Colombia: which way forward for Petro’s presidency?

In the last few weeks, there has been a growing offensive on the part of the Colombian ruling class against the government of Gustavo Petro. Some have even talked of the danger of a coup, like the one that removed Pedro Castillo in Peru in December last year. On 7 June, thousands of workers, peasants and youth came out onto the streets to defend Petro’s proposed reforms. Comrade Galeano – from Colombia Marxista, the IMT group in Colombia – draws a balance-sheet of these events.

It has been nine months since Gustavo Petro was elected as the first leftist president in Colombian history. Throughout this period, the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) coalition that Petro spearheaded in his rise to the presidency, has found itself embroiled in a struggle to push the reforms it promised in its campaign programme through a divided congress where it does not hold a majority. Meanwhile, it is preparing for October’s regional elections, in which city mayors and department governors will be elected.

Throughout all of this, the reactionary conservative forces that were behind former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque have attempted to regroup and undermine the credibility of Petro’s government. They have done so through a campaign of slander and scandal, which they have broadcasted through their newspapers, radio stations, news channels and social media platforms.

This is building up to a confrontation between those behind Petro who are willing to struggle for labour, healthcare and pensions reforms (among others), and those fighting to defend the privileges and wealth that the oligarchy has accumulated for decades.

The first cabinet shake-up

Petro’s aims throughout the first year of his term has been to pass the reforms he proposed in his campaign programme, and to defend his mandate by pointing to the 11,000,000 votes that he secured in the presidential elections. To this end, he has built a popular front composed of his own Pacto Histórico coalition, and bourgeois parties such as the Liberal Party, the Green Party and Partido de la U (Union Party for the People). He has struggled, however, to get any of the reforms he promised off the ground.

This has led to two major shake-ups in his cabinet. The first one, on 28 February, led to the dismissal of three ministers. These included his education minister, Alejandro Gaviria, who was his former rival for the presidency. Gaviria’s inclusion in his first cabinet represented an instance of Petro attempting to build a “team of rivals” that would assuage the fears of his opposition by building a cabinet featuring members of different political tendencies. Thus, Petro hoped to roll out reforms that would attempt to aid the working class, while keeping the landowners and the bourgeoisie happy.

Gaviria’s dismissal was motivated by the latter’s opposition to the health reform proposed by Petro’s health minister, Carolina Corcho. Gaviria’s opposition to the reform became public once a document detailing his objections was leaked. It is likely that Gaviria leaked the document in order to distance himself from the reform. In his own words, which we quote from said document:

“It seems to insinuate that all or most of the problems originate in the administration (private or non-public) of the system. As if eliminating EPSs [private insurance companies, known as Empresas Promotoras de Salud] was a solution to the problems of financial unsustainability, corruption and territorial inequalities. This is not the case. Financial problems exist in all health systems. European public systems are on the verge of bankruptcy.” (Emphasis added.)

For Gaviria, a former health minister under the Santos presidency, a healthcare reform that directly attacked the privileges and wealth of the bosses of the healthcare sector was anathema to his principles. We must ask, then: why was he appointed to the cabinet of a presidency that proposed precisely this? To attempt to gain public legitimacy as a government for all sectors of society, naturally.

In practice, however, the bourgeoisie and the landowners have more weight in this government than the working-class people that voted for it. We see this with the turn that the healthcare reform has taken ever since February. The proposal for a government healthcare payer that competes directly with private insurance companies (itself a mild reform in the context of a healthcare system that is dealing with a massive backlog), has been watered down to appease the insurance companies and their backers in congress and in the media.

The second cabinet shake-up

The bigger shake-up came right at the end of April, however, when Petro dismissed six ministers from his cabinet, including Carolina Corcho and José Antonio Ocampo, his minister of Finance and one of the most important placements in his attempt to assuage the fears of the international ruling class when it came to his presidency. This shakeup was followed right up with a massive turnout on May Day, at which Petro gave a speech from the balcony of the Casa de Nariño.

Petro Presidente Image Samantha Power Wikimedia CommonsThe bigger shake-up came right at the end of April, however, when Petro dismissed six ministers from his cabinet / Image: Samantha Power, Wikimedia Commons

During the speech, he called for the business sector to accept the reforms he’s proposing and warned, “if the reforms the government proposes are thwarted, there could be a revolution” to a Plaza de Armas filled with thousands of people. He also made clear that the reforms will require the massive mobilisation of people in order to pressure congress into approving them.

On this, we must certainly agree with the president. But we must also note that this ministerial reshuffle displayed, once more, his tendency to try playing off both sides. While he removed Ocampo and Cecilia López (the Liberal agriculture minister), he also removed more radical elements like the aforementioned Carolina Corcho.

