Colombia: Petro’s government, are reforms the “change?”

By Impulso Socialista – Grupo de Trabajadores Socialistas Unification Committee

Seven months after taking office, the Petro’s and the Historical Pact government is in full exercise. It is of no use now to look back and load responsibilities on previous governments. What is at stake is whether, in the face of the overwhelming needs and deep problems affecting millions, the government develops the necessary actions to achieve the longed for and promised “change” .

The president of the Senate, Roy Barreras, important leader of the Historic Pact, has repeated time and again that the change is actually reforms. Among the multitude of bills being processed in the current legislature, after the tax reform of the previous semester, the government is focusing its efforts on the health, labor and pension reforms and on bills related to the “total peace” policy.

Among expectations, doubts and question marks

The millions of workers, poor peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendant population, young students and unemployed who voted for Petro, submerged in their daily lives full of difficulties, with a disproportionate increase in the cost of living, public service rates rising nonstop, without stable jobs with sufficient remuneration, continue to expect the change that the reforms will bring, but do not feel that they are direct participants and actors in them. They see them as a matter to be defined by Congress, through pacts, agreements, modifications and votes.

Among hundreds or scarce thousands of revolutionary fighters (in organizations of different types, with reduced coordination or unity among them) doubts and questions abound. These doubts also exist among many rank and file members of the Historic Pact. The majority of these organizations called to vote for Petro; without endorsing his program as a whole. As the government puts forward the bills, with the parties that support it and confrontation with some initiatives of the opposition and employers’ associations, it is becoming clear how little depth the much publicized reforms will have at the end of the process, that is, how superficial the change will be.

The panic of being suspended mid-air

The political and social process of the previous years, which Gustavo Petro took advantage of to win the presidency, did not become a true revolution; it did not sweep away any of the fundamental institutions of the political regime. The Historical Pact, through the majority leaderships in the mass movement, and Petro himself stopped the processes of mobilization, organization and struggle that were developing, diverted them and led them to the dead end of Petro’s government and its reform plan.

They won the presidency but not a parliamentary majority. At the risk of becoming a panicking suspended in the air government with a parliamentary majority that could be adverse, Petro opted to deepen the agreements and pacts he had made before with bourgeois factions that contributed to his triumph. He advanced from the agreements with Santismo and Samperismo to agreements with the Liberal party of César Gaviria and with the Conservative party and presented before the masses this governability pact as a great achievement. In reality, he was beginning to be tied hand and foot. These circumstances defined his first cabinet.

The health reform project and the ministerial crisis

The tax reform, processed after Petro’s inauguration, featured conciliation and agreements in bulk. Petro got out of the proposal of 50 billion pesos for large social assistance plans. The proposal to significantly raise taxes on large industrialists, bankers and landowners ended in less than half of what was initially thought, at 20 billion pesos. Directly or indirectly, those 20 trillion will end up being paid by the millions of wage earners. In this “first test” the bourgeoisie settled down, some of its sectors tightened their belts a little (very little) and, for better or worse, they and the government smiled and shook hands.

The health reform bill was negotiated and is being processed today under different circumstances. From the beginning the bourgeois sectors involved bared their teeth; having as main spokesman the former Minister of Health of Santos, Minister of Education of Petro, Alejandro Gaviria. The objections to Minister Corcho’s reform rained down like a tropical downpour in times of climate change. The tension generated led to a ministerial crisis and the departure of the head of the opposition within the government itself.

The Liberal and Conservative parties (governing parties) announced substantial objections to the project and demanded profound modifications. Petro gave in on March 13, in a meeting in the Palace with the leadership of these parties. The campaign promises of eliminating the intermediary EPS (which does not mean, as some believe, that health care ceases to be a business; it only means eliminating a parasitic intermediary) began to fade away. What will come out at the end of the parliamentary debate remains to be seen. What can be assured is that the government, in the panic of losing the parliamentary coalition and being suspended in the air, backtracked on aspects it considered substantial and that in Congress new cuts will be made; without ruling out that due to procedural flaws, the Court will later overturn the bill, as many warn.

The tragic week

The end of February and the first week of March were catalogued as a tragic week for Petro, when allegations by the ex-wife of Nicolás Petro (son of the President) regarding the appropriation of donations of dubious origin (from drug traffickers?) by Nicolás in the presidential campaign were made; the ministerial crisis; the surrender of a contingent of more than 70 men of the ESMAD to a peasant demonstration in Caquetá against the oil company Emerald Energy; the decision of the Council of State to suspend the decree by which it assumed the power to regulate public service rates; the beginning of the mining strike in Bajo Cauca Antioquia with the actions of armed groups (Clan del Golfo, among others). Plus  the poor results of the second round of negotiations with the ELN in Mexico, about which former President Ernesto Samper pointed out in a tweet on Monday, March 13 that: “While the peace process with the ELN does not advance […] the humanitarian situation in the territories is complicated and the pain of the civilian population increases.”

