Photo: Massive closing rally on May 22 for the Gustavo Petro/Francia Marquez ticket. Credit: @petrogustavo
When Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, took office on August 7 his first act as president during his very own inauguration was to pause the proceedings and ask the military to bring him Simon Bolivar’s sword, a request that the outgoing right-wing president Ivan Duque had denied him prior to the ceremony. The sword is a symbol of freedom and liberation for all of Latin America, which Bolivar himself demanded never to be buried or put away until the entire continent was free. While Petro’s first act was symbolic in nature, in just the first 100 days of his term he has rolled-out many of the progressive actions and legislation promised during his historic campaign.
This past Tuesday, thousands filled the streets of major cities in Colombia in support of Petro to celebrate his first 100 days in office. This is no surprise as Petro currently enjoys an approval rating of 62 percent, in contrast to his predecessor and right-wing president Ivan Duque who only had a 27 percent approval rating during the same time. Gustavo Petro and his running mate Francia Marquez, a leader in the Afro-Colombian and environmental movements, in only a short period of time have followed through with many of their promises. These include reopening negotiations of a “total peace” agreement with all armed groups in the country, normalizing relations with Venezuela, passing a pro-people tax reform legislation, making great strides towards historic agrarian land reform, and denouncing the United States and other imperialist powers for ruining the economies of the Global South and being the biggest perpetrators of climate destruction.
Even prior to taking office on August 7, Petro’s cabinet picks were already an indication that the cabinet was not going to be made up purely of the usual career politicians. Instead, key social leaders of mass movements and progressives like his Minister of Environment Susana Muhamad and Minister of Culture Patricia Ariza were appointed. Both are long-time activists and human rights defenders. Minister of Labor Gloria Ines Ramirez is a teacher and trade unionist, and member of the Colombian Communist Party. In addition, Petro ensured gender parity in his cabinet by selecting an equal number of women and men for the mandate.
Aside from her position as Vice President, Francia Marquez will also be heading the newly created Ministry of Equality and Equity. This new ministry aims to fight for and guarantee equality for women, youth, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ communities and farmers. In response to the creation of this ministry, Francia said it was historic and tweeted, “Today, to give equality back to all Colombians is to make dignity a custom.”
One of the biggest points of the campaign was the upholding and strengthening of the 2016 Havana peace accords that were meant to put an end to the decades-long civil war between the country’s former and largest revolutionary guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Colombian state. The Duque administration violated and dismantled the peace accords, failing to uphold security guarantees, leading to the continued assassination of thousands of former guerilla combatants and social leaders. Major civil reintegration programs were also defunded and undermined by Duque. While the FARC successfully demobilized and joined the peace process, this failure to uphold the peace accords led a number of FARC combatants to refuse to lay down their weapons. In addition, the lack of goodwill by the Duque administration deterred other armed groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN), now the largest active leftist guerilla, to come to negotiate peace.
In response on August 8, the Petro administration wasted no time on their second day in office when they announced the resumption of peace negotiations with the ELN. A crucial milestone in the negotiations was achieved this month when Petro signed his first law as president: Law 181/2022 or the law of “Total Peace,” approved by an overwhelming majority in the Colombian senate. This gives the Petro administration the power to lay the groundwork for peace negotiations with 22 armed groups, including the ELN, active FARC combatants, and even several extreme right-wing paramilitary groups.
Also running parallel to the project for total peace, Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez launched an initiative to protect social leaders in Colombia, a country widely considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a social leader for over two decades. Already in 2022, more than 150 social leaders have been assassinated by illegal drug-trafficking groups in the country. The initiative plans to protect 65 of the hardest hit municipalities throughout Colombia.
Normalization of relations with Venezuela
In the realm of foreign policy, another major campaign promise by Petro was the normalization of relations with their sister nation of Venezuela. In September, Colombia and Venezuela resumed diplomatic relations after they were suspended in February 2019 by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, in response to Duque’s support for and recognition of Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate president” of Venezuela during his failed coup attempt. Colombia became the launching ground for military operations by the opposition of Venezuela to try to destabilize the elected government of Maduro and the people of Venezuela. The countries’ land borders were also opened for the first time on September 26 after seven years of closure.
During his campaign, Petro vowed to recognize democratically-elected Maduro as the legitimate president of the country. A historic meeting was held on Nov. 1 where Petro met Maduro in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. The meeting set out to strengthen the diplomatic and economic relations between the two sister nations under the principles of mutual respect and cooperation.
The meeting was not only symbolic, also has already bore fruit. In a clear show of good faith, Colombia returned Venezuelan public company Monomeros back to its rightful owner after being under the illegal control of Guaidó for 3 years. Monomeros is a petrochemical company located in Colombia responsible for the production of close to 50 percent of all fertilizers used in Colombia. While under the control of Guaidó, the company came under much scrutiny for several allegations of corruption and mismanagement. In response to this just decision, Felix Plasencia, the Venezualan ambassador to Colombia said, “This is the end of a negative process designed to hurt, to cause suffering to Venezuelans and Colombians. Now, a company that belongs to the people of Venezuela returns to the power of the people.”
