Colombia – advances and difficulties of Gustavo Petro's government

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By WILLYAN ALVAREZ VIEGAS*

Despite the weakening of Gustavo Petro's image and the difficult governance with the end of conciliation and the commitment to maintaining the popular and progressive character of the government, during Gustavo Petro's mandate the initiative of the agenda remains

1.

A year and a half after the election of Gustavo Petro to the presidency of Colombia, both the execution of the popular government project presented during the campaign and the obstacles promised by the opposition to the reforms intended by the government are confirmed.

In June 2022, Gustavo Petro was elected by a small majority of 50,44% of Colombian voters. Historically in Latin America, liberal and conservative elites often do not recognize progressive electoral victories by such small margins and resort to sabotage and soft or forceful coups against legitimately elected governments, as has recently occurred in neighboring countries in the region. This time it couldn't be any different. Gustavo Petro's first year in government was marked by incessant attacks from traditional Colombian elites through media and institutional power that aim to deconstruct the figure of Gustavo Petro, a popular leader who allowed the left to govern the country for the first time in history.

Colombian politics is characterized by a historic liberal and conservative dominance that prevented the rise of progressive leaders in the state, in many cases through the use of force. The most emblematic case was that of Eliécer Gaitán, a candidate with strong popular appeal who proposed structural social reforms, murdered in 1948 to prevent his election to government that year. From then on, Colombian political disputes were marked by strong violence and the sharing of power between the liberal party and the conservative party, leaving a large part of the left to resort to armed struggle in the following decades. Gustavo Petro was one of these activists. During the eighties he was part of the M-19, a revolutionary movement that sought to subvert the Colombian oligarchic power sustained with strong support from the United States.

The guerrilla image was extremely exploited by government opponents and large Colombian media companies. In contrast, during the elections the image of a responsible and entrepreneurial engineer was sold to the right-wing candidate Rodolfo Hernández, who received just over 47% of the votes. The election of Gustavo Petro also occurred as an offshoot of the popular uprisings of the previous year against former president Iván Duque, which became known as social outburst. The great movement that opposed the authoritarian government of Iván Duque managed to institutionalize a large part of its agenda through the candidacy of Gustavo Petro.

However, this candidacy was formed in a broad alliance between sectors of the left with components of the center and right forming the “Historic Pact” coalition. The ticket was also made up of vice-presidential candidate Francia Márquez, the first black woman to hold the position, popular activist and lawyer defending poor communities and the environment against abuses by mining companies. Francia Márquez's candidacy marked the profoundly popular character that the new government proposed.

Despite being electorally effective in 2022, the broad front formed for the election brought with it contradictions that would lead to the government's weakness at present. The conciliation strategy of Gustavo Petro's campaign, which included sectors of the traditional Colombian right in the Historic Pact, quickly showed its limitations during the first year in office.

Gustavo Petro chose without hesitation to preserve the popular government project that meets the desires of its social bases to the detriment of more stable governance by maintaining concessions to the temporary allies that made up the Historical Pact. In this way, Gustavo Petro carried out a major reformist project that aims to advance broad achievements of social rights for the poorest sections of the Colombian people.

2.

The first year of the “government of change”, slogan adopted by the mandate, focused on health, labor and social security reform proposals, mainly, and on pacification and energy transition policies. Such points are extremely sensitive to Colombian elites fearful of any democratization of areas in which they are historically privileged. This gave rise to great media and parliamentary opposition from the first months of government.

Gustavo Petro set the initial tone for his government with the presentation of the tax reform that was quickly approved in congress. This already established for the following year the taxation of the income of the richest at up to 1,5% and of banks and financial institutions at 5% of profits. Furthermore, the reform determined the surcharge of products harmful to health, which became known as healthy taxes, and the exploitation of coal and oil, aiming to discourage consumption and increase revenue. Through the reform, the government hopes to increase revenue by 20 billion pesos in 2023 and allocate most of this budget to the Total Peace policy.

The surcharge on coal and oil exploration is also included in the energy transition policy proposed by the government. This foresees the end of dependence on fossil fuels in fifteen years with the gradual reduction of the production of these two fuels. The policy is structured around five main axes: greater investments in clean energy and decarbonization; the progressive replacement of fossil fuel demand; greater energy efficiency; the review and possible relaxation of regulation to accelerate the generation of clean energy; and the reindustrialization of the Colombian economy.