Who replaced them? Ricardo Bonilla, the new finance minister (and Petro’s finance secretary during his time as mayor of Bogotá), who has stated that he aims to continue Ocampo’s program of trying to manage capitalism. The new health minister, Guillermo Jaramillo, declared to Semana magazine that the healthcare reform has been mitigated by “much more than 50 percent”, and that it is a reform in which “the system will [still] have an alliance between the private and public sectors, working together”.

In other words, Petro is still trying to lend legitimacy to the capitalist system by finding a ‘responsible’ way of managing the exploitation of the working class and the anarchy of the free market, and by attempting to satisfy the workers with the prospect of a slight increase in their social wages. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, a mixed system will put the private sector at a loss, and they will fight tooth and nail to recover that loss, using any and all means: be it by preventing blocking these reforms altogether, or by implementing austerity measures once they feel the working class has been pacified.

The oligarchy’s ‘free press’

The stalling of reforms and recent scandals have led to some disillusionment in Petro. His approval rate has fallen from 50 percent in October to 33.8 percent in May, according to a recent INVAMER poll. The same poll also inquires into how respondents think the country is going, with 70 percent claiming that the country is going down a bad path, and 31.6 percent declaring that the economy is their main concern. Not only this, but the reforms themselves only enjoy a 32 percent approval rating.

These polls must be taken with a grain of salt, however. Between cases involving Nicolas Petro (Petro’s son) pocketing financial donations from drug lords, and his chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, forcing her maid to take a polygraph test when a briefcase containing 7,000,000,000 COP (equivalent to $1,588,314) went missing, the media has used every opportunity to undermine Petro’s credibility with the public. But it is important to note that none of these cases involve the president himself, regardless of Semana’s attempt to claim that the money was Petro’s without any evidence other than an anonymous source. 

The ties between the media and the oligarchy are well known. Semana, for instance, is run by Vicky Dávila, who is married to José Amiro Gnecco, part of one of the biggest drug-dealing families in the Caribbean region. The Gneccos have also leveraged their criminal income into direct political influence in the Cesar Department (northern Colombia). Similarly, Semana itself is owned by the Gilinski family, owners of Nutresa (a $3 billion food processing conglomerate). El Tiempo, the country’s oldest newspaper, was owned by the Santos family (with former president Juan Manuel Santos being one of its former directors) and then sold to Luis Sarmiento Angulo, the richest man in the country.

It is rather telling that while Petro is being implicitly accused of corruption due to the actions of his staff and family by the likes of Semana magazine, which is leading the witch hunt against him, the same magazine defends Uribe and his family in the wake of the confessions of Salvatore Mancuso (a former paramilitary commander), in which the latter made clear his ties to Uribe’s government through his governorship and presidency.

None of this should be read as a defence of Petro’s government. It is very possible that his government has ties to landlords and big businessmen by its very nature as a capitalist government, which involves their direct participation. One also cannot overlook the fact that Petro has secured the support of people involved with the paramilitary. However, it must be noted that these journalists are raising objections to Petro’s government that they would never have raised against either Santos or Uribe. The reason for that is clear: one president is putting forward a political programme that threatens their profits, even if fairly mildly. The others did not. 

Economic upswing?

Over the last nine months, Colombia has gone from having one of the most devalued currencies in Latin America, to having recovered to the rate at the time of Petro’s inauguration. The ups and downs of the peso have had a lot to do with the world market’s fears of Petro’s reforms. However, the peso is now trending up thanks to the interest rate hikes from the US Federal Reserve, as well as on account of Banco de la República following the same policy. Unemployment has fallen to 10 percent and real wages have risen up by 4 percentage points, according to Petro.

This recovery, paired with the historic nature of Petro’s government as the first leftist, ‘progressive’ government in the nation’s history, might buy it some time. But this recovery cannot trend upward indefinitely. DANE (the National Administrative Department of Statistics) expects GDP growth to fall to 3 percent this year, from the 8 percent growth we saw during 2021 (which came on the back of a 7 percent fall during the pandemic).

While unemployment and inflation are falling, nominal wages are still not rising in a country where, before the insurrectionary events of 2021, the minimum wage stood at just one third of the cost of living. Almost 40 percent of people are unable to afford the day-to-day cost of living. Healthcare services still experience heavy delays on account of an incapacity to bring specialised services outside of the cities (with more than 109,825 lawsuits being filed against insurance companies in order to obtain prompt appointments), education is still prohibitively expensive with an increase of 8.90 percent on tuition prices by the second semester of 2022.

Under these circumstances, we might wonder where all this growth will go and who it will truly benefit. After all, Grupo SURA (one of the biggest health insurance companies) reports $103 million in profits, and none of the top ten corporations in the country have reported losses, despite inflation driving down their sales. We see the same so-called ‘greedflation’ phenomenon that we have elsewhere in the world, despite some corporations in the groceries sector announcing ‘lower prices’ at the instigation of Petro’s government, attempting to curb inflation – something that, despite the announcements, proved totally illusory.