Speech at the UN and condemnation of U.S. and the West
Petro took the podium at the September General Assembly meeting of the United Nations and gave a historic and vibrant speech where he called for the end of the unjust and phony “war on drugs” and blamed capitalism as the real cause of climate destruction. In the speech he said:
“You propose that the market will save us from what the market itself created. The Frankenstein of humanity lies In letting the market and greed act without planning, surrendering the brain and reason, kneeling human rationality to greed. What is the use of war if what we need is to save the human species? What is the use of NATO and Empires, if what is coming is the end of intelligence? The climate disaster will kill hundreds of millions of people and listen well, it is not produced by the planet, it is produced by Capital, the cause of climate disaster is capital. The logic of coming together only to consume more more, produce more and more, and for some to earn more and more that is what produces the climate disaster.”
Around the same time, Petro also took the opportunity to make declarations asking the United States to remove Cuba from the list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” — an inclusion that he called “an international injustice.” He also pointed out that, “The only thing Cuba did was to offer a space so that a peace process could have been finalized.”
Not too long after his historic UN speech during a speech in the state of Antioquia in Colombia, Petro accused the U.S. government of ruining the economies of the world by using the dollar and neoliberal policies to devalue other currencies, leading to a mass exodus into the United States. He criticized the hypocrisy of Washington’s immigration policy and argued that if the United States wanted to stop the flow of people in their country, they should instead focus on helping Latin America prosper instead of continuing to ruin the economies of the western hemisphere.
One of the main slogans of the Petro/Francia ticket was to make Colombia into a global power of life, not only by achieving genuine and lasting peace but by leading the fight against climate destruction.
Petro’s UN speech around the environment was not just rhetoric. During his first 100 days, several key proposals and legislations have been presented. Just earlier this month, Petro suspended fracking for three months. While the measure is temporary, the administration has plans to make it permanent. This is a firm step to meet the government’s promises around the environment.
In less than 100 days, the Petro and Francia administration ratified the Escuazù Agreement, an important international accord that provides transparency in information, public participation and justice in environmental issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. The law intends to protect the human rights of environmental defenders, who are routine victims of assassinations and violence in the region. Francia herself, a longtime environmentalist, has been the victim of death threats and intimidation for her work.
In addition, as part of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, Petro called for the formation of a bloc of countries in Latin America to protect the Amazon. As part of this plan, Colombia has pledged $200 million for the next 20 years to save the Amazon.
Another major campaign promise was to answer the demands of the millions of Colombian protestors who shut down the country last year during the national strike. The strikes were in response to an unpopular tax reform by the Duque administration that would have forced working-class Colombians to shoulder a significant economic burden in order to finance the deficit that the Colombian government incurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill was defeated by this mass uprising of the country and in many ways set the stage for Petro’s victory.
Last week, the Colombia senate approved Petro’s tax reform that is looking to raise an additional 20 trillion pesos ($4 billion) annually for the next four years to fund social projects and to solve the country’s financial woes. Instead of having Colombian workers shoulder the majority of the cost, the bill intends to raise these additional funds in part by increasing duties on oil and coal, imposing higher taxes on the middle class and the rich of Colombia, and by increasing taxes on single-use plastics, sugary drinks and processed foods. Petro’s tax reform is aligned with the driving principles of his campaign, moving away from fossil fuels and coal extraction, and raising the standard of living for the urban and farm workers of Colombia. Colombian Minister of Finance Jose Antonio Ocampo called the bill “the most progressive reform in Colombia’s history.”
As a continuation of the promise to uphold the 2016 peace accords, Petro’s government pledged to purchase three million hectares from large cattle ranchers and redistribute them to dispossessed farmers. This fulfills the first point of the peace accords signed with the FARC and paves the way for the implementation of comprehensive rural reform. The government plans to redistribute the lands in the near future, but already dispossessed farmers have been given land that used to belong to the drug cartels.
Former Cali Cartel pharmacy chain becomes public property
Aside from giving landless farmers the land of former drug cartels, the Petro administration recently put under public control all 900 stores of Drogas La Rebaja, Colombia’s largest pharmacy chain formerly owned by the Cali Cartel. In addition, the plan is to transform every pharmacy point into a primary care center, and use the wide supply chain and resources of the company to convert it into a public distributor of medicines at lower costs.
Petro has a large base among the youth of Colombia — a generation that has been betrayed by decades of right-wing, neoliberal leaders and forced to grapple with 20 percent youth unemployment and 40 percent poverty rates. In addition, since the administration of far-right former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, access to higher education has dwindled in the face of privatization and student debt. As he promised during his campaign, the Petro government has created 500,000 new slots in universities and is canceling the debts of 500,000 borrowers of ICETEX, a state-run creditor of student loans.
The road ahead for Colombia’s first left-wing administration will involve many challenges from the rightwing inside the country and their bosses in Washington. This struggle will unfold over the long term, but the Petro government has already achieved several key campaign promises and is taking firm steps so that Colombia can be regarded as a leading global power of life.