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COLOMBIA - Duque Opens Congress With Call for Action

“Not one more,” Colombia’s President Iván Duque said to loud applause during a speech on 20 July to open the new session of congress, his words echoed back to him by those present. Duque was referring to the murder of social leaders since the signing of the peace accord in 2016 (462 according to the official tally, more than 700 on unofficial counts).

“In the Colombia that we are building nobody should feel fearful of expressing their ideas and protecting the interests of their community,” President Duque said during his speech to congress when he expressed his government’s commitment to defending the country’s social leaders, who have been the target of a wave of violence since the 2016 peace accord. But opposition members of congress, from the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (Farc), left-wing Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), and centre-left Alianza Verde (AV), many of whom were holding up pictures of murdered social leaders, are demanding action. In a speech responding to Duque, PDA senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, said his party would participate in a national march on 26 July, orchestrated by the multi-party group Defendamos la Paz, against such killings.

Duque expressed his determination to work closely with congress, where he lacks a working majority in either chamber, but called for his cooperative spirit to be reciprocated. “Let us understand that finding joint solutions does not mean ceding ground ideologically or granting a favour to a rival,” Duque said.

The new presidents of the lower chamber of congress and senate, Carlos Cuenca and Lidio García respectively, said they too were prepared to work harmoniously with the Duque administration. But their designations suggest Duque’s relations with congress will remain challenging. Cuenca belongs to Cambio Radical (CR), a right-of-centre opposition party led by Germán Vargas Lleras, and was a fierce critic of the ill-fated ‘objections’ (a partial veto) that Duque raised to the statutory law regulating the transitional justice system (JEP). For his part, García, a member of the centre-left opposition Partido Liberal (PL), which has shown even less inclination to support the government, sounded a warning shot to Duque. “The challenge is not how to rectify the peace accords but how to apply them,” García said pointedly.

The opposition contends that the Duque administration bears responsibility for the increase in social killings because of its lack of commitment to implement the peace accord, made manifest, for instance, by the way it has undermined the JEP. Duque has sought to rebut this criticism. He has endeavoured, however, under pressure from the US government, to find a short cut to reduce the surge in coca crops rather than working to develop coca-growing areas abandoned by the state to remove the reliance on profits from coca. “The more coca there is, the less peace there will be,” Duque said starkly during his address to congress.

Duque has publicly advocated recommencing aerial-spraying of coca with glyphosate, and in March he asked the constitutional court (CC) to review its effective ban, introduced two years ago, on the use of the herbicide. On 18 July the CC upheld its restrictions. It ruled that the government must comply with six environmental and public health requirements on the use of glyphosate in crop-spraying. But, crucially, CC magistrates empowered the Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes (CNE), the national drug council, to have the final say on whether the potential risks associated with crop-spraying with glyphosate could be mitigated.

The justice minister, Margarita Cabello Blanco, who happens to chair the CNE, duly said the government would send the body a new protocol to reinstate the use of glyphosate as “a tool in the fight against illicit crops”. As the CNE to all intents and purposes falls under the government’s purview, the approval of this protocol, and imminent resumption of glyphosate spraying, is likely to be a formality.

Duque also used the opening of congress to keep his promise to reintroduce, alongside the acting attorney general Fabio Espitia, an anti-corruption bill. This had been approved in both the lower chamber and the senate in the last session but fell through after confusion surrounding the creation of a conciliation commission to harmonise differing versions of the text. The bill sent back by Duque contains various initiatives, such as stiffer sentences of up to 18 years for bribery and extortion; rewards for those providing information to enable the government to act against the corrupt; an asset forfeiture law to confiscate goods “stolen from the Colombian people”; the elimination of the benefit of house arrest for politicians accused of corruption; and the denial of access to reduced sentences unless embezzled money is returned. Notably, Duque did not include a ‘retroactive appeal law’ within his government’s legislative agenda. Driven by the ruling right-wing Centro Democrático (CD), this would pave the way for retrials for top public officials, members of congress, and governors convicted by the supreme court since 1991 

  • Duque’s Farc gesture

In an unprecedented gesture, President Duque shook hands with Farc senators Victoria Sandino, Sandra Ramírez, Sergio Marín, and Julián Gallo before his speech. Despite this overture, Sandino later took to Twitter to criticise the fact that Duque made no mention of opposition parties in his speech, while Marín said it was full of “hatred and populism”.

  • Gustavo Petro

The council of state has rejected a lawsuit calling for Gustavo Petro to lose his seat in the senate, which he won by virtue of finishing second to Iván Duque in last year’s presidential elections. The lawsuit accused Petro of fiscal irresponsibility surrounding decisions when he was mayor of Bogotá (2012-2015) related to refuse collection and the Transmilenio bus system. The council of state had already stripped Petro’s former running mate, Ángela María Robledo, of her seat in the lower chamber of congress in April. The election to the senate of Antanas Mockus, of the centre-left Alianza Verde (AV), was also annulled, for conflict of interest, although on 2 July the council of state overruled this decision.