To this end, a ban on the exploration of unconventional reserves was determined (fracking) and the non-granting of new licenses to explore conventional reserves. The company Ecopetrol should lead the energy transition process by becoming a clean and renewable energy company. With this, the government aims to replace fossil energy, mainly with solar and wind energy.

This transition is made difficult by the great dependence on oil and coal exports, with 95% of their production destined for the foreign market. Colombia has a reserve of 2,5 billion barrels of oil and is the 18th exporter in the world, with 4% of its GDP in royalties from this production, 2,4% of which goes to departments and 1,5% to the national government , which will possibly generate friction with local leaders.

Gustavo Petro also had as one of his first measures the dismissal of fifty-two general officers from the armed forces and the National Police, most of them linked to human rights violations, an extremely recurrent practice in the Colombian security forces. The murder of social movement leaders is a widespread phenomenon in the country. In addition to the illegal repression perpetrated by the State against social movements and their leaders, the scenario of social struggles is marked by the presence of several paramilitary groups linked to drug trafficking and the Colombian right with a strong presence in the State and in local and national governments.

This composition of political forces in Colombia largely explains the reluctance of guerrilla groups to lay down their arms and adhere to peace agreements with the State. National governments often abandon agreements, defending the resumption of a policy of warlike confrontation that has a strong social appeal among right-wing sectors. Gustavo Petro's government has as one of its main proposals the policy of Total Peace, through which peace negotiations with the guerrillas carried out under the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 were resumed, whose agreements were violated by Iván Duque in the following years .

As a first result, a ceasefire was reached with the National Liberation Army (ELN) for six months from August this year and the promise of resuming negotiations that involve the government's commitment to various social issues that make up the group's demands. . This agreement was signed following the negotiation rounds that took place in Havana during the first half of 2023.

To implement the Total Peace policy, the National Participation Committee was created with representatives from different segments such as populations from conflict territories, social movements, unions, businesspeople and victims' movements to contribute with proposals to be incorporated into the negotiations of agreements and the construction of the Total Peace policy as a whole. This is an important social dialogue tool that enhances the pacification policy promoted by the government and increases the chances of it being successful.

3.

Associated with the Total Peace policy is the new drug policy adopted by the government. The reversal of the war on drugs policy, promoted by governments since the seventies, was proposed by Gustavo Petro after five decades of failures in the fight against drug trafficking. The war on drugs was one of the main instruments of United States intervention in the region starting with the Richard Nixon administration in 1971. Treaties with Colombia gave broad powers to American agencies to operate in the territory of the South American country since the eighties. , enabling direct intervention and making Colombia the main military ally of the United States in Latin America with the opening of several American bases in its territory.

Gustavo Petro, in his inauguration speech, pointed to the deconstruction of the war on drugs policy, signaling the disarticulation of the fight based on military repression of the production and trade of marijuana and cocaine. In contrast, the government started to see the problem mainly as a matter of public health and development in the countryside. Internationally, he took a stand against the policy defended by the United States governments at the G-20 summit and at the last two UN General Assemblies.

However, the project to decriminalize and regulate the use and commercialization of cannabis presented to the Colombian congress was shelved after reaching the eighth and final round of debates in the Senate. Changes in drug policy are restricted, for now, to government initiatives that do not depend on legislative changes, such as the reduction of police operations to combat drug trafficking and the search for voluntary substitution of crops.

Another problem associated with illicit cultivation in Colombia that is being faced by Gustavo Petro's government is the agrarian issue. The country has a very high concentration of land. 75% of productive land corresponds to just over 2% of properties and just 5% of the population owns 87% of arable land, according to the country's latest agricultural census. In this way, many small producers in isolated areas end up joining the illicit drug production chain through the cultivation of coca, a traditional plant from the Andean region, and marijuana. Combating inequality in access to land therefore becomes essential so that small farmers are not subjected to drug trafficking that controls their territories.

4.

Aiming to expand access to land for peasants in the interior of the country, the government began a process of distributing land titles to families initially totaling 681 thousand hectares. The government has been acquiring unproductive lands through purchases in negotiations with landowners to make these lands available for agrarian reform. An important step, however, still far short of what is necessary to change the country's land structure, essential for combating hunger and the profound inequality that affects rural populations in the country.

