Petro steps on the accelerator of reforms to dismantle neoliberalism in Colombia

Columbia is going fast. Gustavo Petro has been in charge of the first progressive government in the history of Colombia for more than six months and wants to fulfill his campaign promises. He made it clear shortly after winning the elections, last June, when he stated: “The reforms are made the first year or they are not made.”

The first year of any government is usually decisive, and one year is also a quarter of Petro’s presidential term because he will not be eligible for re-election, as established by the Constitution. Every month is important to change a country under a status quo neoliberal since the beginning of the 1990s, particularly since the presidency of Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994).

The Petro government has already taken important steps in its change agenda, such as the normalization of relations with Venezuela or the tax reform approved in November in Congress: “For the first time in the country’s republican history, the principle of that the taxes are progressive, that is to say, those who accrue the most and those who receive the most wealth should proportionally be the highest taxpayers”, he explained to Public the senator ivan cepedafrom the leftist Polo Democrático, about this important initiative.

The tax reform it is essential for the design of the financial sustainability strategy of the other planned reforms: those that are already underway, such as the agrarian one (totally related to the total peace policy); those that are about to enter Congress, such as pensions and labor; or the one that has been at the center of the agenda since February, that is, the health system reformwhich has generated disputes with sectors of the opposition and internal tensions in the government coalition itself.

Health as a universal right

The health reform is key within the orientation of change that Petro proposes because it seeks to provide greater capacity to the State and remove the centrality of private companies as intermediaries between public money and health benefits. In turn, it aims to move towards a preventive health model that reaches all territories; in particular, to those places where the private sector has little interest due to lack of economic revenue and where the public sector is often deficient.

More State, less liberalism. Under this scheme, Petro presented the health reform in Congress on February 15 and there began the tug of war. First, the president carried out a novel exercise for a Colombian president: he called a mobilization to support the reforms. “It cannot be a change of lies, of make-up, if the people abandon their government, the change could stop, the change will be more and more profound to the extent that the majorities of society accompany us,” he said in a long speech. from the Plaza de Armas in Bogota.

The right, particularly Uribismo, responded the next day with the call for mobilizations and continued with a dynamic of marches and counter-marches, as has already been seen in other countries in the region where there are progressive governments. Several opposition figures took the lead in criticizing the reform, such as former presidents César Gaviria and alvaro uribe.

Another front was opened in the government coalition itself, from the centrist or liberal sectors that make it up. One of the opponents of the reform is Roy Barreras, president of the Senate and one of the key men in Petro’s campaign. So did several ministers, in particular Alexander Gaviriain charge of the Education portfolio and former Health Minister of Juan Manuel Santos, who was finally dismissed last Tuesday together with the Ministers of Culture and Sports, Patricia Ariza and Maria Isabel Urrutiarespectively.

“A new intense stage of reforms is coming, there are ministers and ministers who complete a cycle, others with whom the president has had different points of view, divergences, so this has occurred that the traditional media want to present it as a great crisis but in reality it is part of the rearrangements that a cabinet periodically has,” says Cepeda. “From my ministers and ministers I only demand loyalty to the government program, zero corruption and results,” Petro tweeted.

towards total peace

Cepeda represents the Government at the dialogue table with the guerrilla of National Liberation Army (ELN), which takes place in Mexico. This is one of the various processes that seek peace with different armed groups and that can be divided into two categories: organizations considered political, such as the ELN, and the so-called FARC dissidentswhich broke away from the Havana agreements signed in 2016, and those considered criminal gangs that have a high impact due to their illegal businesses and generate a lot of violence.

One of these groups is the gulf clan, which has almost 9,000 armed people. “It is hoped that the processes take place simultaneously with groups of political origin, such as the process with the ELN, which revolve around economic, social and political transformations, and processes in which organizations essentially linked to the drug-trafficking economy resort to justice”, explains the senator.

The fostering, accompanied by a project in Congress, implies that the penalties for the leaders of the organizations are reduced to eight years non-discountable and four probation with a restorative sentence, who can keep 6% of the assets delivered in exchange for some conditions such as the dismantling of the criminal apparatus or truth to the victims.

The land, back to the heart of the negotiation

The dialogue that has been resumed with the ELN after its suspension in 2019, then under the presidency of ivan dukehas other characteristics, since social and economic agendas are debated, and the agrarian issue is once again placed at the center (as occurred in the peace process with the FARC during the Santos government): “A process of rural reform in which the State is buying land to give it to the peasants, it is buying it from the ranchers,” explains Cepeda.

“One of the great structural problems underlying the Colombian armed conflict is precisely land tenure, violent concentration of land and its use, which has excluded the economies of rural populations such as peasants, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendants,” he says.

The rural reform consists of handing over three million hectares of productive areas to the peasants and formalizing another seven million hectares: a total of 10 million.

The reformist ambition of Petro’s plan seems as big as Colombia’s accumulated problems. While dialogues with armed groups are taking place, violence continues in the territories which, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), has caused 21 massacres and the assassination of 20 social leaders in the first two months of the year. These are deaths that respond to regional dynamics within a fragmented map of armed organizations that dispute territories, wealth and distribution circuits for drugs and illicit supplies.

The president of Indepaz, Camilo Gonzalez, affirmed in a recent interview that “a slight de-escalation by region” can be expected, a diagnosis that accounts for the complexity of the violence in the main coca-producing country in the world. The year 2022 closed with 92 massacres, 189 social leaders and 42 peace signatories of 2016 assassinatedand that is one of the challenges of the Petro government, which raised the banner of a long-overdue change in Colombia.

Peter’s popularity

The president maintains a high popular approval, compared to the opposition. According to the latest survey by the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (Celag), the Petro’s positive valuation is 49.6%. Other pollsters show lower data, such as the Invamer Poll, which shows an approval rate of 40%, within the framework of a downward trend that is attributed to the dynamics of political conflict around the health reform, a reform that, according to Celag, has 68.7% approval. But there are more concerns beyond this reform: according to Invamer, unemployment and the economy are the main problems for 39% of respondents.

Petro seeks to advance, with mobilizations, negotiations in Congress and dozens of daily tweets, in an agenda of rapid changes with a progressive orientation. He has four years of his own mandate to dismantle the pillars of status quo narco-neoliberal, the one that was challenged along with its representatives in the streets during the outbreak of 2021.

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