Mac Margolis:Colombia's President
Risks Blowing Up a Fragile Peace
Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency
Get me rewrite!
Reopening a historic deal with rebels could reignite instability.
It took Colombia nearly five years to negotiate an end to Latin America's oldest guerrilla insurgency. That deal earned its last president the Nobel Peace Prize and put the hemisphere's most conflicted nation on the brink of democratic normalcy. So it's fair to ask, why is the agreement under assault?
If President Ivan Duque gets his way, the pact could unravel, and, with it, Colombia-watchers fear, the country's best chance to put to rest a half-century of mayhem and infamy.
Cheered on by hard-right legislators, Duque took exception to parts of the peace accord and recently sent the law back to the legislature for fixes. His demands — establishing tougher rules for sentencing rebels and compensating victims, facilitating extradition and sending sex offenders of minors to common court instead of the more indulgent special tribunals — refer to six of the agreement's 159 articles.
The demands may sound reasonable enough. Yet reopening debate could trample the terms of the painstakingly negotiated peace. By remanding the law to congress, where it could languish for months or be disfigured, Duque threatens to throw the whole accord — and Colombia — into turmoil.
Until recently, such a grim prospect looked unlikely. After many false starts, the amended peace accord had passed congress in 2016 and won the imprimatur of the Constitutional Court, which ruled in 2017 that the agreement could not be substantially altered for another 12 years . Yet the drawn-out negotiations had embittered Colombians, who complained the plan was too lenient on the rebels, and stoked the political revolt that landed Duque in office.
Duque took office last August pledging only to modify the flawed agreement, which many Colombians disliked, not scuttle it. But a sluggish economy worsened by a flood of Venezuelan refugees , spiking cocaine production and crime, and carping among legacy politicians took their toll. His bungled tax reform sparked revolt in the legislature, and displeased both taxpayers and creditors. By late last year the young technocrat and political novice saw his approval ratings plunge .
Playing the war president is an odd look for Duque, a young wonk who spent a decade at the Inter-American Development Bank where he ran the culture, creativity and solidarity division and theorized about Latin America's orange economy unleashing a “wealth of talent, intellectual property, interconnectedness and, of course, cultural heritage.”
Yet bets that Duque would prove to be a Colombian reformer soon flagged. Public protests and pushback in congress stymied his headline national development plan. The surging discontent sent Duque further into the embrace of his mentor, former president Alvaro Uribe, whose cadre of ultraconservative politicians and big landowners were still stumping for war.
Colombia's hawks pressed their case in January when a car bomb rigged by a rebel holdout group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), exploded in a police academy, killing 21, the nation's deadliest terrorist attack since 2003. Duque tapped into the commotion, scrapping nascent talks with the ELN and demanding that Cuba arrest and extradite the rebel negotiators gathered there to broker peace.
The hard line paid political dividends in a land riven by a half-century of insurgency and mounting fiscal burdens, with the most vexing details of the postwar reconciliation plan still to be sorted.
So did talking tough to Venezuela, where the rolling collapse of the Bolivarian economy scattered millions of desperate refugees and turned Colombia's porous 2,200 kilometer border with Venezuela into a safe space for criminal gangs and freelance rebels . “The disarray next door provides a haven for people who take up arms, and there's nothing that Colombia can do about it,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “That's given Colombian hard-liners the upper hand.”
The Venezuelan tragedy also opened another opportunity. Duque got a brief bump in the polls by quickly recognizing dissident Venezuelan lawmaker Juan Guaido, named temporary president by his country's National Assembly, and made legitimizing Guaido's claim to leadership a Latin American talking point. “Duque had his moment during the Venezuela crisis and showed he was his own man and not a creature of Uribismo,” Princeton historian Robert Karl, a Colombia scholar, told me. “But his attempts to roll back parts of the peace accord point to the opposite. There's a vocal camp that feels he hasn't been hard-line enough.”
The immediate threat of Duque's effort to revise the agreement is not of reigniting the National Armed Forces of Colombia insurgency: The demobilized guerrillas are widely loathed, badly weakened and bereft of the charismatic leaders. The greater danger is of institutional corrosion that discredits government authority when it's most needed. “Congress may not rewrite the law. They could just let the bill languish, maybe for months,” said Isacson. He noted that the Colombian high court has said it will only rule on the constitutionality of the proposed amendments once congress has weighed in.
“Meantime, you have thousands of former guerrillas and other combatants whose cases are awaiting review before the special tribunals,” Isacson added. “How many of these defendants are going to slip away and throw in with residual rebel factions in the countryside or join the ranks of criminal gangs?”
That prospect has deflated hopes for a fresh start for Colombia's democracy and the much-heralded peace dividend reckoned to buoy Latin America's fourth-largest economy once the shooting stopped. At this point, Duque needs to recognize that his most urgent task is not to rewrite the peace agreement, but to rescue it.
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