Inequality between rural and urban populations is a problem that appears in the various reform proposals presented by the government since its inauguration, such as labor reform. This provides for the formalization of rural work, which is not yet included in labor legislation. In addition to the issue of rural work, the reform proposal brought to Congress by the Ministry of Labor brings together ninety-two articles that seek to expand the labor rights of the Colombian people.

These focus on the formalization and stability of employment, the establishment of day and night shifts, additional payments for Sundays and holidays, the reduction of outsourcing and temporary contracts, the formalization of digital platform workers, the increase in paternity leave and the gender pay equality. The reform is strongly opposed by liberal and conservative sectors in Congress, supported by employers and groups representing agribusiness. This is the second attempt at labor reform presented by the government, as the first was defeated in the previous legislative period in the first half of the year.

The reform that has made the greatest progress so far has been the health reform. Although it is still in progress, 82 of the 143 articles of the reform have already been approved and it continues to advance in Congress. Health reform focuses on expanding access to health services for a huge portion of the population that falls short of basic care. To this end, it foresees the strengthening of the General Social Security Health System to make it universal with a focus on prevention, through a network of Primary Health Care Centers (CAPS) throughout the territory with outpatient care, emergency care, hospitalization, rehabilitation, laboratory tests and public health programs.

The reform includes reducing inequality in access to health services with the establishment of one CAPS for every 25 thousand inhabitants; the creation of a disease prevention system, the extinction of Health Promoting Entities (companies that mediate the provision of services to citizens); the qualification and monitoring of international bodies, such as WHO and PAHO; the standardization of prices for private services; and improvements in working conditions for health professionals such as qualifications, salary increases and medical autonomy.

Another pillar of social security, pensions is also the subject of reform by the Petro government. Pension reform mainly aims to expand the coverage of the system that currently keeps a huge portion of elderly people without access to retirement. Through the reform, all taxpayers would move to the public Colpensiones system, which would be maintained by the public budget and by the contributions of companies and workers themselves. The reform is structured around three pillars: the contributory pillar, described above, the semi-contributory pillar, for those who reached the age of 65 without meeting the retirement requirements, and the voluntary savings pillar, which allows workers to save in the public or private systems. The reform is still being processed in Congress, heading towards its second round of debates.

The set of reforms brought to Congress obviously brought great strain on the government during its one and a half years in office. Rural oligarchies, industrial and service sector elites, financial capital, commanders of the armed forces and police, conservative religious leaders and the main media conglomerates unleashed strong opposition to Petro's reforms and government. They began a constant campaign to deconstruct his image, repeatedly trying to link him to corruption scandals. Extremely recurrent tactic against popular leaders in Latin America.

5.

Two episodes in particular brought enormous strain on the government. The case involving possible recordings of the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela and the other about Gustavo Petro's son, Nicolás, who allegedly received illegal campaign financing for his father. These two episodes, heavily exploited by opposition media companies, caused a significant reduction in popular support for the government.

This shock to the government's image and the strong opposition from local leaders was reflected in the defeat of government candidates in the October 2023 regional elections. Of the 32 Colombian departments, only nine were won by candidates who remain in the Historical Pact. And in the 1.100 city halls, only 21 government-supported candidates were elected. This result reflects the government's enormous difficulties following the split in the coalition that led to the election last year.

The end of the coalition occurred with the ministerial reform promoted by the government in April, after resistance to the approval of the health reform, which included the replacement of the health minister herself and six other ministers. This reform was the final point in the accession of liberal and conservative figures to the government. After this episode, Gustavo Petro called for large mass demonstrations on May 1st to approve the reforms, placing popular support in the balance, an effective strategy until the setback involving his son in recent months.

Despite the weakening of Gustavo Petro's image and the difficult governance with the end of conciliation and the commitment to maintaining the popular and progressive character of the government, during Gustavo Petro's mandate the initiative of the agenda remains. GDP growth of around 1% in annual variation and a drop in inflation that still remains at a high level of 10,48% per year reinforce the challenges of combating extreme inequality in Colombian society through the approval of reforms promoted by the government, the planned energy transition, the pacification policy combined with the fight against hunger and the promotion of access to land and the neutralization of the incessant attacks from the economic, media and political elites.

Willyan Alvarez Viegas is a doctoral candidate in the Postgraduate Program in International Political Economy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Originally published in Excerpts from the situation, vol. I, no. 1.


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