Secrets Of Statecraft: The Influence Of The Past On President Iván Duque Of Colombia

interview with Iván Duque, Andrew Roberts
Wednesday, April 27, 2022

In his struggle against the FARC guerrilla movement and his efforts to transform Colombia economically, President Iván Duque has had advisors at his side who include Simon Bolivar and Winston Churchill.

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Andrew Roberts: Ladies and gentlemen, hello. I'm Andrew Roberts, the Roger and Martha Mertz Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I'd like to welcome you to my new podcast, Secrets of Statecraft. Ivan Duque has been President of Columbia since August 2018. In that time he has [inaudible] gorilla group and promoted entrepreneurship. One of his passions is history. I think that comes out very strongly in this conversation. You are one of the world leaders who clearly loves history. Were you taught history well at school? Did you have inspirational history teachers?

Ivan Duque: Well, Andrew, first of all, it's a great honor for me to be in your podcast. Let me say that maybe the most important teacher I ever had on history was my father. My father had an amazing library at home, more than 15,000 volumes. He loved history. He loved biographies. Since I was a little kid, he introduced me to the reading of biographies. We used to have some sort of talks at home where we discussed what we were reading. My father was voracious in the way he read and the way he analyzed many topics. It was great to hear from him, but at the same time to read and be able to discuss with him about many, many world affairs, historical affairs.

Ivan Duque: One of his best friends in life was one of the most distinguished historians in Colombia. His name was [inaudible]. Since I was a little kid, he invited me when he went to visit those friends. I enjoyed those conversations, and I also had the privilege of meeting Edwardo, who was one the most recognized Columbia historians of all time. He passed away many years ago, but I was also exposed to those kinds of conversations. Maybe since then I have been a veracious reader. Also I have to say that I'm a voracious reader of Andrew Roberts books. I'm so honored of being with you this morning.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you very much, indeed. Not to mention myself in the same sentences as Winston Churchill, but you are also a great admirer of Winston Churchill, aren't you? I've known that for some time. What is it about him that you admire the most?

Ivan Duque: His resilience, because I think that's a famous phrase that we have seen in many posters, never give up, never give up, never give up. It's maybe the summary of his life. He was a continuous fighter. He fought for his convictions, for his values, for his objectives. He was sometimes perceived as stubborn, but you have to be sometimes stubborn to let people acknowledge what you really want to express in order to defend the value. I admire his resilience. He was a leader who embraced many, many crisis. As he said many times, you have to always take advantage of a single crisis. He was a person who every single time he faced adversity, he was able to turn that adversity into an opportunity. I admire that from him.

Ivan Duque: The other thing that I admire from him is that he was a voracious writer. He loved to write. He had this idea of recording everything that happened in his public life. I think that was so important. The third thing that I liked about him is that he always knew the way he saw his role in the world, and the way he captured world events from historical moments to the time he was facing. That's why his book about the history of the English speaking people, it's such an amazing text, the volumes where he recorded that. I also admire that for him. Last but not least, I admire his humor and his wit. He had this great capacity to respond to sudden attacks with such a great humor and talent. For me, he's one of the favorite characters in history.

Andrew Roberts: With regard to what you were saying about his sense of the past, does your sense of the past and the future affect you in your decision making when you are taking important political decisions for your country? Do you feel the weight of history on your shoulders?

Ivan Duque: Indeed, I think there was a great book that I read maybe some 10 years ago that was written by Margaret MacMillan, where Margaret MacMillan talked about the use of history in decision making. I think it's always very important to look at the moments we face on the present, but always to try to see the similarities with the past, to evaluate what was done in the past. For example, and I should make this reflection, when we read about what's going on in Ukraine, I think it's always very interesting to read what happened before the World War II or what happened before World War I, or what happened during the Stalin times with Ukraine, what happened with Ukraine once the Soviet Union came to an end.

Ivan Duque: It's always good to have those historical recordings, to have an analysis because at the end, history sometimes repeats itself, but sometimes it repeats differently, but maybe the causes and the solutions that we have seen sometimes in the past have to be also conceived for the present times. Having that historical context is for me, always a priority. When I try to figure out the crisis that I have faced as a president, I always try to look back to similar situations in the past in my country's history, to identify what was taken into account in the decision making process. So yes, history for me is something that I love, but I also see history as a very important tool in the current decision making process.