In these circumstances, it is no surprise that Petro’s government has lost some of its support among the youth that propelled it into power, both throughout the 2021 insurrectionary paro nacional and through the 2022 elections. The Keynesian perspective of Pacto Histórico is that their fortunes can be transformed by using the state as a great apparatus for economic redistribution. But time is running short, and a cascade of issues is being prepared for the masses, in healthcare, housing, poverty and more. The question is: what will the workers, peasants and young people do when faced with all these issues and are asked to wait for the reforms to make their way through congress, and into a phase of implementation?

Reform or revolution

The marches called by Petro on 7 June to defend his proposed reforms, revealed how neither the manufactured scandals nor the economic crisis have allayed people’s desire for real changes that will tackle inequality in this country. There were mobilisations across 200 cities in 30 departments, according to Petro. While the police claim there were only 20,000 people marching across the whole country, the fact is that the Plaza de Bólivar in Bogotá alone was filled to the brim, and it can hold up to 55,000 people.

The tasks of the Marxists at this time are clear: we must fight shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our class in order to try and obtain these reforms. Progressive reforms in healthcare, education and pensions would be great conquests for a working class and a peasantry that have been subjected to endless repression and exploitation for decades at the hands of Washington’s loyal lackeys. The masses see Petro’s government as an opportunity to break with this past.

But we must be clear about the reforms’ limits. Petro’s political programme is one of capitalist reformism. The ruling class will not relinquish their wealth and privileges any more than they have to in order to maintain social stability. And not all wings of the ruling class are in agreement on how much they have to give in order to maintain their grip on power. Most importantly, there’s a clear trend upward of mobilisation, with marches in February, May and June all seeing higher turnouts each time. It’s clear that the working class will not waver in this fight unless the leadership gives it reason to waver.

However, the workers and youth of Colombia still have a lot of illusions in Petro and Pacto Histórico, due to their historic significance as the first leftist government, breaking with decades of presidents directly in the pockets of  the multinationals, the paramilitaries and the drug trade. The question is: how long will those illusions last as this government keeps attempting the impossible task of reconciling the interests of workers and the oligarchy?

Demonstration Image Pacto Historico Oficial TwitterThere were mobilisations across 200 cities in 30 departments, according to Petro / Image: Pacto Histórico Oficial, Twitter

The best elements are beginning to see the limits of these reforms and that the struggle against the oligarchy will require an uncompromising position of class independence. They recognise that the real brakes on Pacto Histórico are not the lack of commitment from its rank and file, who keep showing up when called upon, but a leadership that has deep ties to the establishment. The ranks are precisely the people we need to reach and win over.

On this, the revolutionary press has a vital role to play. The biggest newspaper and news outlets in the country are the voice of an oligarchy that desperately wishes they could turn the clock back to before 2021, where they could impose criminally low wages and six day working weeks with impunity. Everyone recognises that beneath the veil of objectivity, most of the journalists are fundamentally defenders of the status quo. A newspaper of our own that allows us to show the reality of the working class and its struggles, and that answers both the programme of class conciliation posited by Petro and the reactionary policy of the oligarchy is of paramount importance.

To each and every reform proposed by Pacto Histórico’s congressmen, we must counterpose genuinely revolutionary demands and put pressure on the former’s leadership to not accept concessions. We must also help mobilise people on the streets to overcome opposition in congress, while winning the ranks of the trade unions over in order to organise strikes that could force the opposition senators and representatives to vote in favour of radical reforms in order to avoid losses for their true masters in the C-suites of Nutresa, Sura, EPM, etc. It is only through these methods that the working class can really deploy its considerable strength. The economic demands for better healthcare and pensions must be linked with a political struggle that recognises that the ruling class will not concede any of these things without a fight, and that it will use its political power in order to thwart these reforms.

Above all, the Marxists must put forward a revolutionary programme that explains that as long as the ruling class is in control of the commanding heights of the economy (including the health insurance conglomerates, the private pension funds that allow the banks to speculate with the workers’ retirement funds, etc.), none of these economic demands can be fully met. Only the working class, leading the peasantry, the youth and the oppressed layers of society, can lead a massive programme of expropriations that could ensure healthcare, education, housing, employment and sustenance for everyone. 

The rank and file of Pacto Histórico must be mobilised for this task, to win over workers, peasants and youth in each of the trade unions, peasant committees and student councils in which they’re active. Marxists must play an active role in winning over the best elements from the rank and file of this organisation. Right now, they represent the most forward-thinking elements of the Colombian working class. Marxists must push forward for the adoption of a clear socialist, revolutionary programme that challenges the power of the Colombian oligarchy, who yearn for a return to the ‘good old days’ when the left militants were kidnapped, murdered and kicked out of political life. We have come a long way since those days. But we must keep pushing forward if we aim for victory. 

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