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Against the Odds, Gustavo Petro Has Implemented Ambitious Left Policies in His First Year

The Colombian right has done everything in its power to undermine Gustavo Petro. That hasn’t stopped the nation’s first leftist president from achieving ambitious reforms for Colombia’s poor and working class.

Columbian President Gustavo Petro,PHOTO: Milton Díaz - EL TIEMPO

Just over a year ago, no one would have thought Colombia could provide an example of a leftist governing model. The nation has long been the bastion of what supporters see as liberal-democratic rule in South America — falling to neither left-wing revolution nor the bloody right-wing dictatorships experienced by its neighbors. Colombia’s close relations with powerful Western nations have been equally stable, with the latter praising the country as a healthy example of democracy in the region.

President Gustavo Petro, a left-wing former guerrilla fighter, and his mélange of an alliance, known as the Pacto Histórico, ascended to power in August last year, closing the curtain on this tradition. The new political movement comprises a broad spectrum of politicians and parties — many sharing the values of previous governments, which makes the long-term viability of the coalition difficult to predict. Tempting as it may be to be pessimistic about a reformist project trying to resolve the country’s deep-rooted problems and historical conflicts, the evidence has thus far mostly proven critics — of all political persuasions — wrong.

Not only has the Petro administration made progress on the most pressing national issues, including tackling high poverty levels, addressing the long-standing violent conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other armed groups, and limiting the narcotics trade — it’s also begun to take on capitalism’s environmental crises on the international stage.

It has not all been smooth sailing, however. The coalition is rife with internal conflict and power struggles, a hostile opposition has successfully limited progressive bills in Congress (where the coalition lacks a majority), and, more generally, the incessant machinery of a disquieted ruling class constantly undermines the coalition’s policy goals, particularly through lawfare and corporate media smears. Unsurprisingly, despite evidence of Petro’s impressive performance in his first year in office given these challenges, most of the country’s opinion polls show his approval ratings down from 56 percent when he was appointed to just 33 percent. However, a recent Strategic Center Latin American of Geopolitics report suggests that around 90 percent of those who voted for the coalition continue to approve its mandate.

Colombia’s social democratic project under President Petro and the Pacto Histórico provides those of us interested in left-wing governance some important lessons. In just a year, the new administration has implemented impressive policies that depart from the rapacious neoliberalism of the past. Moreover, in contrast to some other regional examples, Colombia’s left remains committed to implementing its radical reforms, edging out the stalling centrists in its midst. But whether it has the wherewithal to withstand the powerful offensive waged upon it and its vision for a new country remains to be seen.

The Economy

While Colombia’s leading media outlets forecasted a serious destabilization of the economy with the Pacto Histórico at the helm, that never came to pass. In general, despite widespread inflation in the first few months linked to the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, rates have now seen a steady decrease for three consecutive months, with economists forecasting a continuation of the trend. Importantly, in contrast to the austerity policies of neoliberal governments, Colombia’s reduction in inflation has been accompanied by a government-led policy to increase people’s wages — particularly benefiting some of the poorest workers, who today enjoy higher salaries and lower living costs. Moreover, these positive indicators have been bolstered by a reduction in unemployment.

Although Colombia now has a pro-labor government, the country’s economy more generally continues to be defined by capitalist parasitism and extractivism — underpinned by the traditional asymmetric linkages with powerful nations to the north. If the new administration is to move the country toward a more stable economy based on socialist principles and sovereignty, it must continue to limit the power of the country’s bourgeoisie and dare to begin overturning long-standing uneven trade and export relations with the United States, the European Union, and other powers.

Social Policies

Notwithstanding the sustained monopoly the country’s ruling class wields over the state apparatus, President Petro and the coalition government have made significant strides in implementing some of their ambitious social policies. Noteworthy among them is the Citizens’ Rent program, consisting of a monthly half–minimum salary to the country’s most vulnerable families, targeting women heads of household especially, that currently benefits around two million people.

This is part of a broader policy program to address the country’s rampant social inequality, for which the Ministry of Equality, headed by Vice President Francia Márquez, was created. However, other vital policies — namely, the urgently needed reform of the collapsing public health care system — have been blocked in Congress by the opposition.

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Security and Peace

Recognizing one of the fundamental causes of the decades-long violent conflict, President Petro’s government has begun to address land rights and distribution more earnestly. Tens of thousands of rural families have been awarded land titles — more in one year than the previous government processed in its full term.

The 2016 peace agreement between FARC guerrillas and the state was a historic achievement, though the implementation has been largely disappointing. The electoral victory of the far right in 2018 resulted in its near abandonment and the resumption of full-blown military intervention against dissidents, both armed and unarmed.

The Pacto Histórico’s has, in contrast, taken a reconciliatory and dialogue-based approach to the guerrillas, starting with the “Total Peace” bill that not only reinforces the implementation of the prior agreement but advances new projects. Concretely, the bill gives the government extraordinary powers to start talks with remaining armed dissidents, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), with whom they have agreed to a cease-fire while advancing toward a peace accord.

The Environment

On the international stage, Colombia’s government has quickly become one of the leading proponents of substituting the external debt of impoverished countries in the Global South for action to protect the natural environment. President Petro and his team have used their official international visits to lobby for a “Marshall Plan” for the environment, which they are preparing to submit as a proposal at COP28. Importantly, together with this proposal to substitute debt for climate action, Petro has called for an urgent global devaluation of the fossil fuel industry. This position was recently backed at the Amazon summit convened by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, where Colombia was the only country to vote to limit new concessions to the industry.

At the national level, the implementation of environmental protection policies has been swifter, even as it has faced uphill battles in Congress. One of the first policies announced by the coalition was the allocation of $200 million yearly toward the regeneration and protection of the Amazon rainforest – 10 percent of which lies within the country’s boundaries. The program, which will receive additional international funds, focuses on empowering local indigenous and rural communities to help in efforts to prevent deforestation and other forms of destruction. For comparison, the previous government had no specific policies or funding allocations to address this issue.

A New Era for Colombia?

Around the world, only an urgent and radical transformation of the way we organize ourselves politically and economically can truly address the challenges before us. The core countries of the capitalist system, with the most advanced technology and the most prestigious scholarly centers, have mostly failed to provide inspiration or answers.

Today, Colombia — a peripheral nation once known as neoliberalism’s most enthusiastic collaborator in Latin America — offers an example of how we can challenge that order, even in bastions of conservative politics. Ultimately, the Colombian project’s longevity will depend on its leaders’ ability to outmaneuver the country’s elites and transform relations with the world’s imperialist powers — and on an internationalist movement to support and defend it.

Carlos Cruz Mosquera is a PhD candidate and teaching associate at Queen Mary University of London.