A warm Washington welcome for Colombia’s controversial ex-president
On August 7, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla 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 . . . have 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 DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center announced that the former president had been selected to be one of the Center’s distinguished fellows.
History won’t remember Duque kindly. While president, he partially dismantled Colombia’s 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 U.S. 2020 elections.
Yet Duque will soon receive a $10,000 monthly stipend and have a cushy office near the White House. What gives? Why is a prominent DC think tank, one that receives U.S. 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 essential l partnership,” as President Biden put it — that has existed between the U.S. and Colombian governments. Leaders like Duque have vigorously supported many of Washington’s priorities in Colombia and regionally. In exchange, they have received unconditional political backing and billions of dollars of U.S. assistance. Under Colombia’s new left-leaning president, this relationship appears to be changing course, triggering anxiety within the U.S. foreign policy elite.
Duque was elected in 2018, thanks to the endorsement of his political mentor, ultraconservative former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010). During his presidency, Uribe carried out a scorched-earth military offensive against guerrilla groups, with unprecedented logistical and financial backing from the United States 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. (Upon leaving office, Urube was also given a prominent visiting fellowship at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service). Duque 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 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 establishment, according to Colombia’s independent Truth Commission. The U.S. government was aware that the Colombian military carried out extrajudicial killings and worked in tandem with paramilitary groups, yet U.S. security aid continued to flow, to the tune of $7.7 billion between 1996 and 2016.
Duque’s 2018 campaign 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 and programs designed to address gaping land ownership inequality and enable coca growers to transition to licit crops.
Worst of all, Duque failed to enforce security guarantees for demobilized FARC fighters and community leaders. State security forces were largely absent in conflict areas or wouldn’t deploy when needed. As a result, illegal armed groups have multiplied and violence has surged. While Duque was in office, 261 massacres took place in which 1,144 people were killed, according to human rights group Indepaz.
Duque’s presidency was also marked by the largest protests in contemporary Colombian history. Though ostensibly a response to Duque’s unpopular policies, ever-increasing levels of poverty and income inequality (the highest in Latin America) also triggered outrage among Colombians. The massive protests were met with fierce repression by security forces. More than 80 individuals — mostly young demonstrators — were killed; others were tortured or subjected to sexual assault.
Duque and other officials downplayed the abuses and frequently portrayed the protests as attempts to destabilize the government on behalf of terrorists, foreign governments, and opponents like Petro. Speaking at a May 2021 event at the Wilson Center, Duque made barely veiled references to Petro and his team, referring to “people that might want to . . . build their aspirations on chaos.” At that same event, and while protests continued to rage in Colombia, Wilson Center president Mark Green declared that “the Duque government is a key partner and ally of the U.S. Our values… overlap in so many ways.”
Indeed, Duque was a loyal ally to the United States. Like many of his predecessors, he supported key U.S. priorities, even when they were harmful and counterproductive. He continued prosecuting the U.S.-backed drug war — an aggressive, militarized approach that often criminalizes communities and focuses on crop eradication at all costs, including through toxic aerial fumigation.
Colombia’s Truth Commission strongly criticized the U.S. approach to counternarcotics, blaming it for hardening the country’s armed conflict. Nor does it appear to have worked: cocaine production in Colombia has risen and is now at three times the level seen in 2012.
Duque has also been a consistent promoter of U.S. objectives in other parts of Latin America. He firmly supported Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, openly supporting military coups there and allowing dissident Venezuelan soldiers to train in Colombia.
Like the U.S. administration, he warmly welcomed the ouster of Bolivia’s elected president Evo Morales by the military and far-right politicians. In Ecuador, Duque’s attorney general intervened aggressively in the 2021 elections to undermine left-leaning candidate Andrés Arauz and bolster the campaign of Washington’s candidate, Guillermo Lasso (full disclosure: Araúz is currently a senior research fellow at my organization, CEPR). Duque’s political allies, including Uribe, even meddled in the U.S. 2020 election, openly supporting Trump and congressional candidates in South Florida.
Nevertheless Duque later had excellent relations with the Biden administration. He trumpeted his support for Biden’s Latin America policy — in many ways a continuation of Trump’s policy. When Biden was criticized by many regional leaders for barring Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Duque launched a long tirade against the three countries. Duque also drew accolades in Washington for offering protective status to Venezuelan migrants. At the same time he strongly supported U.S. sanctions that have made Venezuela’s crisis far worse and contributed to the surge in out-migration.
The Biden administration has rewarded Duque with 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 movement just two days ahead of Colombia’s parliamentary election. The Biden administration also made its political preferences clear ahead of Colombia’s June presidential election. Senior U.S. diplomats issued statements of concern regarding fears of Russian, Cuban, and Venezuelan intervention in the election, with the unstated implication that these countries supported Petro. U.S. officials pointedly avoided meeting with Petro ahead of the election, while meeting with other candidates.
Duque is now a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center. Petro is now the president of Colombia. 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 U.S. 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 relations with Venezuela and intends to radically overhaul drug policy.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. 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 many times before in Latin America.