- - Thursday, May 31, 2018

SANTIAGO, Chile — A sharp critic of Colombia’s peace deal with leftist guerrilla groups and of the socialist regime in neighboring Venezuela is the clear front-runner to win the country’s presidential runoff this month, creating what would be one of Latin America’s most conservative governments and a rare potential ally for the Trump administration in the region.

A win by hard-line conservative Ivan Duque in the June 17 runoff could mean a dramatic shift for Bogota and a challenge to the legacy of outgoing President Juan Santos, whose effort to end a half-century of brutal civil war earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

“Vote so that Colombia does not become another Venezuela,” read Duque flyers distributed in Bogota, Medellin and other cities on the eve of the first round voting Sunday, in which Mr. Duque outpaced four other candidates by over 15 percentage points. His closet rival, however, is the leftist Gustavo Petro, a onetime guerrilla, former mayor of Bogota and ally of the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who qualified for the two-candidate runoff.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown has been brought home to Colombians by a flood of over 700,000 refugees crossing the border in a bid to escape hyperinflation, food scarcity and brutal repression in recent months.

Gallup polls show that 58 percent of Colombians fear that their country could go the way of Venezuela. A crisis in Colombia, which has a population of 49 million, would generate immigration pressures and increased drug traffic to the U.S. The flow of Colombian cocaine and, increasingly, heroin, has tripled in the past five years, according to U.S. anti-drug agencies, and is seen as a major shortcoming of the peace deal with the leading guerrilla force, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Colombian conservatives have long complained about concessions Mr. Santos agreed to with the FARC, and now Mr. Duque vows to prosecute FARC guerrilla leaders accused of terrorism and narcotrafficking who are otherwise pardoned under the original peace accord. Some 7,000 guerrilla fighters were supposed to be disarmed and integrated back into Colombian society under the deal.

“We want to modify the peace accords to make sure that the guilty ones are made to pay their due reparations and serve jail time.” Mr. Duque told a Sunday night victory rally. He has vowed to extradite FARC leader Jesus Santich, who was arrested in April on charges of conspiring to smuggle 10 tons of cocaine into the U.S. but was released by a special court formed to monitor the peace process.

Despite a deep war-weariness, Mr. Santos’ peace deal has had a troubled political history, with 51 percent of Colombians rejecting the agreement in a 2015 referendum. Mr. Santos then turned to the national legislature to push through a revised version.

But polls indicate that disapproval of the immunity provisions for guerrillas at the heart of the deal is running at 70 percent. Aside from narcotrafficking, some FARC leaders are accused of mass killings, forced recruitment of children, serial kidnappings and systematic rape.

Speaking to the press on Monday, Mr. Santos argued that Sunday’s voting indicated support for the peace deal since Mr. Duque received just 39 percent of votes in a divided field.

But Mr. Duque nevertheless trounced Vice President German Vargas Lleras, who got 7 percent, and his chief negotiator with FARC, Humberto de la Calle, who received just 2 percent. The president’s approval ratings have fallen below 15 percent.

But falling short of a majority, Mr. Duque will have to compete in the June 17 runoff against Mr. Petro, who mobilized core support among leftist elements, mustering 25 percent of the vote. Mr. Petro is a professed admirer of the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, mentor to current Venezuelan President Maduro.

“It’s the clearest choice Colombians have ever had. It’s the first time that the left has united to run a socialist candidate,” said a schoolteacher attending Mr. Petro’s Sunday rally in which he made his challenge to Mr. Duque. Mr. Petro assured supporters that his conservative rival’s popularity was diminishing and promised land redistribution and constitutional changes to promote social justice.

But few believe that Mr. Petro can close Mr. Duque’s 14-point lead in three weeks. Voters who supported Mr. Lleras and centrist technocrat Luis Fajardo — the third-largest vote-getter with 23 percent — would tend to break for Mr. Duque, opinion analysts say.

War fears

Fears remain about what a conservative government would do, particularly in dealing with the economic and social catastrophe on its border. Some worry that a hard-line government in Bogota could lead to a war with Venezuela. Mr. Duque has pledged to take Colombia out of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, the left-leaning regional grouping that has mediated past conflicts with Caracas.

“If Duque wins, Colombia will become the front-line state in a war scenario with Venezuela,” said Joseph Humire, who heads Latin American projects at the Center for a Secure and Free Society in Washington.

Mr. Duque has pledged to take the lead in denouncing Venezuela’s regime before international courts and backs the Trump administration’s policy of tightening sanctions after President Maduro secured another term in elections May 20 widely denounced by election groups and regional governments as a sham.

Mr. Duque denies seeking a military conflict. But his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, risked war when he launched a cross-border raid against a FARC base in Ecuador and has repeatedly called for a coup against Mr. Maduro. Colombian and Venezuelan officials have recently traded accusations about supporting armed groups.

“I want a country of legality, a full-on fight against corruption, a country where peace can breathe throughout the land,” Mr. Duque told supporters Sunday as votes were being cast.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Villegas has said that Venezuela was harboring leftist ELN guerrillas who blew up police stations and ambushed an army convoy along Colombia’s border with Venezuela in March.

Close aides to Mr. Duque, who served as a top security official under Mr. Uribe, say privately that the ELN operates a headquarters in the Venezuelan border town of Amparo, where it uses a recently built 1.8-mile runway allegedly to ship cocaine smuggled from Colombia in partnership with Venezuela’s military.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol has, in turn, accused Colombia’s military of assisting a plan by U.S. intelligence agencies to recruit Venezuelan refugees for an uprising against Mr. Maduro. Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimiro Padrino announced late last month that he was inviting Russian combat pilots flying missions in Syria to “share their experience” with Venezuelan air force crews operating SU-30 jet fighters and MI-35 attack helicopters acquired from Russia.

A former Colombian military intelligence officer and oil company security director who is a defense adviser to Mr. Duque said he sees little prospect of Russia or China easily abandoning Venezuela after gaining control of most of its oil and gas reserves under the leftist government.

In a possible move to counter Russia’s growing presence in the region, the Colombian government announced Thursday that it has become as an associate member of NATO. While this does not automatically require the alliance to defend Colombia if it is attacked, it underscores Bogota’s military relationship with the U.S. and other NATO governments that have provided billions of dollars in security assistance to counter-terrorism and narcotrafficking.

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