Andrew Roberts: With regard to your own country, of course, Simon Bolivar is the father of your country. Do you think he still has lessons to teach you and Colombians today and the wider world? If so, what are those lessons?

Ivan Duque: Well, that's a great question, Andrew, because I think Bolivar is the greatest American of all time. He was not only a great military commander, but he was a true humanist. He was a voracious reader. He loved to write. His letters are impressive, but also the messages he shared with his troops, and the way he thought about the design and the implementation of our new Republic. His speech before the Angostura Congress in 1819, his contribution to the first constitution in 1821, but also the messages he shared to the Peruvian people, the people of the Northern part of Peru that later became Bolivia, his messages about having a Continental Congress inviting also president Monroe. He was a visionary and he was a fighter.

Ivan Duque: He was a humble man. Although he faced many difficulties in his life, he remained humble in some circumstances, but he was also tough in others. I think the greatest lesson that we can take from Bolivar is that Bolivar was a true believer in the values of security, liberty, equality. Something that I think resembles also his defense of private initiative, he was a defender of property. He had this idea of building a Republic that will be based on that property idea for everyone, accordingly with the pursuit of happiness that was presented years before by the founding fathers of the United States. He also believed that property and allowing people to become an owner could be something that will close social gaps. He was a commander that was always teaching by example. He was always in the forefront in the battles.

Ivan Duque: He was a man that despite all the privileges that he had in his life, he was humble enough to move with his troops. For example, when the Pisba Paramo was crossed, he was in the front line, he was suffering the same cold that was hitting his soldiers. He was the man who spent time with them, who got close to their hearts and minds. I believe that his leadership has to be well recognized. I told you something that is very important because I have to say this in this interview, I dreamed that Andrew Roberts one day will write about Simon Bolivar because there was a member of the British Legion who supported Bolivar for more than 13 years. His name was Daniel Florence O'Leary. When Bolivar passed away, he recovered all his letters. All we know about believe was because of Daniel Florence O'Leary discipline to gather all he wrote, all he said, and made this abundant literature about his contribution to liberty and the inauguration of the Republic.

Andrew Roberts: There were lots of dangerous moments in that career, weren't there, in Bolivar's career? In your view, what was it about his personality that saw him through those dangerous moments? What do you call the most dangerous moment? What was it about him that saw him through?

Ivan Duque: He used to call himself the man of difficulties. When he was born, he lost his father when he was three years old, he lost his mother when he was nine, he was raised by an uncle. He was basically a self-made man, although he came from a wealthy family, but the way he trained himself, the way he saw himself. When he decided to move on, on the independence cause, after the death of his first wife Maria Teresa del Toro, and he went to France and to Spain to let his sentiments flow and try to regain confidence in himself. When he takes a decision of going back and fighting for liberty, he had that tremendous endurance. Later on, he lost his brother who was maybe his closest member of the family.

Ivan Duque: He faced many, many difficulties, but maybe as Churchill did, out of every difficulty, he came out with more strength, with more power, and also with the capacity to see beyond the evident. I think that was his most important quality. I should say this, Bolivar was the man who conceived, although he had all the powers and he could have taken all the powers for a long time, he decided to create a Republic based on the tree division of power, and based also under the premise that the presidential power should have a lasting period and to have a succession process that would allow the Republic to evolve. I see him as one of the greatest Republicans of all time.

Andrew Roberts: He's obviously had a tremendous effect on your career. You've had tremendous difficulties that you've had to face in your times. Have there been any times in your life, your career, when you've looked at the painting of Bolivar in your office and thought to yourself, what would he have done?

Ivan Duque: Well, Moments that I have that I have lived, and that I learned from Bolivar, is always being close to the troops. You have to guide the troops, but you have to inspire the troops, but at the same time, you have to get closer to their hearts and minds. During many moments of difficulty in the fights against terrorism, and when we have had very complicated circumstances of public order, in those moments, I think Bolivar expressions made an influence on me. When I regularly travel to another city in Colombia, I sleep in the battalions. I wake up early and I say hi to the troops. I shake their hands. I get the possibility to dialogue with many of the soldiers. Also, in moments of crisis, I've tried to be close to them and orient them under the premise that this is a democracy and that we have to defend the values and human rights, but also being close to them. That's maybe one.

