Opinion – Sylvia Colombo: 5 points to understand the 100 days of the Petro government


It was sunny and windy in mountainous Bogotá on August 7, 2022, when the first leftist president in Colombia’s history, Gustavo Petro, took office. The streets of the historic center of the capital were crowded with people, as were other squares in the city and the country. These saw the inauguration, and the sequence of musical performances that followed, through big screens.

One hundred days later, Petro has been marking a style of bold proposals, somewhat baroque, emotional speeches with a tendency to self-praise, delays in important commitments in a confused agenda and the rehearsal of an international protagonism of his country, the third largest economy in the South America and the second territory with the most inhabitants in the region.

It is true that, in times of impatience with representative democracy, Petro has been suffering some resistance, which has already shown itself in street demonstrations on three occasions. Its popularity has dropped 10 points, according to Invamer research (from 56% to 46%). On the other hand, he has not hesitated to defend a sensitive agenda, which calls for reparatory justice rather than imprisonment, the release of various types of drugs, and a relationship with the US not so marked by the subservience of recent decades.

Understand, in five points, the most striking facts of Petro’s management in its first 100 days.

1. Total peace

A term that became popular in the country’s political debate, the so-called “total peace” is an ambitious project that has just begun to take its first steps. Colombia is experiencing a historic conflict involving the Armed Forces, guerrillas, dissidents, paramilitaries, criminal factions and drug traffickers. It is difficult these days to isolate these conflicts, as most attacks and extortion that take place in the countryside are promoted by a mixture of members of various groups.

Still, Petro points to a radical shift in this area. No more passing on large sums of money, from Colombia itself or from countries like the US _sponsors of the former Plan Colombia_ to repress drug trafficking or to contain illicit activities that these groups handle, such as illegal mining and human trafficking. Petro wants each group to have a separate negotiation. Those with a political agenda will receive offers to give in to the struggle in exchange for agenda points. That of the guerrillas, since the 1960s, for example, involves a more equitable distribution of land in the agrarian sector.

With only criminal groups, there is only one possible bargaining chip, which are amnesties and benefits to fulfill reparatory sentences in exchange for demobilization and the delivery of weapons – this last point was successful in the peace with the FARC. In addition to a public apology, to experts, necessary for the non-repetition of conflicts. This issue is sensitive to the Colombian right, which does not accept anything other than prison for those who have committed crimes against humanity.

In these 100 days, in addition to communicating the project, and starting to set up the conversation teams, Petro laid the foundations for the resumption of negotiations with the ELN (National Liberation Army), the last leftist Colombian guerrilla born in the 1960s and active to this day, fueled by the adhesion of dissidents from the FARC and Venezuelan cartels that operate in Arco Mineiro and on the border. The green light has already come from both sides and the job is now to choose the negotiators at each table.

The main difficulty, for now, is actually getting Venezuela’s support on this point. In its territory are important structures of these groups, as well as essential names for the agreements. When negotiating peace with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), former president Juan Manuel Santos turned a blind eye to the Chavista dictatorship and the rifts between his two countries. He said that from then on, he would be “Maduro’s best friend”.

Now, the task is more complicated, Venezuela is a more closed dictatorship, which has been committing crimes against humanity and holding opposition prisoners. To help Petro in this task, the regime presents impossible demands, such as the return of exiled Venezuelan dissidents on Colombian soil. Petro does not show that he will give in in this area, but he has taken on the task of helping to “soften” or “soften the image of Maduro in a world that is increasingly lacking in oil. The assessment of this Petro help by Maduro can define whether or not the new peace accords will succeed.

2 – Advances in reforms

In the short time he has had so far, Petro has advanced two complicated topics on his agenda, although not in the way he would have liked. The tax reform passed Congress, establishing greater taxation of great wealth and oil exports. However, it was a softened reform, with less losses for the mining and extraction sector, and without one of its campaign banners: that the Churches pay taxes. He managed, however, for these to be taxed for sales within the temples, such as books and other products, an activity from which he was also exempt before. He has also succeeded in so-called “green” taxes, imposing more taxes on sugary drinks and plastic products.

Still not the tax reform of his dreams, Petro had legislative support that the opposition doubted he could muster. In fact, the opponents who voted against were reduced to the Democratic Center group, led by Alvaro Uribe.

Another reform that advanced, still incipiently, was the agrarian one. Petro managed to reach an agreement with the main entity that brings together Colombian cattle producers to facilitate the purchase, by the State, of 1.5 million hectares of land for distribution to peasants.

Petro intends to continue negotiating agreements for the purchase of land, mainly unproductive, to finance this agrarian reform that will not go through expropriation. For the president, total peace definitely involves making the countryside more productive, with the replacement of coca plantations with other products, with State investment. This is yet to be seen.

3 – Environment

With regard to one of its most important flags, Petro has called on governments in the region, especially those in which the Amazon is present (Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia) to take joint action to contain the illicit acts committed in the region by smuggling mafias and the exploitation of illicit activities. His speech at the UN in New York was also an appeal to the US to put its focus on the region as a priority, and called for special attention to the commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to the fight to slow down climate change.

Petro admitted, in a recent interview with El País, that combating the effects of climate change is becoming more difficult than he imagined, due to the presence, in conservation areas, of cartels and criminal groups, both Colombian and Venezuelan, that transform these regions in lawless lands, such as the Darién forest.

The most recent report by the NGO Global Witness shows Colombia as the country that most murders environmental leaders in the region, as well as social and union leaders who work with the rural population in support of their activities in the countryside. For this bloody and serious issue, the Petro government has not yet presented a consistent proposal.

“If we use Colombia’s coal reserves, humanity dies,” he said recently in Paris. “The climate crisis is a problem that could end a lifetime,” she said at COP27 in Egypt.

4 – Economy

As in Brazil, in a way, the market is also “uneasy” with Petro’s ideas. Since taking over, the dollar has reached an all-time high at 5,000 pesos. Unemployment and inflation are also high, although Colombia was one of the countries in the region that came out with the best growth projection in the so-called post-pandemic period. A movement that today is retracted.

A JP Morgan representative in the country said Petro should be careful with his tweets, because they were improvised, untimely, and caused “a crisis of confidence”, especially when he announces new social spending plans in which he does not explain where the funds will come from.

Annual inflation is at 12.2%, the highest of the century, although low relative to partners in the region, such as record holders Argentina and Venezuela. For 2023, the Bank of the Republic predicts that the country will grow by only 0.7%.

5 – Human Rights

More than getting closer with Nicolás Maduro from a diplomatic and political point of view, Petro also needs neighboring Venezuela to respond to serious crises that occur in its territory and that it has collusion with actors that disrespect human rights on the other side of the border. . This can be seen in the border conflict regions, where cartels operate on both sides, in the feared region of the Darién forest, on the Panamanian border, where there are armed groups that kidnap immigrants for sale, extortion, sexual crimes and other crimes, including disappearance.

As evaluated by the NGO Human Rights Watch, the project of total peace is important, but something needs to be done against the abuses committed today, while this is not consummated. Police reform, and what will be done with the feared ESMAD battalion, responsible for deaths during repression of demonstrations, is another topic for which no response has yet been given.

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