BOGOTÁ — The peace accords signed two years ago with the demobilized FARC guerillas continue to divide Colombians politically, as do questions over how the country should go about ending the conflict with ELN rebels, solve the problem of drug production, and terminate the illegal businesses that have fueled so much barbarism over the years.

The last president, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), put his two terms on the line seeking a negotiated solution with the FARC, which had defied the state for more than half-a-century and even survived eight years of Álvaro Uribe's mano dura (iron first). Santos, who succeeded Uribe (2002-2010) after a stint as defense minister (2006-2009), convinced the leftist guerilla force to stop fighting and disarm. But he failed on the communication front. He struggled to make people understand that a country without violence is better, that all peace deals entail concessions, and that while signing a pact is difficult, its implementation is more so. Ultimately, he failed to convince Colombians that consolidating peace is a collective exercise. Everyone's participation is required, including the opposition.

These miscalculations were reflected in the adverse results of the plebiscite Santos called in 2016 to publicly ratify the peace deal. And they reached a culmination in the 2018 presidential elections, won by Iván Duque, the candidate representing the sectors that most opposed President Santos's peace initiative. Duque is a member of the rightist Democratic Center (CD) party, which was founded and continues to be led by ex-president Uribe, a committed critic of the peace process.

This is why the country was so anxious to hear what the new president, upon taking office last Tuesday, would say about the peace process. What would his first instructions be? How would he play this card that, to one degree or another, has defined the legacies of Colombian leaders since the mid-20th century? Government officials, opponents, academics, foreign aid workers, war victims, FARC lawmakers, peasants, skeptics and the naive — everyone was eager for Duque to remove their doubts or confirm their certainties.

Treading carefully

As it turned out, the president devoted exactly eight paragraphs of his inaugural speech — 589 words — to the issue of peace and how he plans to proceed in that regard. As every president gives things a different name, Duque is calling his initiative the Acuerdo por la Legalidad (Accord for Legality). And with this accord, he promised, "the false divisions between the friends and foes of peace will end, because we all want it."

So what precisely does he plan to do?

"We shall deploy correctives to assure victims about truth, proportional justice, reparation and non-repetition," the new president said while invoking the mandate of the 10 million Colombians who voted for him. He gave no details but added that, "We shall also correct the structural flaws that have become evident during implementation [of the peace process]." The victims of years of civil conflict, he said, "must expect to receive moral, material and economic compensation from their tormentors, and not be assaulted by impunity."

This was confirmation of one of his central campaign messages: That the justice system was too permissive in its treatment of the FARC chiefs. And yet — even when speaking of the tragedy of civil war — he made no specific mention of the top rebel commanders, some of whom (as of July 20) are now members of the legislature."

I believe in the demobilization, disarmament and social reinsertion of the guerrilla rank and file," Duque said. "Many were forcibly recruited and separated from their surroundings at gunpoint. I am convinced about and committed to seeking productive opportunities for the rank and file of these organizations, and ensuring their protection. We shall also make an effort to bring public facilities to all the country's region, beginning with those hit by violence."

But the president also made a key declaration regarding future peace talks — in reference to negotiations already underway with the ELN. "The moment has come for illegal armed groups that kidnap and deal in drugs to stop trying to win benefits by hiding their crimes behind ideological causes," he said.

"Quite simply, we must be clear that henceforth in our Constitution, drug trafficking and kidnapping are crimes that have place as a means to political ends. Nor are they legitimate mechanisms to finance or promote any cause," Duque added. "I pledge this to Colombia today and shall take the motion to the Congress of the Republic."

Keeping things 'credible'

As if that alone weren't enough to convey that his administration will take a far different approach than that of Uribe, the new president later returned to the matter, and gave the guerrillas an ultimatum. "In the first 30 days of our government, we shall undertake a responsible, prudent and complete evaluation of the process of conversations begun with the ELN," he said. "We shall meet with the United Nations, the Catholic Church and the countries that have backed this process, so they will share with us their evaluations so far, within the framework of our independence and the State's institutional position."

"I want to be clear that for the process to be credible, there needs to be a full end to criminal actions, with strict international oversight and established timelines," he added. "We want to make progress, but the Colombian people will not tolerate the legitimization of violence as a means of pressuring the state."

As expected, Duque confirmed that there would be renewed focus on strategies to eradicate and supplant illegal crops and even cited specific projects. He did not clarify whether future drug-crop eradication will involve aerial spraying. The president also took a shot at the paramilitary groups, criminal gangs (sometimes referred to as BACRIM, short for bandas criminales) and FARC dissidents who "do as they please in the country" and use euphemistic names to blur their violent activities. He promised to work with the armed forces and judiciary to dismantle organized crime, but made no mention of his predecessor's efforts to do the same.

The president knows he must show results fast, and his Cabinet is working to place initiatives before the legislature, to turn declarations into action. Time has a way of moving deceptively fast, though, and within four years, today's orator will have to render an account of his work, ahead of a successor who will be making his or her own promises about a better country.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. For the new administration, this just the start. The Duque era has officially begun.


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