Álvaro Uribe may very well be the most influential 21st-century Latin American populist. As president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, he pursued a scorched-earth military campaign against the Marxist FARC guerrillas, cultivating celebrity status through his diatribes against the country’s left. He holds Colombia’s record for the most votes received in a Senate election and is the country’s de facto kingmaker, helping to elect Juan Manuel Santos as president in 2010. Then, through a campaign of disinformation and fearmongering, Uribe single-handedly sank Santos’s peace deal with the FARC in a 2016 referendum. Uribe’s influence has outlasted that of nearly all of his contemporaries, the leftist “pink tide” leaders in Latin America, with the exception of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Unlike them, however, Uribe shows little sign of faltering.
Last Sunday, Uribe flexed his electoral muscles once again, celebrating the election of his handpicked protégé, Iván Duque, a Georgetown-educated populist with minimal political experience. “Álvaro Uribe has reigned over elections for the past 16 years,” read a post-election headline in El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest daily. Duque, who will assume the presidency this August, handily won 54 percent of the vote, 12 points over Gustavo Petro, the progressive ex-mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla. The election was marked by sharp divisions among the country’s left and polarization around several issues, chief among them the FARC peace agreement.
Despite the growing political divisions, Duque’s successful campaign served as a sobering reminder of how deeply entrenched Colombia’s conservative political establishment—particularly Uribe and his political party, the Centro Democrático—remains. Duque’s meteoric rise has become one of the most unsettling aspects of Colombia’s presidential elections. That he was elected president by a 12-point margin, despite a political résumé consisting of a single term as senator, is remarkable. That his election came as little surprise to anyone is even more so. He was virtually unknown among most Colombian voters this time last year, and spent months hovering around 1 percent in polls before an endorsement from Uribe turned him into an overnight sensation.