Last Tuesday, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque addressed the European Parliament for half an hour in Strasbourg, France. While Duque sought to defend his dubious record on implementing the 2016 Peace Accords for which his predecessor won the Nobel Peace Prize, some European Members of Parliament donned white T shirts memorializing social leaders assassinated so far during Duque’s presidency. Duque has been widely criticized for his failure to protect social activists and indigenous leaders, while insecurity seems to be on the rebound throughout the country. Duque’s administration has seen record levels of narcotics production, not seen since the days of Pablo Escobar, who was killed by the government 29 years ago.
“This year in Colombia they have murdered 22 social leaders, there have been 19 massacres. In 2021, within the framework of the protests, the police murdered, disappeared and sexually assaulted hundreds of protesters. The systematic violation of human rights is endless. To complete the shamelessness, Duque is being received with a red carpet in Europe,” said Miguel Urbán Crespo, a radical leftist Member of the European Parliament from Spain.
Indeed during Duque’s tenure, Colombia seems to mirror the popular movie “The Hunger Games” where Bogotá and Medellín, analogous to Districts 1 and 2 from the movie are world class, modern cities complete with luxury housing, advanced health care, and imported delicacies, while much of the country remains without basic services, education, or unlike the Hunger Games, basic security and government protection. The United Nations is very clear that the worsening of conditions is solidly within Duque’s term of responsibility and can’t be blamed on longer term trends. From the UN Global Humanitarian Overview:
In 2021, organized NSAGs [Non-State Armed Groups] have expanded rapidly in peripheral areas of the country, creating an increase in hostilities and violence affecting civilian populations, particularly ethnic minorities. Increased use of explosive ordnance, including improvised landmines, has been reported, particularly in rural areas and regions bordering neighboring countries, where illicit crops and other illegal economies are located. In 2021, indigenous communities have been gravely affected by explosive ordnance, recording a 20 per cent increase in indigenous casualties compared with 2020.1 The increase in recruitment of minors has also been reported.2 2021 witnessed the highest number of people affected by mass displacements and confinement in the last decade and a continuous trend in confinement affecting more than 113,000 people this year.3
The same report notes that while Colombia is classified as an “Upper Middle Income” country, on the INFORM Severity Index, Colombia ranks as 4.5 / Very High, in other words, a humanitarian disaster. The European Commission’s “INFORM Severity Index is an improved way to objectively measure and compare the severity of humanitarian crises and disasters globally.”
The Duque administration was further embarrassed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization that listed Colombia as the only country in South America as “Food Insecure and in need of food assistance in 2022” along with South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Madagascar and Yemen. Rather than address the crisis, Vice President and acting foreign minister Marta Lucia Ramirez demanded that Colombia be removed from the report.
The administration didn’t dare protest when two years ago, the United States government said the same thing about Colombia: “Food security needs in Colombia remain high due to internal conflict and periodic natural disasters, as well as the influx of vulnerable Venezuelans and Colombian returnees crossing into Colombia as a result of the escalating economic and political crisis in Venezuela.”
During the COVID pandemic lockdowns, for almost a year there was a general curfew throughout the country, giving police more reason and power to stop and question people out on the roads, but during the pandemic, illicit narcotics exports surged. 1,228 metric tons of cocaine were produced in Colombia in 2020, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year.
It has been difficult to take the Duque administration’s antinarcotics efforts seriously when his own Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez, the same one who made demands against the UN report on Colombia’s precarious humanitarian situation, also tried to press criminal charges against investigative journalists at Insight Crime who revealed and verified her own family’s ties to narcotraffickers. Her husband had business dealings with now convicted paramilitary narcotrafficker “Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, AKA “Memo Fantasma,” and it was revealed that the vice president paid $150,000 to bail out her own brother who was caught and convicted for heroin trafficking.
The attorney general’s office has now revealed that criminal mafias such as the notorious Clan del Golfo have likely infiltrated the Colombian military and law enforcement at the highest levels, including army generals. Had this been revealed at the beginning of Duque’s term, he could claim to be the guy to clean things up, but he is in the final months of his presidency. Even the Catholic church has spoken out against what it sees as actual collaboration between the military and mafias.
“We found in various municipalities that in many places where there is a strong presence of the Army and the public force there is a concomitant presence of the Clan del Golfo,” said Monsignor Juan Carlos Barreto, Archbishop of Quibdó, Chocó “We confirm the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis due to the armed conflict and the abandonment of the state.”
