Colombian President Iván Duque: ‘We have never played roulette with the economy or with social-spending programs’

The ‘extreme-centrist’ politician has dealt with several crises during his term, while a peace deal agreed with FARC rebels is slowly implemented. In an interview with EL PAÍS, he talks pandemics, politics and pressuring Nicolás Maduro to go

Iván Duque, presidente de Colombia
Colombian President Iván Duque during his interview with EL PAÍS earlier this month.Camilo Rozo

On a Saturday morning, Colombian President Iván Duque greets EL PAÍS journalists in an aviator jacket and jeans. As he guides us on a tour of the Casa de Nariño official residence, he talks about its construction, its first owners and its sale to the state. He elaborates at length in front of the urn that holds the steel and bronze sword of Simón Bolívar, reciting facts from memory. In his office, one can spot a motto on his desk that reads: “If you do the little things well, the big things will work out better”. When applied to Duque’s policies, his detractors would argue he has not stuck to the message.

In his darkest days, Duque, 44, heads to the chapel of the official residence and prays. He has had reason for several trips since his election in 2018: members of the ELN, a leftwing insurgency, killed 22 police cadets with a car bomb in 2019, Hurricane Iota wreaked destruction late last year, and the Covid-19 pandemic has caused immense hardship in terms of deaths and financial losses. “Those are moments when I cling to God and faith,” he says, “though I believe that we have to offer thanks to Divine Providence even for moments of adversity.”

After almost three years in office, Duque’s critics accuse him of avoiding big decisions and of living in the shadow of ex-president Álvaro Uribe, who ruled during the final years of Colombia’s armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and who remains an influential yet divisive figure. The implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, along with tax reform, are the thorniest issues Duque faces today. What follows is an interview with a president always walking a difficult tightrope, and refusing to be drawn too closely to any one side.

Question. How do you define yourself ideologically?

Answer. Of the extreme center.

Q. Can you explain what that means?

A. It means that I don’t move from the center.

Q. And what is the political center to you?

A. The world cannot continue with these debates between left and right. There is now a clear division between demagogues and pedagogues. There are the demagogues promising big things and then failing to deliver, and there are the pedagogues, who are required to guide society.

Q. What does someone like you from the extreme center think of Donald Trump and the assault on the Capitol?

A. I rejected the assault on the Capitol and I reject violence.

Q. So what about a president who encouraged it, as Trump did?

A. It seems to me that violence is the greatest expression of irrationality, and even more so in a democracy. In democracies, the great debates have to take place in our institutions.

Q. But you have not made any public declaration about Trump. What did you think about Trump encouraging the assault on the Capitol at a rally?

A. I don’t want to present myself as a judge. I think the United States has already had that discussion and it would be wrong of me to get involved in internal political debates.

Q. And what about Jair Bolsonaro’s attitude towards the pandemic?

A. I do not judge other presidents. I respect their approaches. Perhaps the best way forward is to set an example. From day one, we have worked with scientific evidence to face the challenge of the pandemic. Providing information and understanding for the protection of citizens’ lives and of our health system is just as important as protecting our economic and social structures.

Q. What is your assessment of the impact of the coronavirus on Colombia?

A. It has been a huge challenge because we did not have the spending power of rich countries. However, before the first month of our vaccination program is even over, we are getting closer and closer to vaccinating our first million people. Our goal this year is to reach 35 million vaccinated, or 70% of the Colombian population. The challenge now is to protect the most vulnerable and at the same time stabilize our public finances.

Q. How are you going to do that?

A. When the pandemic hit, we decided to create an unconditional cash transfer to the most vulnerable families for the first time. There are more than three million families receiving that income. I hope that with Congress we can extend those payments and reach almost five million families, and that we can also increase the amount handed out.

Secondly, mid-pandemic, we implemented a sales tax [VAT] refund to a million families, and this year we will extend it to two million families, and maybe even more. We have also subsidized between 40% and 50% of the legal minimum wage to more than 3.4 million workers.

We have to come up with an ambitious agenda to deal with the effects on poverty and unemployment, and at the same time stabilize public finances. How? With the principle of solidarity

Q. And there is a tax reform underway.

A. Talking about taxation is missing the mark slightly. I would explain it in the following way: the pandemic has created four serious effects; poverty, unemployment, a spending deficit and debt. Today we have to come up with an ambitious agenda to deal with the effects on poverty and unemployment, and at the same time stabilize public finances. How? With the principle of solidarity.

Q. And with us being relatively close to election time [Colombia will hold a presidential election in 2022], will this reform have the necessary support in Congress?

A. Colombia and Spain have this in common, which is that our countries have never played roulette with the economy or with social-spending programs. Everything that has been spent in this crisis will have to be covered eventually, everything. In the case of Colombia, whenever we have had to make decisions to protect the most vulnerable and preserve the stability of public finances, we have done so.

Q. That’s all very well but in order to make that happen you will need money, and that could come from a tax reform, right? For example, 40% of products are exempt from VAT at the moment.

A. I want to be very clear. I am not in favor of VAT on food that makes up families’ day-to-day consumption, so eggs, meat, chicken, or bread. We have to ensure that access to basic foodstuffs is protected. There are other aspects of the VAT regime that will be analyzed by tax experts, I’m sure, and we will consider them, but regarding household staples I am not in favor of setting a VAT rate right now.

Q. And do you not fear an increase in social conflict due to the pandemic and poverty?

A. Obviously we know that this type of circumstance will always bring some level of friction and fear, and we also know that there are some people who will always want to capitalize on the ill feeling generated among those affected by the pandemic and poverty, and to use it for their own electoral gain. That’s why these social policies are so important this year.

