Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Real Iván Duque

Reading Time: 11 minutesA personal look at Colombia’s new president – and whether the country can finally leave a troubled past behind.
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Gabriel Aponte/Vizzor Image/Getty Images

Reading Time: 11 minutes

This story has been updated

It must always be strange to see your friend become president.

But I confess: It’s especially strange with Iván Duque.

I first met Colombia’s newly inaugurated president because of my collaboration with a previous one. Regular readers may know that throughout my career as a journalist, I have sometimes moonlighted as a “ghostwriter” for well-known Latin Americans. In 2006, I helped Fernando Henrique Cardoso write The Accidental President of Brazil. In 2014, just prior to the World Cup in Brazil, Pelé and I published Why Soccer Matters. And in 2010, I was offered the most challenging job of my career: assisting with the memoirs of Álvaro Uribe, who had been Colombia’s president for eight tumultuous years. 

Even in the love-’em-or-hate-’em world of Latin American politics, Uribe was – and is – a divisive figure. He inherited a state on the brink of failure: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were so powerful that they shelled his 2002 inauguration with mortars, killing 19 people, wounding 60 and forcing the VIP guests to run for their lives. By the end of Uribe’s two terms, homicides had fallen 70 percent, kidnappings 85 percent and the FARC had been chased out of all but a few areas. The economy boomed and poverty declined by almost half. Yet the Uribe years also had a horrifying side: The murder of countless innocent people by rogue members of the Colombian armed forces, widespread use of wiretaps to spy on government critics, and numerous other abuses and scandals. I had misgivings about the project, but reasoned that this was a person who had enjoyed strong backing from both the Bush and Obama administrations; who was leaving office with an approval rating above 80 percent; and who, after all, had an incredible story to tell. I took a deep breath, vowed to keep my eyes open, and said yes.

Nonetheless, it was with some nervousness that I traveled for the first week of interviews to Washington, D.C., where Uribe was a visiting professor at Georgetown University. There in the Four Seasons suite with him, to my surprise, was another guy about my age (I was 32) – a Colombian who, Uribe explained, had just begun assisting him with another project, a United Nations investigation of the Gaza flotilla incident earlier that year. “He’s a very capable young man, and I want him to help us with the book,” Uribe explained. I almost threw a fit: good interviews are confessional, and there’s a reason we don’t take friends with us to the psychoanalyst. But… well, it’s not easy to say no to a president. The young aide stayed.      

Yes: This was Iván Duque. Over the next two years, Iván would be present for almost all interviews and copied on every email. He seemed at first like a classic Washington policy wonk, bespectacled and a bit nerdy, having spent most of his adult life working in D.C. for the Inter-American Development Bank. But I quickly grew to appreciate Iván’s participation as critical to the project – and my own well-being.

Uribe was a man of extraordinary talents: A laser-like sense of mission, a photographic memory, and the ability to connect with Colombians, especially in rural areas, who had always been ignored by the political class in Bogotá. He could see someone for the first time in 10 years and recall the names of their children; he once sat in front of a map of Colombia and explained it to me for four straight (fascinating) hours. Yet these abilities could also make Uribe seem a bit like a political cyborg; he proudly shunned all other pursuits, and took obvious delight in telling people that the last movie he’d seen was The Lone Ranger – the original, as a boy, in 1956. In this environment, Iván provided a refreshingly normal presence, somebody whose idea of a good time consisted of more than reciting the Gettysburg Address from memory. Like me, Iván had played in a band in high school and loved classic rock. Some evenings, we went out for beers – he preferred Blue Moon, with an orange slice – and he lent a sympathetic ear as I vented about some issue with the manuscript. Iván was always loyal to the boss, but he would suggest solutions calibrated to keep Uribe at ease while also improving the book, with a kind of knowing, tactful wink.  

Iván and I watched as this scarred man, who had seen so many friends and loved ones killed (including his father, at the hands of the FARC in 1983), and who had survived at least 15 assassination attempts himself, tried to re-enter something resembling a normal world. One day, eager to convince Uribe to put down his BlackBerry and look beyond the current moment in Colombian politics – he was just starting to publicly clash with his chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos – we took him out for a day in Washington. Our first stop was Five Guys, a burger chain, and as we unwrapped our food on the patio, Uribe looked up at the sky and quietly said: “This is the first time I’ve eaten outside at a restaurant since 1986.” We then proceeded to Arlington National Cemetery, which I hoped would stir Uribe’s sense of history. On our way out, three men in trenchcoats were waiting on the sidewalk, leering at us as one took pictures. We had no security. As we jumped into a taxi, Uribe audibly exhaled. “Who were those men? Iván, who were those men?” We never found out.           

As we finished the book, I noticed the easy trust that had developed between the ex-president and his young apprentice, the product (I thought) of countless hours together during a new and uncertain period in Uribe’s life. And I wondered: ¿Será? Could Iván be headed for a political career of his own, with Uribe’s backing? He clearly loved and understood the intricacies of policy. Politics was also in his blood; his father had been a well-known governor. But Iván seemed too modern, too worldly, too distant from – and personally unburdened by – the world of the FARC and the narcos and the falsos positivos and the various other horrors of contemporary Colombian politics. Was it something a guy like him would even be interested in? 

