying to undermine the peace accord Colombia’s ruling establishment signed with Marxist rebel group FARC in 2016. As the demobilized FARC, who don the same acronym for their newly minted political party, prepare to assume 10 seats in Colombia’s congress, Duque is at a rolling boil. “Allowing people to become elected officials without complying with the principles of justice, truth and reparation — that’s impunity.”

“I want peace,” the 41-year-old tells OZY, “but I don’t like giving prizes to criminals.”

Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning President Juan Manuel Santos — the man credited with getting FARC to agree to terms of peace — has sold the international community a picture of his country laying down arms and ending its 50-year conflict. But Duque sees only exemption from punishment and a perfect storm for economic meltdown: Being too soft on coca farmers has illicit acreage skyrocketing (acres under coca cultivation jumped by over 50 percent between 2015 and 2016), the government squandered its oil money and higher taxes have the country’s economy lurching toward a Venezuela-style catastrophe. His critics dismiss this last claim as hyperbole, but Duque is not backing off — and with Santos’ approval ratings in the gutter (from 35 percent in December 2016 to 24 percent according to a June 2017 poll) — he’s put forward a proposal to shore up the economy by cutting government fat and reducing corporate taxes to make Colombia as competitive in attracting private investment as neighboring Chile and Mexico. Yesterday, a coalition of right-wing parties in a national primary voted Duque to unseat the establishment in the country’s presidential elections this May.

This is a country where being confrontational isn’t just for the political arena; sometimes you pay for [things] with a bullet.

Oscar Castaño

Many Colombians are relieved to see the conflict reach a peaceful end, but they are also sick of corrupt politics as usual; by seeking to modify the peace laws, Duque seeks justice for those who believe FARC is getting off too easy. He wants the former rebels handed harsher sentences for their crimes, which he hopes to accomplish by reshaping the Special Tribunal for Peace, where the parties will be tried. He also wants the court to withhold political eligibility for FARC members until “they have fulfilled a proportional sentence for the crimes they’ve committed.” If Duque gets chosen as president in 2018, he tells OZY, he will look to rewrite fundamental parts of the accord.


Oscar Castaño, Duque’s friend since childhood, says he remembers a 13-year-old Duque mixing it up with journalists, writers and philosophers who would gather at Castaño’s house for debate. “None of us did that,” Castaño says. But, adds Castaño, the man obsessed with Machiavelli and aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba “was always debating politics with the grown-ups.” A lawyer with degrees from Georgetown and American universities, Duque describes himself as “a simple guy” who likes to spend Sundays at the grill, “sipping a Blue Moon.” He worked on economic policy at the International Development Bank in Washington, D.C., before returning to Colombia and teaming up with his mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, in a new political project. A run for the senate in 2014 under their Centro Democratico party banner earned him a seat next to Uribe, the hard-liner Duque calls “a close friend,” and whose uncompromising style of leadership some disenchanted Colombians want back in office.

In yesterday’s primary, Duque beat out former defense minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and ex-inspector general Alejandro Ordoñez, both of whom vied for the party’s presidential candidacy. Duque then named Ramirez as his running mate. “You could call Duque a right-wing liberal,” says one party member. “He’s tough on crime and terrorism, but with a more liberal moral agenda.” Another Centro Democratico insider tells OZY he believes Duque’s centrism is the party’s only chance to snag votes from the other seven political parties. According to the latest polls, Duque is neck and neck with Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 rebel and mayor of Bogotá, who is vying to win in May on a socialist platform. 

Duque has already started with his agenda. Furious over a fast-track legislative process that permitted the passing of laws pertaining to the peace accord without debate, Duque sued the state, claiming the fast track is unconstitutional — and won. As for the neighboring crisis in Venezuela, Duque joined a cross-party coalition of 76 Colombian senators and 50 Chilean parliamentarians in filing charges against President Nicolás Maduro before The Hague, “for all the crimes he’s committed as chief of state.”

Still, Sen. Iván Cepeda, a close adviser to the FARC peace process, criticizes Duque for not directing his energy to the human-rights crimes committed at home in Colombia. He also worries that the presidential race is turning Duque into a hard-liner. “Unfortunately, I think that to survive Centro Democratico’s internal competition … he’s getting more radical with his peace process discourse,” says Cepeda. “It’s unrealistic.”

If his strident stance doesn’t alienate potential supporters, Duque could suffer fallout from Colombia’s corruption scandals that have already tarnished Centro Democratico’s image. Former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, another one of Alvaro Uribe’s protégés, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for embezzling funds. He fled to the U.S., where he is fighting extradition. Uribe himself is set to face charges before Colombia’s supreme court for manipulating witnesses. And even if Duque comes out on top in this year’s race, it remains to be seen how successful a Centro Democratico-led coalition-building effort in congress turns out to be. If they can’t tie together a majority coalition, Colombia’s executive and legislative powers could end up in a political logjam.

Watching his friend dive in headfirst with such a loaded agenda makes Castaño uneasy. “This is a country where being confrontational isn’t just for the political arena; sometimes you pay for [things] with a bullet,” he says. A win for Duque is guaranteed to rattle the fresh peace accords. But upheaval could also be a good test of whether Colombians have learned from their violent history that it is wiser to resolve differences with open political debate and negotiation, rather than grabbing for the nearest gun.

This story has been updated since it was first published on Aug. 28, 2017.

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