Q. There are complaints about the development of the peace accords. Progress is slow and meanwhile the killings of community leaders and former FARC guerrillas continue. Shouldn’t the process be sped up?

A. I do not play politics with peace. I have a peace policy. We have a commitment to moving forward without looking for recognition, or for prizes and awards. We do this to serve Colombians.

Q. You were very critical of the peace agreement [between the government and the FARC signed in 2016]. After three years as president, are you convinced yet that it was not as bad as you thought?

A. I was critical of aspects of the agreement. I think it is very positive that those who laid down their arms are returning to civilian life. And yes, I have some concerns, which I have aired publicly. Those concerns are about guaranteeing the principles of truth, justice, reparations and preventing any repeat behavior. That means we need to know the truth about the recruitment of minors, about the relationship with drug trafficking, about the rape of women and children, about those who were kidnapped. It also means that Colombians know that the sentences applied by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace [JEP; Colombia’s peace court] offer the guarantee, credibility and confidence that justice was really done.

Q. Do you trust transitional justice now?

A. My criticism was always institutional, constructive. The JEP has not yet produced any ruling, so I cannot make any value judgment regarding those stated purposes of truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition.

For me, there is no difference between the misnamed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and the FARC

Q. The Truth Commission’s report will be released at the end of the year. Will you support it?

A. It’s extremely important for the Colombian people that we say things as they are, and that means recognizing that in a country with the rule of law there are no political assassinations or political kidnappings or political car bombs or political recruitment of minors or political extortion. Under no circumstances can anyone who commits one of these crimes be called anything other than a criminal. Therefore, one cannot differentiate between armed groups based on their ideology.

For me, there is no difference between the misnamed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the FARC. It is also very important that when we construct the truth it is understood that the state security forces are not an actor in the conflict, but an authority protected by the constitution. Of course, if there are excesses, abuses or crimes committed by members of the security forces, the individuals responsible deserve to face the full weight of the law. So, when you ask me what is my expectation: that the truth based on these universal principles will prevail.

President Duque in his office after the interview with EL PAÍS.
President Duque in his office after the interview with EL PAÍS. Camilo Rozo

Q. Recently, the JEP presented a report that raised the number of civilians killed in combat and falsely passed off as guerrillas by the army to more than 6,400. Do you lend credibility to that report?

A. This behaviour must be rejected categorically and must be punished under the full weight of the law, and that’s whether we are talking about 1, 10, 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 victims. An investigation must also be carried out and it is very important that in this process we have judicial objectivity so that sanctions are applied that act as an example for those who  behave in this way.

Q. And would you agree if those sanctions included someone like the former president Álvaro Uribe?

A. I respect the question, but it comes from a premise that doesn’t enter the debate for me for a simple reason, which is that there was no chain of command coming from the executive in these cases, which are against the law and the constitution. The then the defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, along with former President Uribe, have publicly announced they took no part in these decisions and were not those who exercised some degree of control, inspection or surveillance over the units in question. I cannot accept a hypothetical question about the criminal responsibility of anyone without proof, who has not been convicted in court, and furthermore one that is not supported by any type of evidence.

Q. What is your relationship with Uribe?

A. It’s positive, and we are friends. He is not only a person I admire for his dedication to our country, for his patriotism, but also because he cares a lot about making proposals.

Q. Do you talk to him a lot?

A. We do talk. He is also still active in politics. I have a friendly relationship with him that I value deeply, and that maybe makes our conversations easier than with other former presidents.

Q. You give the impression that you have been diverging in opinion and that he, for example, is much more aggressive regarding the peace talks than you.

A. Thomas Jefferson said that when many people think alike, there is not much thinking going on. Respectful disagreement is very important in society, in a political party, in a company, in a newspaper, because it is precisely a diversity of opinions that allows us to find common ground.

We are defenders of democracy and the end of dictatorship in Venezuela

Q. In a gesture that was highly applauded by the international community, your government has decided to legalize hundreds of thousands of undocumented Venezuelans. Are more measures likely to be put in place for this immigrant group?

A. Colombia’s gesture is a gesture of peace; it’s a humanitarian and fraternal act. We are not a rich country, and 1.7 million migrants are already in Colombia. Around 900,000 have temporary permits, and we offer them a 10-year permit with a biometric identity card. There are another 800,000 or 900,000 who are invisible: we do not know where they are, what their names are, or what conditions they are living in. With this temporary protection statute they will be registered, and they will have access to goods and services in accordance with Colombian law. I believe that this is a reference in terms of global migration policy, because the world has seen a lot of xenophobia and a lot of stigmatization. We are showing that it is not necessary to be a rich country to be fraternal and humanitarian.

Q. You have been a staunch defender of [Venezuelan opposition leader] Juan Guaidó from the very beginning. However, the goal of removing Nicolás Maduro from power has not worked. What strategy should be followed in Venezuela?

A. Colombia has never acted unilaterally. It is not that we are staunch defenders, ruu. Maduro has not left power, that’s true, but let us also recognize several things. There has never been a diplomatic siege of this nature. This process is the end of the dictatorship, a transitional government with broad participation, the calling of free and fair elections and a plan for Venezuela’s reconstruction. What do we need to do? To accelerate that process.

Q. How?

A. We have to continue applying pressure, including the legal case made by several heads of state against Nicolás Maduro before the International Criminal Court.

Q. Would you support the participation of opposition parties in Venezuela’s next regional elections?

A. I am not going to say if I support or not. They are the ones who have to decide themselves. As long as no conditions exist for free and fair elections, because that’s not possible in a dictatorship, any pretension of participating in a democratic process ends up as a kind of farce.

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