Maybe one day, I remember thinking. Not soon.

Six short years later, I found myself standing at a campaign rally in Barranquilla, Colombia, as a band blared: “Duque, Duque, Duuuuuuuu-queeeee!”  There were 10 days left until the runoff, and Iván had a double-digit lead over his leftist opponent, Gustavo Petro. Now 42, Iván’s hair had abruptly turned gray, and the glasses were gone – but he otherwise seemed like the guy I remembered from the book years. Except now, his visage was stenciled on walls and posters throughout the country, as the candidate of Uribe’s Democratic Center party. 

Iván seemed a bit incredulous himself as we boarded a private jet with plush leather seats that morning. “Don’t be fooled, this is the ‘end of the campaign’ plane,” he told me with a gregarious laugh. “You should have seen what we were traveling in just two weeks ago.”  

I sat in a chair facing him, and for about 30 minutes, I interviewed Iván in much the same way I once had Uribe. The strangeness of it didn’t seem lost on either of us. And I thought I detected a flash of disappointment on Iván’s face when I started with the same question everybody else in Colombia had: If elected, would he be Uribe’s “puppet?” It was a crude question, but critical to understanding what his presidency would be like. Yes, Iván had spent the previous four years in the Senate, earning such a solid reputation as an even-handed, substantive legislator that he was voted by colleagues as “best senator” for 2016. But Uribe’s support was also the indisputable key to his abrupt rise. I knew what their relationship had been like just a few years before. Could it really have progressed so far in such a short time? Who would really be running the country – the young centrist, or the old warrior?

“It was always clear to me that they would say that about the Democratic Center candidate, whoever it was,” Iván said briskly. He said the “puppet” label also followed Santos and Oscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidates Uribe backed in 2010 and 2014. He pointed out that he had won a vote within the party without Uribe’s explicit support, followed by an open primary with their coalition partner to become the joint candidate. “It’s clear to me that I’m going to be the president, with my team. And I will continue to have with President Uribe the relationship that I have with him – of appreciation, of respect, of listening to him as I also do with other people.”     

That made sense, but it wasn’t completely satisfying. Santos had served as a minister in multiple governments and had a power base of his own; Zuluaga had been finance minister. I pushed back: Wouldn’t he owe Uribe something in a way they had not? “No. He doesn’t work like that, and neither do I,” Iván replied in an even, matter-of-fact tone. “It’s a myth. He’s not a puppeteer and I’m not a puppet. I’ve had absolute independence to promote my agenda … and run the campaign my way.” 

He shifted in his seat and smiled. “Look, you and I were there – we saw all this when Santos’ government was just starting. First, he never suggested anybody for any position. And later, when Santos consulted him about decisions, his response was always ‘You’re the president, act as you see fit.” Indeed, this was true, at least based on what I witnessed. “The distance between Santos and Uribe was never because Uribe wanted to dominate his government, or interfere in any way,” Iván continued. “It was because of profound ideological differences.”   

Could he provide a skeptical public with some examples of where he and Uribe differed? He cited the 2016 plebiscite on Santos’ peace deal with the FARC. Both men had opposed it, on the grounds it was too generous with guerrilla leaders. But Uribe had leaned toward encouraging the party to abstain, while Iván pushed for a “no” vote. “I don’t want to make a big deal about it … but I took a stand, and I got my way.” The “no” ultimately prevailed, a blow from which the peace process has still not fully recovered. Iván also mentioned differences over tax policy, subsidies, the way legislators are elected – and, with a wry grin, leadership style. “Contrary to what many people believe, his management of the party is more anarchist than authoritarian. He never says ‘Here’s how it’s going to be.’ Never. He always lets the debate go on for hours. In that sense, I’m more…” He paused, searching for a diplomatic word. “…pragmatic.”

I laughed. Yeah, that was Uribe. “His critics think he’s a schoolmarm from the second world war, and he’s not,” Iván said, shaking his head. “If there’s anything I’ve learned from him, it’s that patience in politics is fundamental.”

For the rest of the interview, we talked about more traditional issues. He vowed to crack down on the abrupt rise in coca production that had occurred on Santos’ watch, but also said he wanted to “de-narco-fy” Colombia’s diplomatic relationship with the United States and shift the focus more to trade. He vowed a tough approach on Venezuela, and compassion for people fleeing its collapse. Finally, I asked how he wanted to be seen in the world: “As the great reformer, the great modernizer of Colombia. Colombia is polarized, it has some fractures, above all because the current government divided Colombians between friends and enemies of peace. I want to unite Colombians with a forward-looking agenda, and I’m going to give all my energy to that purpose.”    

