On Thursday, February 14, His Excellency Iván Duque Márquez, president of the Republic of Colombia, discussed Colombia’s ambitious agenda for transitional justice, economic reform, and regional leadership. Duque, who was sworn in as president of Colombia in August 2018, was interviewed by CNBC Contributor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. The Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council hosted the event in conjunction with CSIS, AS/COA, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Wilson Center. President Duque covered a wide array of topics, including:
Venezuela: The dialogue opened with the region’s most pressing issue: the Venezuela crisis. Duque made no reservations about criticizing Nicolas Maduro, stating that “this is the most brutal dictatorship in recent Latin American history.” He was firm that “amnesty is not an option” for Maduro, as he is a dictator who must be tried by the international criminal court. “Blocking humanitarian aid for me is a crime against humanity,” said Duque, adding that Colombia will continue to receive foreign aid intended for Venezuelans. Furthermore, he made a bold, clear request to members of the Venezuelan military to shift allegiance to the Venezuelan people and let aid in.
Most significantly, he expressed unwavering support for the Interim Government of President Juan Guaidó, commending the opposition’s efforts in the last six months to reclaim democracy for the Venezuelan people. Duque conveyed hope for progress in Venezuela, saying that “this is the first time in many years that the Venezuelan people are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.” He celebrated the international community for supporting Guaidó and asked China to reconsider its posturing on the issue. “I would respectfully invite [the Chinese] to support Juan Guaidó because it is important for Latin America…”.
US-Colombian Relations: Duque, fresh off his meetings with President Trump, expressed his commitment to work with Trump on issues of mutual interest, including counter-narcotics and support for Venezuela. He expressed reservations about military intervention, which the Trump administration has touted as a viable option for Venezuela. Otherwise, he articulated a shared vision between the two countries moving forward. He said he enjoyed the discussion with the US President and members of Congress and looked forward to deepening ties between the countries.
Counter-narcotics policy: Duque also discussed his administration’s plans for countering the narcotics trade in Colombia. He said that combatting the drug trade and organized crime requires a proactive, uncompromising stance against violence.
“In the last five years, we have jumped from 60,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares” of coca, said Duque, acknowledging a problematic increase in coca production in Colombia. “By 2023, we should reduce the number of crops by more than 60%, and we are working together [with the US] on achieving that”. He mentioned that his administration has already eliminated 60,000 hectares of Coca in just six months.
Duque’s plans to use a “360 type of approach” to eradicate drugs, drawing from a diverse array of tools and policies. When probed about whether the toolbox would include aerial fumigation, Duque referred to the Constitutional ruling in Colombia, which requires definitive proof that spraying does not negatively impact the health of individuals on the ground. He told the audience that he planned to engage in dialogue on the topic on March 6 at a hearing in Bogotá.
Duque also stressed the need to frame the conversation around issues of sustainable business outlets beyond coca production. “When Plan Colombia began in 1999, we had more or less 160,000 hectares of coca. We were able to reduce that size to less than 60,000 by 2012. That means that yes, we can be effective, but it also means that to be effective is not just a matter of eradication. We have to shift from illegal economies to legal economies,” said Duque. Ultimately, he said he “preferred to take the moral stand” on issues of drug production in Colombia, arguing for a “comprehensive way” of addressing the root causes of the issue.
ELN and political violence: When asked about the recent ELN bombing that killed 21 cadets in Bogotá and a general return to urban violence in Colombia, Duque was clear: “For me, it is the consequence of trying to be morally relaxed with violence.” His response was met with uproarious applause from the audience.
The President said that he fundamentally rejects violence as an approach to relations with the state, and that he will ensure that those responsible for acts of violence face justice. “Nothing justifies what they did,” said Duque. “No ideology justifies a kidnapping, a killing. No longer can terrorism be used as a way of expressing political ideas.”
Peace implementation: During his campaign for the presidency, Duque rejected the 2016 Peace Accords with the FARC signed by ex-president Juan Manuel Santos. Now, as President, Duque is committed to ensuring success in the reintegration of former FARC members, as well as to rebuilding conflict torn areas of Colombia. He said his administration has completed 19 projects to allow former combatants to sustainably reintegrate and has continued to push for stabilization and economic opportunities in the 117 municipalities most impacted by the conflict.
Duque said also pointed to a promising statistic: homicides have been reducing under his administration. “…I have given the Ministry of Defense and the military one big goal,” said Duque. “By the end of my administration, we will end up with the lowest homicide rate in the history of Colombia. Day by day, week by week, we are following those trends. We are working together, with all of the units—the judicial system primarily—to achieve those results.” He ended by stating that he aims to increase the number of victims with full reparation benefits by at least 35% by the end of his term in office.
Business, trade, and foreign investment: Duque, considered a friend of the private sector, made the following statement on economics and trade: “When you have too much market excess and the market does not have the right regulations, it ends up in a voracious capitalism.” He continued by saying that “the most important social program to sustain income is a formal job,” and indicated that he will open the market to more private investment in an effort to create more official jobs in Colombia. He explained that his tax reductions aim to incentivize private sector growth and thus job stimulation. “I truly believe that we need the private sector to generate employment,” said Duque.
He also commented on investment from foreign actors, most notably from China. “We need to have sound investment from the rest of the world,” said Duque. “If Chinese corporations want to invest in Colombia, they must follow the rules and if they do, they are welcome.”
Duque also addressed the status of exports in Colombia, which sit at 17% of total GDP. “The first thing I want is for exports as share of GDP to grow. I also want to diversify the trade basket,” he said. “76% of our exports are highly concentrated on 12-13 products, and we definitely need to diversify that.” He also said there is a need for creating accessibility to markets, and that Latin America needs to focus more on intraregional integration so that it is not profoundly dependent on external shocks. Along this vein, he proposed a continuance of the relationship between the Pacific Alliance and MERCOSUR.
Duque ended his time on stage with a commitment to more inclusive policies, especially toward those who have been disenfranchised and unheard in the peace process. “We want Afro-Colombians to actively participate in governance issues. For me,” said Duque, “it is important that we get a better representation in the government and in regional entities” by those groups who have otherwise been left behind.