Ivan Duque: Another one that I would mention as an influence, is even in the harder times, you have to be able to let your soul get a new momentum. Bolivar had many setbacks in his political career. He had setbacks of legislative order. He had set setbacks on military order. Once the setback came, he wrote and he got to push his spirit up again. When I feel how we embrace the pandemic, Andrew, and how Columbia today has one of the fastest growing economies in the world after the pandemic, and how we have reached record highs in vaccination levels, even above developed countries, when we looked about the recovery of employment levels, and when we think about the energy transition that we did in the midst of the pandemic, and the sales of low income housing, I think that spirit of being able to fight back and be able to keep on moving on your ideas and objectives, is something that I certainly feel Bolivar's influence. I should say this, that I'm going to leave the presidency in August and with all due humbleness by 2030, when it will be 200 years of Bolivar passed away, I want to publish a biography on those 200 years. I'm going to start working on that. It'll take me eight years to try to do something that is rigorous enough to get into that piece of his decision making process and get more on the historical figure, on the human being that call himself the man of difficulties.

Andrew Roberts: Wow, that's extraordinary. After you retire, you're going to write a history book. That's fabulous, congratulations. There are very few world leaders who do that. It's splendid that you are going to. How important do you think is a sense of the past in politics? There is some people who say the politicians only should look to the future, because everything's changed so much in history that the past doesn't provide a real guide.

Ivan Duque: One of my favorite characters in history has been Niccolo Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli sometimes has been demonized as the incarnation of evil, but he was a true Republican. He wrote many interesting books. I think Beyond the Prince is the one that everybody talks about regularly in politics. His Discourses on the Decades of Livy was, in my opinion, one of the greatest books of the Florence Renaissance. What I got from reading Machiavelli, is that you cannot really be a statesman if you don't have a conscience of the past. If you don't have the value of history, and if you don't understand what happened in history, because what we are is a byproduct of the past. It's a byproduct of historical moments. So history, in my opinion is not only a tool, but I think it's maybe the most important tool. In order to understand the circumstances of today, we have to know what happened in the past. Not to replay what happened in the past, not to replicate what happened in the past, but be able to understand what the causes and effects of certain circumstances were.

Ivan Duque: History, in my opinion, it's something that I have to keep close. When I was studying public administration some years ago in Georgetown, I remember that I had a book that was called Thinking in Time. What was interesting about that book is about government decision making, based on the analysis of historical moments. For example, what happened in the missile crisis in the early sixties. Can we bring lessons from that to the situations we face today between United States and Russia, certainly. It's different, circumstances might be different, but the essence can be of very important use. When we think about what happened when the Soviet invasion to Czechoslavakia, can we take lessons from that and understand the moments we live? Can we take lessons from Vietnam in the way that we see the current circumstances in Ukraine? Can we take lessons from what happened in Afghanistan? Definitely, can we take lessons of what happened in Iraq? I think those elements of history are so important and pivotal that if you ask me, what would be the number one class, that in my opinion, any person who wants to become a public servant should take, definitely is history.

Ivan Duque: Before I run for the presidency, I used to teach political history of civilizations. Sometimes, I was actually struck because maybe some of the new generations, they don't have such a good knowledge about history. Sometimes I think that the idea of privileging mathematics and science and English and languages, or even media and programming, has left history behind. I think that is a flaw that we have sometimes in the education system. We definitely have to bring back this and make history a very important tool, and the most important element of reflection.

Andrew Roberts: I'm so pleased you said that. One of the reasons, actually, this podcast is called Secrets of Statecraft is because of Winston Churchill, who told a young American who was asking for some life advice. He said, "study history, study history for therein lies all the secrets of statecraft.". It's wonderful to hear a worldly leader like you expounding the importance of history. What do you think future historians will say about you and about your career in a hundred years time? Do you mind, do you care what the verdict of history is long after your dead? I suspect, from what you've already said, I know the answer to that, but do expound a bit.

Ivan Duque: It's a great question, Andrew, it's a great question. I don't mean to flatter you, but I have to say that something that I admire from your books, is that you have written with vigorosity on your latest book on Churchill. I think that's the great contribution, is that you go to the stores, you go to the speeches, you go to the parliament proposals. The first thing that I want to leave as part of the legacy, is to have a well documented government. If you don't have a well documented government, then the way that history will judge your government will be determined maybe by the biases of those who will write history later on. I think having a clear documentation of all that we achieved is very important.

