FOR 35 YEARS Sandra Ramírez was a member of the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. Of peasant origin, she was the lover of Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s founding leader, and worked as a radio operator. Now she serves, under the name of Criselda Lobo, as a senator in Colombia’s congress, one of ten FARC parliamentarians designated under a peace agreement that in 2016 ended half a century of conflict. She is getting used to a radically different life, and some in congress are getting used to her. “We are treated with respect,” she says, although not by everyone.
Those who do not offer respect are from the Democratic Centre (CD), a conservative party which opposed the peace deal and whose candidate, Iván Duque, became Colombia’s president in August. His victory prompted fears abroad that the agreement with the FARC, which is backed by the UN, the United States and the European Union, was in jeopardy. In fact, the early signs are that Mr Duque’s government is faithfully implementing the accord struck by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. “It is a government that understands that the peace process is by and large a necessity,” says a foreign diplomat in Bogotá.
Of the 13,000 or so guerrillas who demobilised last year, only 10% have dropped out, drifting into criminal outfits that plague parts of the country (including the ELN, another guerrilla group). Of the rest, some remain in camps and others have moved to cities. Mr Duque visited a camp on October 13th and assured its residents of his support provided they obey the law. His government this month approved funds for some 500 ex-guerrillas to set up co-ops.
Emilio Archila, Mr Duque’s head of post-conflict affairs, is trying to create a single implementable plan from the multitude of plans, agencies and acronyms left by Mr Santos’s team for the parts of the country scarred by conflict. If there is less money for all this than promised by the Santos administration, that “will not be the result of a political decision”, says Mr Archila. It will be because “the money that was programmed was merely dreamed.” “We need to have patience,” says Ms Lobo, who adds that the FARC leadership has “no regrets” over signing the peace deal.
Nevertheless, the new government faces broader problems, many inherited from Mr Santos but some of its own making. Mr Duque is a moderate technocrat. He has named a government in his own image. It has a lot on its plate and has run into political difficulties. Mr Duque’s approval rating has slumped to just 27%, from 54% in September, according to a survey this month by Invamer, a pollster.
For a start, his government must cope with the arrival over the past two years of more than 1m Venezuelans, who are fleeing their country’s chaos. Then there is the economy. To cut both the fiscal deficit, which is 3.5% of GDP, and the corporate-tax rate (from 33% to a still-high 30%), Mr Duque proposed to levy value-added tax (VAT) on previously exempt items such as staple foods, while compensating poorer Colombians. The difficulty is that he and the CD campaigned on a promise to cut taxes. Under pressure from the party he is backing away from extending VAT. “If we extend VAT the left will win everything [in next year’s municipal elections] and Duque won’t be able to govern,” says Paloma Valencia, a CD senator.
Then there is the issue of violence in the areas vacated by the FARC. These are mainly close to Colombia’s borders, where cocaine production and illegal gold-mining are rife. The security forces should have occupied them. In practice they have not. That is one reason why the murder rate is ticking up after falling for many years: there were 9,360 murders in Colombia between January and October of this year, up from 8,754 in the same period last year. Those killed include village leaders and activists.
The army, still vital for internal security, is disgruntled by a special tribunal set up under the peace deal, which is supposed to judge war crimes by both the FARC and the security forces. The tribunal, some of whose judges are human-rights activists, “isn’t seen as legitimate by half the country”, says Ms Valencia. She is negotiating in congress to add judges with experience of military matters. The government is leaving the politicians to sort this out. This adds to the tension between Mr Duque’s team and its political base.
The new president has talked vaguely about wanting “fairness, justice and enterprise”. This gives Colombians only a vague idea of where he wants to take their country. Many would like to know.