The languishing support mobilizations

In the previous seven months three days of mobilization in support of the government and its reforms have been called. Each one of them has been weaker than the previous one. The first took place, after 100 days, still in the heat of the electoral triumph, when the reforms were still only promises and declarations. The second one, last February 14, called by the President himself, became a pulse against the one called by the opposition for the following day. Petro lost this battle, since both were rickety in view of the dimension of the problems at stake, but the support to the government was much lower. The third one, on March 16, called by the union bureaucracies adhering to the Historical Pact to support the reforms, can be described as languid.

The response to the calls for support mobilizations shows that, at the mass level, there is no fervor, no feeling, no solid motivation to support the government and its projects. The governability pact with the parties that for decades have governed, hated and repudiated by millions, is taking its toll on Petro and the Historical Pact. Additionally, at the level of the forms of exercising political power, the Petro government does not express a deep and radical differentiation either. The international trips of the so-called First Lady, the appointments to diplomatic posts of politicians of obscure trajectory, the serious scandal generated by her son and an innumerable number of facts very similar to those of previous governments, are taking their toll on the trust and credibility in the government by many who had illusions and expectations in it.

Nothing but respectful claims regarding imperialism

Regarding the relationship with imperialism, especially with the United States, of which Colombia has always been part of its backyard and all previous governments servile lackeys, the “government of change” only presents respectful demands. In economic and social plans, it complies to the letter with the dictates of the OECD and the IMF and struggles, with enormous weakness, for changes in the anti-drug policy. Its independence from the northern power goes little beyond speeches. It has not broken any of the “advisory” and “collaboration” programs of the Colombian Armed Forces with the Pentagon. On the contrary, it has publicly offered to form a joint military force to “guard the Amazon”.

With the risk of losing the “certification” and the almost 500 million dollars a year that this would mean for the “aid in the fight against drugs”, Petro’s government moves in a minefield, dominated by that imperialism, with which it is unable to split. This also generates doubts and deep distrust among revolutionary fighters and sectors of the masses; for they perceive a government that considers the Biden administration, the government of the greatest enemy of the peoples of the world, as an ally, partner and collaborator.

What can be expected?

If the change is actually reforms, it is difficult to predict what will end up being approved of the government’s timorous projects today. Much will be cut and reduced, “peeled”; even monkeys will climb on them, as is customary in the parliamentary den. For the government and the bourgeois parties that support it, unions and employers’ associations, union bureaucracies, it is a matter of changing something so that the essential aspects remain the same.

Petro never pretended nor pretends to promote and energize social mobilization that confronts the scaffolding of the political regime, that conquers real and deep social, economic and political transformations. His strategic plan was and is to try to deactivate the volcano of conflict and social struggles that erupted spasmodically in previous years. That is the project he sold, various bourgeois fractions supported it and others accepted it without major objections. That is the reason for the frequent friendly meetings of Petro himself with former president Uribe.

What’s clear is that the political strength of the Petro government no longer lies in the mobilization and struggle he took advantage of to win the Presidency. In terms of strength and political maneuvering capacity, the government is standing on a slippery slope: the agreements to maintain its parliamentary majority; without which, the government would begin to be suspended in the air.

What to do?

A regrouping of the revolutionary forces that are willing to assume a position of clear and complete independence from the government, its political plan, its program and strategy is necessary and urgent.

It is of great importance that in the reforms proposed by the government there are points in which we must be in favor. Some of them, as in the labor reform, would be small recoveries of previous rights (full Sunday pay, night work starting at 6:00 p.m., for example). However, this cannot lead those who proclaim revolutionary positions to become acolytes of a plan of agreement and conciliation, as is the plan of the Historical Pact.

Acolytizing the government’s strategy of parliamentary agreements, simply supporting the proposed reforms and leaving in the hands of the government the negotiation of the same, leads to debasing the consciousness of the mass movement. It is necessary to gather forces to develop mobilization actions that demand and defend the rights and demands; without placing any confidence in the parliamentary procedures and agreements.

We must be absolutely clear that even the small points or favorable aspects that may be approved in the reforms proposed by the government are the product and result of the struggles of years and not at all the product of negotiation and agreements with the big businessmen. On the contrary, they will be crouching down looking for the slightest opportunity to roll back the gains.

Bogotá, March 24, 2023