international analysis and commentary

Petro’s reality check: Colombia is not that easy to change

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The election of former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro as President of Colombia shook the country’s political landscape in June 2022, and his term is undoubtedly going to leave a mark in Colombia’s history. Petro has promised to foster radical change in a country long plagued by deep inequalities and stubbornly high levels of violence, as well as to spearhead regional cooperation on the fight against climate change and a new approach to the drug trafficking problem. However, the complex reality of Colombia’s society, delicate international political balances, and corruption scandals have stood in the way of achieving these grand plans.

Colombia’s Gustavo Petro

 

First steps to craft a new Colombia

Petro’s ambitious government plans have been anchored on three main bids. The first is a reform agenda to make education, healthcare and social security more accessible to the large swaths of Colombia’s poor. Another is a shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy through a new impulse to environmental protection, as well as a paradigmatic shift in the approach to the drug crisis. The third is a commitment to ending the country’s prolonged and multifaceted armed conflict through what Petro dubbed the Paz Total (Total Peace), engaging in negotiations with more than 20 armed groups, spanning from guerrilla insurgencies to drug trafficking militias and urban gangs.

 

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In his first year in office, he was able to meet some of these ambitious campaign promises. His government strengthened a subsidy program, called Renta Ciudadana, providing a monthly half–minimum salary to some three million vulnerable citizens. It also introduced legislative initiatives to expand access to the healthcare system, increase health workers’ wages, and beef up subsidies for the poor and elderly. On environmental protection and energy transition, Petro pledged to allocate $200 million yearly toward the regeneration and protection of the Amazon rainforest, and managed to pass in Congress the ratification of the Escazú agreement, an international treaty that enhances protections for environmental rights activists and their territories, and a tax reform that will raise an additional 20 trillion pesos ($4 billion) annually by in part increasing duties on oil- and coal-related revenues.

In parallel, Petro invested time and political capital in addressing the root causes of Colombia’s armed conflict, working in three main directions: more equitable land distribution, a less repressive approach to coca growers and negotiations with armed groups. To begin, he committed to complying with the 2016 peace accords between the FARC-EP and the government of Colombia, then presided by Juan Manuel Santos, which promised to formalize ownership titles to over seven million hectares of rural land to small and medium-sized farmers. His government reached a deal with the Colombian Federation of Livestock Farmers that would allow the purchase of over three million hectares of land from cattle ranchers at a fair price, to then be handed out to smaller farmers. In addition, tens of thousands of rural families have been awarded land titles, more than in the whole term of Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque. Petro also announced a new drug policy that seeks to directly confront Colombia’s sophisticated drug trafficking networks while replacing forced eradication with incentives for coca growers to re-orient their production, shying away from the alkaloid and towards legal alternatives, and fostering a public health approach to the consumption of psychoactive substances.

Total Peace, however, is undoubtedly the most ambitious peace process ever attempted in Colombia. To achieve it, the government created a legal framework for the government to negotiate with illegal armed groups, offering reduced sentences and guarantees of no extradition in return for cooperation. While the initial ceasefire announced by the government in late 2022 with five armed groups had mixed results, for reasons explained below, Petro’s flagship achievements are certainly the six-month ceasefire agreed with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the longest that the oldest active guerrilla has agreed since its birth in 1964, as well as the three-month one signed with the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), the largest FARC dissident group that stepped away from the 2016 peace agreement.

 

National and international shortcomings

All things considered, these are no minor results, but they are still quite far from the campaign promises. Petro’s ambitions have clashed with a fragile ruling coalition in the legislature, the complexity of the Colombian armed conflict, and diverging interests of some of Colombia’s most important international partners.

Despite negotiations with traditional center and right-wing parties, Petro has never had a strong majority in Congress. In fact, those parties blocked his proposal to overhaul the health system by putting a government agency in charge of all insurance payments and knocked down labor legislation that would have limited the ability of companies to hire workers on temporary contracts. The government proposal to change the pension system has a very slim chance of being passed too, and so has the “Surrender Law”, which would allow members of criminal organizations to access transitional justice mechanisms alongside ideology-driven armed groups such as guerrillas. The stalemate has prompted Petro to reshuffle his cabinet 11 times so far, hinting at tensions within the executive too.

Regarding Petro’s peace and drug reform agenda, major obstacles are the lure that the multi-billionaire illicit activities have on illegal armed groups and the country’s long history of violence, which take the shape of myriad groups operating in the country, as well as the pushback from conservative actors in the political and security arenas. The failure of the December 2022 ceasefires with the Gulf Clan and the Estado Mayor Central displayed the fragility of these kinds of agreements, particularly in the absence of clear economic and judicial incentives and sufficient capacity to monitor implementation. While the ceasefires contributed to a slight decrease in homicides, other forms of violence, such as extortion and kidnappings, are on the rise, and Colombia remains the most dangerous country for social leaders in the world. A new UN report found that Colombia’s coca crops reached record levels in 2022. This provides the government with an opportunity, as coca prices are nosediving, prompting income losses that could be exploited to replace cultivations. However, the growing production hints at a booming market that makes proposals for more leniency towards growers more difficult to sell to both the Colombian public and the country’s international partners.

This is particularly true for the US. Washington has, in fact, grimaced at Petro’s proposals on some pillars of cooperation between the two countries, particularly on the drug approach, which has instead enticed Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but also on the political approach to Venezuela. Petro has upturned his predecessor’s policy of confrontation towards President Nicolás Maduro, opting instead for reopening diplomatic channels, acknowledging the importance of Venezuela as a guarantor of the peace talks with the ELN, but also as a regional economic partner. However, he found out that his and Maduro’s interests coincide when it comes to reducing diplomatic isolation, but differ when it comes to restoring democracy in the country. Nonetheless, US President Biden has found in Petro a staunch ally on environmental issues, a topic on which, however, the latter has to face the harsh competition for regional leadership with Brazil’s President Ignacio Lula da Silva, who agrees on the need to protect the Amazon rainforest and transition to green energy, but differs on the time frame to end the reliance on fossil fuels.

However, Petro’s main headaches remain at home. His first year in office was marked by two scandals that tainted his image and reduced his political capital. The first was sparked by leaked audio files of his chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, and the Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, formerly his presidential campaign manager. An infighting between Sanabria and Benedetti escalated when the former brought in mentions of possible illicit financing of Petro’s campaign. Petro sacked both officials, but things worsened when Nicolás Petro, one of his sons, admitted that illegal money entered his father’s campaign after being arrested on money laundering charges.

These political shenanigans contributed to a steep increase of Petro’s public disapproval rating, now at around 61%, up 41 points since the start of his presidency. This, more than anything else, risks bogging down the President’s grand plans for Colombia, and it will take a great dose of leadership and concrete results in the economic and security realms to get them back on track. To do so, he will need to pick a few punctual reforms and negotiations to prioritize, instead of pursuing everything everywhere all at once.