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Colombia’s president on a wobbly peace with the FARC

After his New York meeting with Trump, Iván Duque discussed the rebels, the economy and the surge of Venezuelan refugees.

Ivan Duque, Colombia's president, at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York on Wednesday.
Ivan Duque, Colombia's president, at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York on Wednesday. (Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)

Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, 42, won office in June largely by opposing the peace deal his predecessor made with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas, who had waged a decades-long war against the government. This past week, Duque met with President Trump and other heads of state at the U.N. General Assembly gathering, where he criticized the agreement and spoke about the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. Duque met with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth to chat about these and other challenges. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: As a candidate, you told the people of Colombia that you would alter former president Juan Manuel Santos's peace deal. How?

A: What I always said is that we don’t want to destroy the agreement, but there are some parts that are not going well. The growth of illegal crops is one thing. We cannot talk about peace if we have an exponential growth of illegal crops. Some [former rebels] — not all of them — took advantage of a cutback in the aerial spraying program.

Q: What changes would you like to make to the peace treaty?

A: People who have not turned in assets or weapons will be brought to justice. People who have committed crimes like kidnapping and narco-trafficking will no longer see those crimes viewed as political crimes, so they won’t be granted amnesty. [Former rebels] who have been tried and condemned for crimes against humanity and are now in Congress will have to leave Congress. But their political party can put in another person [instead] who doesn’t have any debts to justice.

Q: Wasn't the transitional justice process set up so that you could go before court and say, "I'm really sorry I committed a war crime?"

A: If you told the truth, you would not go to jail. But what we’re trying to introduce is that if you were tried by transitional justice and found guilty of crimes against humanity and you’re a congressman or a senator, you have to leave Congress. You have to comply with your punishment. Now we have people in Congress who have committed those crimes.

Q: That's a pretty big change.

A: I don’t think it’s that big.

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Q: The population didn't like that part of the peace deal, right?

A: They didn’t. That’s why we won the [referendum against the agreement] in 2016.

Q: I read that 2,700 FARC have already gone back to fighting.

A: No one knows the number. But definitely there are people that have gone back to criminal activities. We will prosecute them.

Q: How many FARC are there?

A: When they signed the agreement, there were 14,000 members — 7,000 were called combatants, another 7,000 were called militias. [These were separate from the FARC structure.] Maybe there were around 2,000 who were not actually participating in illegal armed groups. I have been very clear that if you want to enter into a process of demobilization and reincorporation and you are truly committed, we will help you achieve that goal.

Q: The Colombian press says that you're just letting the accord fall apart.

A: I’m doing the opposite. Actually, the ones who might be letting this fall apart are the FARC kingpins, who have not given up all their weapons or assets and are simply returning to criminal activities.

Q: How did your meeting with President Trump go?

A: It was a great meeting. We are going to strengthen our relationship with the U.S. — not only the military cooperation, but also trade and development assistance. We also talked about Venezuela and got the president’s strong support for the refugee situation we’re facing due to the [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro regime. We have the biggest migration crisis in Latin America.

Q: You have 48 million Colombians and a million Venezuelans in your country?

A: A little bit less than 1 million. It generates fiscal and social stress. But we definitely want to keep our arms open and help the refugees while they run from the dictatorship. At the same time, we have to denounce the dictatorship.

Q: Why is President Maduro coming to New York today?

A: That’s the kind of thing he does regularly to provoke the world. But today, the governments of Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Canada signed a letter to the International Criminal Court denouncing the Maduro regime and its crimes against humanity [with the hope] that the court tries him for all the abuses he has committed.

Q: Is the government of Venezuela in essence a narco-trafficking state?

A: It is a narco-trafficking state. It is a human rights violator. They have been sponsoring and helping and providing safe haven to Colombian terrorists in their territory.

Q: You're speaking of both the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the FARC?

A: Now most of the ELN kingpins are in Venezuela.

Q: Does the ELN have a strong connection with the Maduro government?

A: They do. Inside the Venezuelan government, there is huge narco-trafficking cartel called Cartel de los Soles . They have linkages with cartels in Colombia. They produce cocaine in the border zones of Colombia so they can export it to Venezuela and then sell it overseas.

Q: The proceeds finance the Venezuelan government?

A: I don’t know about the government. They finance many people inside the government — people who are connected with the military and Maduro’s inner circle.

Q: For instance?

A: There is a lot of speculation whether Tareck El Aissami, one of the closest members of Maduro’s regime, is connected to those cartels. . . . Something has to be done. When I came to office, I realized that in the last five years, we jumped from having 50,000 hectares of coca crops to more than 200,000. So since Day One of my administration, I have begun finding those illegal crops and dismantling cartels, and bringing people to jail and prosecuting them. We have seized and frozen assets and narcotics, and captured more than 300 members of illegal armed groups. I have extradited to the United States more than 40 people. I am very strong in the fight against narco-trafficking. . . . But at the same time, we all need to cut down consumption.

Q: Here in the U.S.?

A: And in the world. In Colombia, we also see consumption growing. We have more than 800,000 consumers in our country.

Q: The Lima Group, a regional group composed of 16 Latin American countries plus Canada, met recently and issued a statement that all military options regarding Venezuela are off the table. But Colombia remained silent.

A: We have not remained silent. I don’t think that a military solution is the solution, because that’s what Maduro wants. Maduro wants to create a demon so that he can exacerbate patriotism and remain in office.

Q: President Trump has said that no options are off the table.

A: I respect the U.S. position, and we will continue to denounce the regime and will participate in any coalition that diplomatically and economically imposes sanctions on the dictator and his inner circle.

Q: Do you think sanctions can really work?

A: They’re going to [exert] pressure. The denouncement against Maduro at the International Criminal Court is going to have an impact.

Q: But do you think that's enough?

A: The word “enough” is difficult to say. But I think they’re going to be effective.

Q: You think that the Maduro government will go?

A: The Venezuelan people are very angry and discouraged, and I think they will find a better solution for the dictator to step out and the country to transition to democracy and the people to regain their liberty.

Q: Does your government have contacts with the Venezuelan opposition?

A: I have met people from the opposition in the past. I admire that they have been fighters for freedom. The whole world should praise their efforts.

Q: Has the Trump administration talked to you about the 2011 trade treaty your predecessor signed with President Obama?

A: The U.S. has a surplus with Colombia, and we also have very high levels of U.S. investment in Colombia. The U.S. is our number one trade partner.

Q: People say you were basically brought up by former president Álvaro Uribe and that he calls the shots.

A: When I started campaigning, I always knew that my opponents were going to say that. I won with the biggest turnout in our history. I think I’ve proven . . . I won with my ideas, with my program and the support of my party.

Q: What do you think of the charges about Uribe's influence?

A: I don’t pay attention to that. I have a good relationship with him. But I govern for all Colombians.

Q: You have a tough situation in Congress since you have a small majority?

A: You know, that regularly happens. I have something close to 50 percent of the votes in Congress. I have to work hard, and I like that. I’m not planning to govern with just one side of the aisle. One reason I don’t have a bigger majority is that I changed the way that politics works. I cut back the practice of getting votes in exchange for government contracts. I made this my crusade.

Q: What's your biggest problem?

A: We have a good level of economic growth, but I want to bring it above 4 percent. I want to reduce the informal sector [the part of the economy that isn’t monitored or taxed by the government].

Q: What percent of the economy is in the informal sector?

A: Maybe 50 percent.

Twitter: @LallyWeymouth

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