Ivan Duque: That's why I have so many notebooks handwritten and decisions that I've made, that are all documented. I'm actually building a set of books for personal use of the day to day, every single day of my administration, what happened. That's issue number one, having a well documented government. When I think history will judge what we did, I think there are five elements that will be always in the conscience of those who will evaluate what happened between 2018 and 2022 in Colombia. The number one is what we did with the migrants. For the first time in Latin American history, dealing with the most complex migration crisis, instead of letting xenophobic sentiments arise, we decided to create a temporary protection status to 1.8 million migrants, something that is the biggest, maybe, peace gesture in Latin American recent history.

Ivan Duque: The second element is that the government that made the biggest social expenditure in Colombian history, is our government. We did it to face the pandemic, but also to pull the economy back from the resentment that the pandemic left. Growing 10.6%, the highest economic growth registered by now in historical terms, is something that has a value. Also, expanding the social safety net in a way. That takes me to the third element, to leave free public higher education for the lowest income families and the emerging middle class is also a major contribution. The way that we have dealt with climate change, that's the fourth element. We launched the first bill on climate action that was approved unanimously and hat goes hand in hand with the energy transition that goes hand in hand with the protection of oceans. Having 30% of the Colombian land declared a protected area is also something that history will record.

Ivan Duque: The fifth element, Andrew, that I feel very proud, is that we have been the government that has made the largest investment in infrastructure ever. We are leaving the most important infrastructure project in Columbia's history, which is the cross of the Central Mountain Corridor that for 100 years was the dream of many presidents. We were able to give it to the Colombian people. Those five elements, I could mention some more, but those five elements, in my opinion, should be judged. Maybe I'll finish with this, I have been the youngest president in Colombia elected. I have dealt with the most complicated crisis in Columbian history, that was a COVID 19 crisis. I think when people will evaluate how the youngest president was able to navigate that storm and pull the economy back again, and be able to vaccinate the whole country, that is in my opinion, something that I would love history to record and evaluate about myself.

Andrew Roberts: I hope in a hundred years time, people will listen to this podcast and will listen to what you've said and be suitably affected and impressed. Tell me, this is a question, last question, and the one that I ask all of my guests, what history book or biography are you reading at the moment?

Ivan Duque: I have a good set of books in my desk this moment. On history, I'm actually reading a book that was written by a former colleague of mine in the Senate who passed away. He left his memoir. That's like a Colombian history book that I have that I have close. [crosstalk] I am rereading a book that was written by Maurizio Viroli on Machiavelli, that is called Machiavelli's God. I have also that on my desk. [crosstalk] I have a book that I haven't haven't started yet about the Watergate scandal that just came out. I brought it from Washington two weeks ago. The other book that I have in my backpack, is a book about, it's called The Nature of Nature. It's written by Enric Sala, who's [inaudible] in National Geographic. He talks about biology and how we should embrace the climate action crisis involving the protection of biodiversity. Those are the books that I have now in my bookshelf.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you very much. What's the name of the Senator whos memoirs you ...

Ivan Duque: He published a book that is called The Country that I Lived. I think it's an interesting contribution because he was president at the moment. It's a good history book. I have George III book that I got some months ago. I'm trying to interconnect that book with the other readings that I have. I should say Andrew, this is my slowest reading of Andrew Roberts because of my daily work. I have to say that I'm enjoying it a lot.

Andrew Roberts: That that question was not intended as an advert, but thank you very much indeed. President Ivan Duque of Columbia. Thank you very much, indeed, for coming on Secrets of Statecraft.

Ivan Duque: Thank you so much Andrew, it has been a great honor and I have to say this live, that you're invited to come to Columbia. We want you to be here and I want you to get you interested on Simon Bolivar because I know you're going to love the character.

Andrew Roberts: Fantastic. Thank you very much, indeed Mr. President.

Andrew Roberts: Thank you for listening to my conversation with president Duque of Columbia. In my next conversation, I'll be speaking to Peter Robinson, Ronald Reagan's speech writer, and the man who wrote these famous words.

Speaker 3: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

Andrew Roberts: Until then, goodbye.

Speaker 4: This podcast is a production of the Hoover institution, where we advance ideas that define a free society and improve the human condition. For more information about our work, or to listen to more of our podcasts, or watch our videos, please visit