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The toughest challenges facing Colombia's new president

Presidential candidate Ivan Duque delivers a speech after his victory of the Presidential elections in Bogota, Colombia, on June 17, 2018.
President-elect Ivan Duque delivers a speech after his victory, in Bogota, Colombia, on June 17, 2018. Photo: Sergio Felipe Garcia Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On August 7, Colombia will swear in Ivan Duque, of the Democratic Center Party, to a four-year presidential term. At 42, Duque is Colombia's youngest-ever president, having served as a senator only since 2014. Much of his rapid political rise owes to his alliance with former President Alvaro Uribe, a mentor to Duque who is widely seen in Colombia as a key political powerbroker.

Why it matters: With a population of nearly 50 million, Colombia is South America’s second-most populous nation and third-largest economy, and has been a key U.S. partner in dealing with regional issues. As he takes office, Duque will face pressure to address challenges with the economy, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) peace accord and drug trafficking.

Duque will replace outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, who struck a historic peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group in 2016, ending 52 years of civil conflict that killed 220,000 and displaced 4 million. Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and successfully shepherded Colombia into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but he leaves office with low approval ratings and his legacy of peace at risk.

The success of Duque’s presidency will ultimately be judged by three factors:

  1. The economy: Colombians are anxious for stronger economic growth and job creation, with GDP growth languishing around 2% for the past several years.
  2. The peace accord: Duque will need to navigate its contentious politics, including whether to revisit the transitional justice process that allowed FARC combatants to go without jail time.
  3. Drugs: Duque will need to reduce Colombia’s growing levels of cocaine production, lest the Trump administration follow through on its threats to designate Colombia as having “failed demonstrably” to combat the drug trade.

The bottom line: Nearly twenty years after launching the military and foreign-aid initiative "Plan Colombia," Washington still widely regards the U.S.–Colombia partnership as a bipartisan success story. In order to sustain this support, Duque will need to reconcile Washington's harder line on counternarcotics with concerns that progress not come at the expense of civil liberties and human rights.

Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.