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Gustavo Petro’s First Year: Social and Environmental Justice and Regional Integration

Petro’s inaugural year was characterized by guaranteeing free higher education, agrarian reform, reopening of relations with Venezuela, and an attempt to reform health care, labor regulations, and pensions.

August 7, 2023 marked one year of Gustavo Petro's government,

This week marked the first year of the first progressive government in Colombia’s history. In this short time, the government has proven its commitment to defend its victory at the polls. The Colombian people have also affirmed their will to enact radical change that brings the country closer, in the terms of the National Development Plan presented by Petro, to being a “world power of life” as Petro’s slogan says.

Domestic, regional, and international factors have marked these 12 months of government and undoubtedly will shape the course of the three years to come. These elements include the political will for transformation, an opposition led by the economic sectors that see their interests affected by the government’s reforms, and the fact that peasant, Indigenous, impoverished, and diverse people have gone from absolute invisibility to the front page of government policies with the project of social justice.

Achievements and reforms to come

The government has attempted to make good on its slogans of social justice with its focus on the health, labor, and pension reforms presented to the Congress of the Republic. Despite having encountered setbacks, they are expected to be approved in the new legislative period which began on July 20. These reforms, which essentially propose structural changes in the neoliberal design of these areas, have been complemented by political initiatives that continue to concretize, in other aspects of the country’s social and political life, the inclusion of traditionally excluded sectors.

An example of this was the approval of the legislative act (reform of the Colombian constitution) that recognized the peasantry as a subject of rights, in response to a historical demand of the peasant communities. In the same sense, the progress made in the agrarian and rural reform, which included the purchase of 28,000 hectares for the peasantry, is evidence of this inclusion. Finally, the passing of the law recognizing free public higher education is a dream of many generations who were unable to access university education.

Total peace with social justice

Likewise, the Total Peace project, also central to the last presidential campaign, has made important advances, particularly with respect to the reopening of talks with the ELN and the recent inauguration of the National Participation Commission, which will design the mechanisms for the participation of the Colombian society in this peace process. Finally, the government achieved a bilateral ceasefire that seeks (together with efforts with different armed groups in the country) to advance in the Total Peace project. This change has predictably been rejected by the opposition which is nostalgic for war.

Of course, the project of structural change in a country where the same elite always occupied the places of power contrary to popular will, was never going to find a smooth or simple path. The hegemonic media and the economic elites who feel their interests threatened have played a central role. Thus, there have been many attempts to destabilize the Petro government, such as recently with the case of the investigation into the president’s son, Nicolás Petro, who is being prosecuted for the crimes of illicit enrichment and money laundering. These are allegations for which the president himself has asked for a transparent investigation. The attempts of the opposition press to show some link between the president and these allegations have not been successful because they do not correspond to reality.

Along with social justice, environmental justice has been the second major pillar of the government and it has taken several initiatives in this vein. In this first year, part of the policy of decarbonization of the economy at the national level—and as a proposal even at the global level—as well as its Just Energy Transition project towards clean energies, has allowed the government to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region by 76%. At the same time, it has allowed the government to promote innovative initiatives on the international agenda, such as the proposal to exchange debt for climate action in the countries of the region and the proposals of the Amazon Pact within the framework of the Leticia Amazon Summit in July. The same happened at the Amazon Summit in August, with the initiative for an Amazonian court of justice for environmental crimes, a scientific research center and an Amazonian cooperation treaty, among others. 

The Bolivarian dream of Gran Colombia and regional integration

In the international agenda, in addition to the environmental agenda, it is essential to highlight the importance of the reopening of the border and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the neighboring country for the binational agenda of Colombia and Venezuela. At the same time, Colombia has played a crucial in the relaunching of the regional integration project with a new paradigm of sovereignty. It has challenged the United States to recognize the failure of the drug war policy it promoted in the region and its dramatic consequences. It has also been an active participant in the process to strengthen CELAC, it has returned to UNASUR, and been present in meetings of the Andean Community of Nations. Likewise, it has been an important voice in the defense of Latin America and the Caribbean as a zone of peace, with a call for a political solution to the conflict in Ukraine, outside the geopolitical impositions of NATO. 

The great number of initiatives at the national and international level, as mentioned above, encounter today a strong opposition from those sectors of power that are not willing to turn the page of war and subordination. In spite of these difficulties, Gustavo Petro has insisted on the call to build a National Agreement that includes the different political sectors, not for the benefit of the government, but for the establishment of democratic, fair and stable bases for the country, beyond the government in office. He appeals both to the political sectors with representation in the legislature, as well as to the different social expressions of the common people, who must take this objective as their own in order to achieve the change they voted for at the polls.

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Laura Capote is a Colombian journalist and an activist with Colombia’s Patriotic March. She is part of ALBA Movimientos Secretary, and she works in the Buenos Aires office of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

This article was adapted and translated from a piece originally published on El Grito Del Sur.