I spent the rest of the day on the campaign trail and realized: This was actually not the same Iván. He had grown. Some things, he had clearly absorbed from Uribe – an emphasis on security, a didactic way of speaking to humbler audiences, and even Uribe’s habit of using “we” instead of “I.” But a lot of it was distinctly Iván. He possessed a genuine charisma that I had missed the first time around, often singing and dancing during campaign events, to the particular delight of female voters. More substantively, he had found a way to merge uribismo with his old wonkiness – holding forth on education, the creative “orange” economy, and health care – in a way that had expanded the party’s appeal. This was key, because in recent years Uribe’s approval had sagged below 50 percent. His base was aging, and no longer big enough to win alone. Much of the victory would indeed be Iván’s.

That day I saw a friend who had also been part of our circle years before. I asked her what the biggest surprise of the campaign had been for her. “Iván,” she replied, without missing a beat. We watched as he took the stage in Barranquilla, singing a duet with a vallenato singer as the crowd went wild. “I knew he was good,” she mused, “but you weren’t the only one who didn’t see this coming.” 

The book we all produced together, No Lost Causes, became a #1 bestseller in Colombia. It also taught me so many things, among them the extent to which most of us are a product – and sometimes, a prisoner – of the places we come from. Uribe grew up in rural Antioquia province in the 1950s, ground zero for the savage Colombian civil war known as La Violencia, which left as many dead in 10 years – roughly 200,000 people – as the FARC conflict later did in 50. Nearby homes were burned; friends were slaughtered; family members fled. Uribe’s very first memory – ever – was of his mother staring at the door in terror, fearing the bandidos would come barging in. This was in the book, but never got the attention it deserved. To me, it explained so much – not just about Uribe, but about Colombia itself.

In polls, roughly half of Colombians say they have lost a family member to violence over the years. Being part of that community, and understanding its desires and fears, is the source of Uribe’s enduring bond with so many voters. It was the thing that drove him to call his generals at 2 a.m. to demand faster progress, to personally oversee military operations, and to persevere as those around him were kidnapped, shot or blown up – all in the name of “living in a country where my family and all Colombians would be safe,” as he put it in the book. But it also probably explained why his attempt to move beyond day-to-day politics didn’t ultimately work out, and he ended up in the Colombian Senate. It is at the root of his darker instincts, like vilifying opponents and critics, including journalists, as castrochavistas who want to destroy Colombia. And it may also explain why even some of Uribe’s biggest admirers broke with him in recent years, believing his opposition to peace efforts was rooted in a personal vendetta – not against Santos, as many whispered, but against the FARC. 

The question that has always followed Uribe is: Did his zeal for the mission lead him to make deals with the devil? Specifically, did he or those close to him support murderous paramilitary groups in the 1990s and early 2000s, in an effort to destroy the FARC? Uribe has always vigorously denied this, and numerous accusations against him over the years have never resulted in a conviction. But just weeks after Iván was elected, the Supreme Court said it was investigating Uribe over witness tampering and bribery related to atrocities in that era. In a separate case, his brother Santiago is currently on trial for allegedly leading a death squad known as the Twelve Apostles. Whatever the outcome of both cases, they have been for many people a reminder of a dark era – and potentially a harbinger of trouble ahead.  

But if I was a moderate Colombian, or a concerned international observer, Uribe would not be my main concern about the next four years. Rather, I would worry about the extremes of Colombian society, both left and right, and how they will behave with uribismo back in power. Will the same monsters who thought it was OK in the 2000s to murder innocent people, and try to pass them off as FARC soldiers, now feel empowered again? Or will forces on the left, including Petro, who will also be in the Senate, try to paralyze the country – and fall back into the violence of previous years?

And this is why I believe Iván’s presidency presents such a historic opportunity. I understand those who worry about his age and inexperience. But you could also flip that around: How extraordinary, that out of this morass of polarization and seemingly eternal grudges and bloodletting, what emerged was a cosmopolitan 42-year-old who wants to be Colombia’s answer to Emmanuel Macron

While I am sure Iván will be tough on security and Colombia’s various remaining armed factions – as his stance on the plebiscite showed – I do not think they will be the focus of his presidency. A poll taken in April showed that implementing the FARC deal ranked seventh on voters’ list of concerns – behind (in order) corruption, health care, employment, the economy, street crime and education. Those are the issues of a relatively normal middle-income country – and a reminder that the Colombia of 2018 isn’t the Colombia of 2002 or even 2015, thanks to the hard work of both Uribe and Santos, and many others. Governing is about priorities, and given the current reality I believe Iván would rather use his wonky energy and political capital pushing a tax reform through Congress than a renegotiated FARC deal. The fair question is whether circumstances, and the rest of the political class, will let him. Because despite all the recent changes… well, Colombia still isn’t France.

At the end of our day together in June, as we sped down a highway outside Cartagena, Uribe called. Iván was concerned that polls were giving him too large an advantage, and wanted to keep the party faithful motivated to go out and vote. “I need you to call our people in Bogotá,” Iván said, “and make sure they don’t let their guard down.”

I turned my head, surprised. Iván looked back and winked.

This story was updated to reflect Duque’s inauguration as president on Aug. 7


Reading Time: 11 minutes

Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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