Colombia presidential front-runner dogged by mentor’s shadow
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Until recently, Ivan Duque led the life of a run-of-the-mill Washington, D.C., suburbanite: He had a spacious apartment with his wife in a quiet pocket north of the city, a cushy job at an international development bank, and a love for the city’s iconic Kramerbooks bookshop to satiate his literary appetite.
Then the powerful former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, took him under his wing. What followed was one of the most rapid political ascents in the nation’s history. In the span of four years, the prematurely graying Duque went from being an unknown technocrat to a popular senator and now the frontrunner in Colombia’s first presidential race since the signing of a historic peace accord.
But one question has been dogging Duque on the campaign trail ahead of Sunday’s runoff: Will he be his own man as president or a puppet of his both revered and vehemently detested political mentor?
“There is a lot of fear,” said Ivan Cepeda, a leftist senator supporting Duque’s opponent, former guerrilla and ex-Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro. “The government of Uribe violated more human rights than many previous administrations combined. To what extent will Duque be able to distance himself from the worst practices and ideas of Uribe?”
Polls indicate the 41-year-old Duque is leading the race against Petro by between 6 and 20 points. Whoever is elected will oversee Colombia at a crucial juncture in its history: The nation is in the early stages of implementing an accord with leftist rebels to end Latin America’s longest running conflict. Coca production and violence has soared in areas vacated by the rebels, testing traditionally close relations with the U.S.
Petro has promised to uphold the peace deal, while Duque is vowing to make changes, such as not allowing ex-commanders to take up political offices promised by the accord until they have fully confessed their crimes and made reparations to victims. His critics contend such moves could throw the accord’s already shaky implementation into disarray.
A lawyer and father of three, Duque’s fierce criticism of the ex-leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia echoes the conservative refrains of Uribe, the chief opponent of the peace deal, though in recent weeks the candidate has tweaked his positions. For example, he’s backed away from a plan to overturn a negotiated amnesty for ex combatants involved in drug trafficking. He’s also expressed support for rank-and-file guerillas transitioning to civilian life and has promised not to “shed the agreement to pieces” as some hardliners are seeking.
“The moment has arrived to demand that necessary modifications are made,” he said in a deep voice to a crowd of cheering supporters at a recent rally in Colombia’s coffee growing region. “So that peace is cemented on justice and not impunity.”
Following his first-round win over Petro by more than 14 points, Duque’s relationship with Uribe has come under greater scrutiny. Though Uribe is widely lauded for weakening the rebels during his presidency, critics say his battlefield successes came at the expense of grave human rights abuse by the military, including the killings of thousands of civilians who were then dressed up as rebels to inflate body counts.
According to close friends and advisers, Duque and Uribe bonded toward the end of the candidate’s nearly 13 year career at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, where he worked first as an adviser to the office representing three South American countries and later as head of the bank’s cultural division.
After leaving the presidency in 2010, Uribe was invited to lecture at Georgetown University and chose Duque to be his assistant. He also helped Uribe lead a United Nations probe into Israel’s deadly attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla and helped Uribe write his memoir.
But even as Uribe was lionized by millions in Colombia, his record on human rights was under fire. Over 100 scholars wrote to Georgetown’s president urging him to reconsider Uribe’s appointment. When he arrived on campus, shouting student protesters were waiting.
In 2014, Uribe invited Duque to return home and run for the Senate on a hand-picked list of newcomer candidates that he asked his legions of supporters to elect, securing his protégé’s victory. In the Senate, Duque earned a reputation as a security hawk and friend of business, but his friendly, hard-working demeanor won the respect of his ideological adversaries.
Gloria Ramirez, a political strategist who has worked with both men, rebuffed suggestions that Duque would be Uribe’s puppet, and noted that many in the Democratic Center party initially dismissed him as not being “Uribista” enough because of his past affiliation with President Juan Manuel Santos, who turned on Uribe shortly after being elected with his support. Nearly two decades ago, Duque was as an aide to Santos when he served as Colombia’s finance minister.
Now, Ramirez said, Duque gets the opposite criticism from those who can’t find another way to dismiss him. Reflecting those concerns, the two men have been careful not to appear on the campaign trail together, though Uribe has crisscrossed the country stumping for Duque.
“He’s not going to get involved in anything Ivan doesn’t ask him to,” she said of Uribe, who will lead his party’s bloc in the Senate, where it will be the largest political force.
But critics like Cepeda fear the highly popular Uribe will use his leverage over his star pupil to retaliate against political enemies and sideline investigations against him and his family for suspected ties to right-wing paramilitaries.
In one much-noted incident in March, Uribe blasted a prominent critic, investigative journalist Daniel Coronell, warning that in a Duque government broadcast licenses would be handled with transparency — comments seen as a veiled threat that a TV channel Coronell partly owns could be taken off the air. Duque said he respects press freedom but refrained from criticizing Uribe’s remarks.
A son of a former governor and energy minister, Duque’s political aspirations run in his blood. Oscar Castano, a childhood friend, recalled how a young Duque would wake up by 5 a.m. and read the politics section of the local newspaper. He memorized speeches of Colombian political luminaries like mid-century populist Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and debated with lawmakers on the left and right who passed through his house.
By the age of 10 he’d already declared his intention to one day be president.
“He’s been preparing for this for 30 years,” Castano said.
Even though most of his positions lean right, Castano and others said Duque is not ideologically driven and more centrist on social policy than his traditional views on abortion and gay marriage suggest. Ramirez said that during one of her visits to Washington 15 years ago, Duque insisted on taking her book hunting and gave her a copy of a work by another political novice who he assured would one day become the U.S. president: Barack Obama.
Ramirez described Duque as a voracious reader who can finish four or five books a week and who loves dancing, singing and playing guitar, a hark back to his days as the leader of a high school heavy metal band called “Pig Nose.” Back then he had the words to songs like “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica memorized by heart. These days it’s easier to find him singing along to pop tunes and traditional Colombian vallenatos.
Analysts say the polarizing campaign that has cast Duque as a hardline conservative running against a radical leftist has failed to capture the many shades of gray in between, where both candidates actually lie.
“Voters are very lucky,” said Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine who got to know Duque while co-authoring Uribe’s memoir, “that a person who comes from the Colombian right wing, which is often nasty and even criminal, is a young modernizer who is unburdened by some of the battles of the last 20 years.”
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cearmario
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman