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Iván Duque gambles with the defense of Álvaro Uribe, his political mentor

The arrest warrant against Álvaro Uribe rekindles the polarization that has characterized public debate in recent years in Colombia, and comes at the most difficult time for Iván Duque, the youngest president in the country’s recent history. The president, who celebrates two years in power next Friday, a meridian of his mandate that coincides with the critical weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, decided to play for a defense of his controversial political mentor.

“I am and will always be a believer in the innocence and honor of those who with their example have earned a place in the history of Colombia,” Duque declared this Tuesday, from the presidential lectern, a few hours after the decision of the Supreme Court of Justice to establish house arrest for the former president and senator for alleged bribery and procedural fraud. The head of state referred to Uribe and his family as “victims of all kinds of attacks and defamations” throughout his public career. His reaction was the most anticipated before the political earthquake that constitutes the ruling against the founder and undisputed leader of the Democratic Center, the government party. “As a citizen and a believer in institutions, I hope that the judicial channels operate, and that there are full guarantees for a human being of integrity to fully exercise his defense in freedom,” concluded Duque in a speech of two and a half minutes, staged as a presidential address. A challenge to the measure of home detention.

Although he assured that he understood “the role of institutions and the independence of powers,” the contrast was evident with the various opposition voices, activists and human rights defenders who, throughout a hectic day, greeted the Supreme Court’s decision as a sign that no one is above the law. Senator Iván Cépeda, recognized as a victim in the complex process of witness tampering, spoke in that direction, highlighting “the abundant probative material” that the magistrates have studied. Also the mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López. “Justice decisions are respected, they are disputed in law and they are followed,” tweeted the former senator of the progressive Alianza Verde party, which has denounced the links between politicians and paramilitary groups in Colombia.

The arrest warrant was preceded by controversy, amid pronouncements by Duque himself and the Democratic Center, even with a defense letter signed by several former collaborators of the Uribe Government (2002-2010) that included officials from the current Administration. Among them, the ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos; the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla; and the manager of the Presidency to address the coronavirus crisis, Luis Guillermo Plata. The entire bench of the Democratic Center withdrew this Tuesday from the plenary session of the legislature in protest of the judicial decision, and Uribista senator Paloma Valencia even revived the old idea of ​​the party of a Constituent Assembly to reform justice.

Various sectors considered the multiple pronouncements from the government and the party as undue pressure in an attempt to intimidate the Supreme Court. With the tension on the rise, the high courts – among them the Special Jurisdiction for Peace that emerged from the peace accords, which has been the constant target of attacks by Uribe members – published the day before an unusual joint statement calling for respect for the judicial branch and its independence. “I hope that former President Uribe can resolve his difficult situation. As a citizen and democrat, I demand full guarantees from justice and from Colombians full respect for justice, “said former President Juan Manuel Santos, who is usually the favorite target of criticism from Uribismo.

The pandemic has been precisely the absolute priority of the Government in recent months. With more than 300,000 cases detected and more than 11,000 deaths, the health authorities project August as the most critical moment in the country, where some large cities have had to return to strict quarantine schemes in the face of the acceleration of infections. Given the health emergency, Duque chose to multiply her appearances and host a daily program, which allowed her to raise, at least in the first months, her downcast image. 41% of those polled approved of the president’s performance in the most recent Gallup survey, compared to 52% who disapproved. It has also sought to find a unifying purpose in dealing with the crisis. However, Uribe’s house arrest has shown a worsening of political polarization that the former president himself, the fiercest opponent of the peace agreement with the defunct FARC guerrilla, has fueled at different times.

After leaving the Presidency, Uribe remained the protagonist of political life and has been the great electoral phenomenon in Colombia so far this century. In the 2018 legislative elections, he became the most voted senator in the country’s history, and his 800,000 votes boosted the Democratic Center, which became the largest bench with 19 out of 108 senators. Duque’s victory in the presidential elections that same year confirmed his electoral appeal, but since then his acceptance in the polls has had a pronounced decline – 59% of unfavorable image in the Gallup Poll. Its long shadow, however, has never stopped casting itself over the Government. Although Duque remodeled his Cabinet in February to open the door to other political forces, he kept the most important portfolios – a backbone made up of the Interior, Defense, Foreign Relations and Finance ministries – in the hands of the most radical Uribismo.