Commentary. The newly elected Iván Duque campaigned on reducing taxes to the private sector and shrinking the government. The danger is economic populism in line with the US Republican Party: trickle-down.

The new president of Colombia looks to Trump and ‘what Uribe said’

The first address by the newly elected President of Colombia, Iván Duque, called for unity and national reconciliation. It was an expected message, after a presidential election that pitted two Colombias against each other: a right-wing one, represented by Duque himself, who was seen as just a spokesman for far-right former president Alvaro Uribe—there were jokes that the T-shirts of Duque’s supporters said “el que dijo Uribe” (“what Uribe said”); and a center-left one, represented by former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro.

Duque won with a total of over 10 million votes. This confirmed the strong hegemony (both social and political) of the right in Colombia. Thus, there are good reasons for the fears—expressed even by members of the US Congress—that Duque might want to change the Constitution and alter the length of the presidential term, undermine the power of the judiciary, and change important aspects of the peace accords signed two years ago with the FARC guerrillas (as well as bring negotiations with the other guerrilla in the country, the ELN, to a halt).

In short, people fear that the new president will do whatever Uribe asks him to do.

Together with a sharp rightward lurch, there is also the danger that Duque will adopt an approach to economic populism that he learned during his stay in the US, from none other than the Republican Party: the so-called “trickle-down theory.” It says that good macroeconomic results, favoring the richest, will also lead, through the process of the “trickling down” of wealth, to an improvement in the lives of the poorest social strata. This theory, particularly dear to the “Chicago boys,” has proved itself a failure in practice, both in Latin America and also in the US—as Joseph Stiglitz has shown in his book The Price of Inequality.

This reality has not prevented Duque from basing his entire campaign on the need to reform an overly bloated government and to reduce taxes on the private sector, deemed to be too high. In short, the same recipe that has been applied over and over in the US, with the well-known results. But it would be even more dangerous in a country like Colombia, whose Constitution guarantees the right to health and public education, but which already favors the top one percent of the population in terms of income. According to the latest available statistics, from 2010, the richest in Colombia paid only approximately 11.5 percent of their income in taxes. This is a very low rate by the standards of OECD member countries.

Colombia is already suffering from some of the worst inequality indicators in the world, and its economy depends on the interests of local oligopolies that control the financial sector and other key industries. They usually provide highly deceptive information about their businesses, in the absence of effective fiscal controls.

One may give Duque the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the need for a national reconciliation. Or one may hope that the allies who will form the opposition in Parliament, such as the liberals, can try to counterbalance the demands of the Uribe right. But the slogans of economic populism certainly do not bode well.

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