It’s not hard to argue that Duque has been no friend of the campesinos. Criminal displacements—being run off your land or home by armed gangs—has more than doubled in the past year alone. From the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report (translated):
“The number of victims due to mass displacement has increased by 101% between January and May 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. Likewise, the number of displacement events has increased by 31%, that is, they have been registered 15 more events in relation to the same period in 2020. So far, only 19% of the victims of displacement in 2021 have returned to their homes, while 81% or 23,837 people remain displaced, due to the impossibility of having a safe return due to the inadequate security conditions that remain in the territory, and in the midst of intersectoral needs that require attention.”
The report goes on to say:
It is worrying that the attacks against the civilian population and that trigger mass displacements are expanding and increasing by 54% to other departments such as La Guajira, Cesar, Arauca, Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá, among others. The increase in homicides and intentional injuries in civilians stands out by 161% and 70% respectively, showing an increase in attacks against civilians in a large part of the national territory.
The security situation under Duque is deteriorating such that criminals are emboldened enough to even attack the Presidential helicopter, as happened last year when the president was arriving in Cúcuta, a city on Colombia’s border with Venezuela. The presidential Sikorsky Black Hawk took six hits from small arms fire.
Colombians at home are unhappy with Duque
Last year, Colombians took to the streets after Duque’s finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla sought to raise taxes by expanding Colombia’s income tax obligation to lower income Colombians and taxing basic staples, but in an interview demonstrated he had no idea how much a dozen eggs cost. The abusive response by Colombia’s ESMAD riot police further inflamed the situation.
Yesterday, Colombian polling firm Invamer released results of a poll taken the first two weeks of February that shows only 20% of Colombians approve of his governance, while 73% disapprove. Many Colombians and investors abroad fear a left-wing presidency by former guerilla militant Gustavo Petro, but Duque with his dismal ratings may inadvertently be Petro’s best ally. The same Invamer poll showed that for the first time since 2018, Petro’s favorable ratings at 42 points have exceeded his unfavorable opinion ratings, which are at 40 points. Other presidential candidates’ ratings:
- Juan Manuel Galán (centrist): 29% favorable, 22% unfavorable
- Sergio Fajardo (centrist): 25% favorable, 33% unfavorable
- Ingrid Betancourt (left): 23% favorable, 43% unfavorable
- Alejandro Gaviria (centrist) 17% favorable, 23% unfavorable
- Francia Márquez (left) 16% favorable, 8% unfavorable
- Rodolfo Hernández (right) 16% favorable, 16% unfavorable
- Federico Gutierrez (centrist) 15% favorable, 22% unfavorable
- Alejandro Char (centrist) 12% favorable, 32% unfavorable
The Centro Democrático political party controlled by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe’s candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga has a favorable rating of 15% and unfavorable rating of 45%, a higher unfavorable rating than anyone except Ivan Duque himself, who cannot run due to Colombia’s single presidential term limit, and former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who has an approval rating of 21% and unfavorable image of 67%. Uribe was once widely seen as a hero, but his popularity has plummeted as allegations surface of human rights abuses during his administration, and more recent witness tampering and charges of attempting to frame opposition politicians. Uribe spent some time under house arrest due to the charges.
Members of Duque’s own Centro Democrático don’t seem to have much respect for him. “Uribista” senator María Fernanda Cabál was caught in a recorded phone call with a retired military officer sharing her true sentiment toward President Duque:
“Duque is a leftist liberal, Duque is a mamerto,” says Cabal. Mamerto is a very strong insult in Colombian slang that can translate as idiot, but in Colombia is especially used as a pejorative for leftists, such as historically, sympathizers with the FARC or ELN rebel groups.
The soldier then asks how he could have infiltrated the party. “He didn’t infiltrate us, he was installed by Fabio Echeverri Correa, because Duque was intelligent and applied, and was sent to accompany [chaperone] his lazy son, who isn’t worth a butthole, Luigi Echeverri,” Cabal goes on to say. Fabio Echeverri Correa was a powerful businessman and president of ANDI, Colombia’s largest business trade association. His son, Luigi Echeverri is a friend of President Duque and a member of several corporate bords in Colombia, such as Telefónica Colombia (operating as Movistar), Ecopetrol, and the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. He was President Duque’s campaign manager, and based on his LinkedIn profile, he presides over an “entity supporting the ideas of f. President Dr. Alvaro Uribe Vélez.”
Needless to say, Maria Fernanda Cabal is not impressed.
“It is that if you have a lazy son and you have money and you want him to graduate, then you invite the most intelligent girl in the class to blow him off. Like when your daughter is ugly, you have to take her with the pretty one to see if she picks someone up,” she continued.
“This guevón worked in Washington all his life and he carried Uribe’s suitcase when he went on a trip, but that’s only when we see the guy.” Guevón literally translates to “big eggs” but is also an insult in Colombian slang, like mamerto: strong words that would tend to start a bar fight if used with a stranger
“He is poison, so [President] Uribe always ends up falling, and we end up fucked because he [Duque] has the flavor of shit…There is nothing to do until he is gone, so I tell you, we win or we are all going to shit,” said Cabal. When the recording was leaked, she doubled down and stood by her words. Duque and Luigi Echeverry refused to respond, with Echeverry saying to simply consider the source, and Duque responding in Latin: “De minimis non curat praetor:” The magistrate does not consider trifles.
Let them eat eggs…and potatoes
Nos llevó el putas! Huevos a más de mil pesos cada uno pic.twitter.com/mNxjmKGsEq
— JUAN CARLOS VILLANI (@JUANVILLANI) February 15, 2022
Last year, the finance minister was lost when it came to the price of eggs. But Monday, a journalist with one of Colombia’s largest media networks was moved to profanity when he encountered eggs in a Bogotá supermarket selling for over $1,030 Colombian pesos per egg, or 26 US cents.
For the record, Duque’s former Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla guessed that a dozen eggs cost $1,800 pesos, or 48 cents. Carrasquilla proposed adding Colombia’s 19% VAT tax to basic foodstuffs like eggs and rice, also to gasoline and funerals, while exempting firearms and sugary soft drinks. Carrasquilla’s answer? “On the issue of eggs, it depends on its quality. Let’s say $1,800 COP (48 cents, US) a dozen or something like that.”
Even though Colombia is a petroleum exporting country and petroleum prices have jumped, the Colombian peso is at a near record low, worsening inflation. Potatoes, another Colombian staple, have jumped 140% in prices compared to a year ago. Per capital potato consumption in Colombia exceeds a whopping 79 pounds, or 36 kilos.
The government has announced it is removing import duties on agricultural supplies such as pesticides in an attempt to reduce prices, but any effect will be delayed until future harvests.
Colombian food price increases between December 2021 & January 2022
The Ivan Duque Legacy
While it is far too early for historians to assess Duque’s presidency, it is hard to find economic or social indicators that can justify a positive assessment of Duque’s term. Duque has promoted relatively investor-friendly policies, but his neglect of everyone outside of Colombia’s investor class has created a possible opening for the first-ever left-wing populist to enter the presidential palace.
“There is a generalized negativity in the country and that favors candidates who show a platform of opposition to the status quo,” said Colombia Risk Analysis co-founder Sergio Guzman. “This drastically improves Gustavo Petro’s chances of not only making it to the second round, but potentially winning.”
Duque has publicly dragged his feet when it comes to implementing the peace accords negotiated under the previous administration, but bitterly opposed by Duque’s political godfather, Alvaro Uribe.
Overall, the Duque administration has seemed to do a competent job managing the COVID pandemic, with some notable fiascos such as his infamous “COVID Friday.” Duque also intervened to assure an insurance settlement between Spanish insurer MAPFRE and public utility conglomerate Empresas Públicas de Medellín, controlled by Medellín’s populist mayor Daniel Quintero.
Duque, who speaks fluent English having spent much of his professional career in Washington, has generally maintained friendly, even fawning relations with Colombia’s traditional allies such as the United States. His administration has been relatively scandal free, defined by the lack of criminal charges filed against his appointees; still, it is early. After Uribe was out of office, some of his political appointees were jailed for corruption, such as Uribe’s deputy transportation minister Gabriel Garcia Morales, and his agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Árias.
On the other hand, Duque’s attorney general and personal friend Francisco Barbosa has been seen by many to do his best making the charges that got Alvaro Uribe arrested “go away.”
Colombian President Ivan Duque does not seem like an evil person or a mean man. He may be a fairly competent administrator in the bureaucratic sense. On the other hand, he has had almost four years to demonstrate leadership and statesmanship in a country with bitter divisions, and promising economic prospects clouded by vast inequality and social stratification where it seems like the rich and poor are living in two completely different countries.
Duque has been impacted by factors out of his control such as the COVID pandemic and the Venezuelan refugee crisis. In both cases, his response deserves some praise. It must also be said that crime and insecurity seem to be on the rise, especially in rural areas beyond the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Bogotá and Medellín. The extreme poor don’t seem to be any less poor. Colombia lost its investment grade rating under Duque’s administration. The president is left with few friends and many detractors, even within his own party.
On May 29, Colombians will go to the polls to vote for president. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two candidates will go to a runoff on June 19. According to law, the new president will be inaugurated August 7. Things can get worse, much worse. But as Duque’s four year term comes towards a close, there is a practical consensus in Colombia that things could have been much better.