Colombia: Petro - A Change to Change Nothing?
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
31 August 2021
People attend a rally for Gustavo Petro in Cali, Colombia, during the 2018 presidential campaign.
Photograph: Ernesto Guzmán Jr/EPA
Gustavo Petro would seem to be the presidential candidate of the self-proclaimed Historic Pact, a coalition of parties that claim to be progressives or left such as Colombia Humana, the Democratic Pole and various other personalities from the Colombian right such as the Senators Armando Benedetti and Roy Barreras, as well as a handful of councillors and minor personalities on the right.
One has to ask what exactly is historic about this pact? It is not like it is the first time Petro has sought an alliance with the Colombian right. We should also ask ourselves what type of government it will be and what can we really expect of it.
Without a doubt, Petro is a charismatic politician, studious, eloquent, able to defeat right wing journalists with great ease in the openly hostile interviews they subject him to. He is also a smug politician, convinced of his own infallibility at every point, regardless of the later rectifications in some cases, he is arrogant, authoritarian and self-centred.
Petro talks of humanising capitalism, of developing it. In a recent interview he stated that he had no intention of expropriating any means of production and this position is not new, but rather it is something he and his comrades in M-19 have always held. In the interview he talks of an economy with a market rather than a market economy. It is a sophism, it sounds good, but he still talks of a capitalist economy with some vague social protection measures. He states, “it is up to us to develop capitalism, as those who have held power didn’t do it, what they built was a mafia feudalism.”(1) It is has to be said that to Petro that mafia-like state is of Uribe and Duque and not Santos, Samper, Gaviria and the rest of the godfathers in Colombia. In Petro’s vision, there is a nice capitalism, though we haven’t a clue as to where this exists or has existed, but according to Petro it does exist.
What we propose is to protect… capitalism, we have to accept it, develop it, as I already explained under a different tax system, protecting national trade, a state backed stimulus policy of industry, an industrialisation policy, an agrarian reform to industrialise but defining it, what does that mean? That they can’t over exploit the worker, there must be decent work, a return to workplace relations without slavery, there has to be a balance with nature. There are sacred spaces in which capitalism has no place, such as the right to public education, health, at least in terms of primary health care now that we face the issue of Covid, that should be a right, not a product.Petro is an economist, and no fool, however his discourse is a cheap one to be swallowed whole by the gullible who would rather not read. Many of his proposals are integral parts of post war capitalism in Europe and even in the USA. But he knows he cannot protect national industry without breaking with the World Trade Organisation and tearing up the free trade agreements that Colombia has signed, something he neither aims to or has proposed to do.
Neither is it true to say that in Colombia we don’t have capitalism but rather a feudal mafia system. Nobody can deny that there are social structures in the country and production patterns that resemble feudalism, without being so of course, as in Colombia the market economy is dominant and there is no feudal economy. But if we look at other countries in the world, no one comes out with such stupidities as to deny the existence of a capitalist model (albeit one that is very Sui Generis in some respects). It can be presumed that in the USA capitalism exists rather than a feudal mafia. Petro talks well of Biden and also of Obama and he even lent himself to chauffeuring Clinton around on his visit to the country.(2) However, if we look at the economy of that country, we see that some of the indicators that people like Petro cite, also exist there. It is curious that one of the points in common between Robledo/Fajardo on the one hand and Petro on the other is they insist on the need to develop capitalism and to deny that we are where we are in fact due to capitalism in a country oppressed by imperialism that never could throw off the yoke and impacts of colonialism. They both say that, given that the bourgeoisie has not done a good job of developing capitalism in the country, we are going to do if for them, we are going to enrich those who kill us to appropriate our wealth.
There exists in the USA a great concentration of land and also a subsidy programme for agriculture. But in that country, there is no need for a Felipe Arias in order for the rich to rob the subsidies: they are openly given to the rich, by law, without blushing, with no illegalities, theft is law. Between 1995 and 2020 the US farms received 424.4 billion dollars in subsidies, and yet 69% of farms got nothing.(3) This was the case under Trump, Obama and Bush, in other words it is a state rather than a governmental policy. What Petro describes as the antithesis of capitalism is its normal functioning both in the USA and Europe where the large landowners are the beneficiaries of subsidies. In Europe, between 1999 2013 the Nestlé multinational received at least 625.9 million euros in agricultural subsidies and Prince Charles received between 2001 and 2013 607,000 euros just for the Duchy of Cornwall.(4)
A similar situation occurs with the banking sector, Petro and others talk as if Luís Carlos Sarmiento was the only evil banker in the world. They forget that Obama used public funds to rescue the banking sector, that the European Union did something similar, punishing Spain, Greece and Ireland in the process forcing their citizens to pay for banking losses. It is worth pointing out that the those who lost in the Greek and Irish markets were German, British and French speculators. It should also be remembered that as in Colombia Duque gave money to the banks in the midst of the pandemic rather than give it to the poor, in the USA and Europe the banks were rescued with public funds and those same banks went on to embargo and sell the houses of the people whose taxes were used to finance the bank bailout. Sounds like a Mafia to me.
Petro’s problem is that he thinks there is a good form and a bad form of capitalism, or that is at least what he publicly states, whether he actually believes that rubbish or not is another matter. His political proposal can be summed up as we have to build capitalism in Colombia, not Socialism, not even a Keynesian capitalism, but a barefaced capitalism. As can be seen in the previous quote he says as much himself, I am not making this up. I do have to clarify that as anytime anyone criticises Petro there are those who don’t want to know, don’t read or will be the beneficiaries of Petro style Capitalism who come out to say that it is not true.
It is not the first time that Petro has sought an alliance with the Colombian bourgeoisie, whilst talking about the people. He did something similar in 2009 with César Gaviria. Petro, with the support of the now Uribista, Lucho Garzón, fought within the Pole for an historic pact, though he didn’t use that term back then.
THE INTERPARTY PROPOSAL Whilst controversy is on the rise, Senator Gustavo Petro decided to stir it up and try to reach a democratic convergence of parties and leaders opposed to President Uribe, based on an agreement on fundamental points, as he acknowledges himself, in reference to the proposals of the murdered conservative leader Álvaro Gómez.It is worth remembering who César Gaviria was. He is none other than the president who gave us the economic aperture, Law 100 (Uribe was just the mover of the bill) and he is also the man who signed the decree that gave us the rural security cooperatives, Convivir, (Uribe just applied it but it was not his decree but Gaviria’s who never washed his hands of the matter). So, the inclusion of Uribistas like Benedetti and Barreras is not by chance. Petro has for many years sought to save the bourgeoisie from itself.
The Congressman awaits a response to the letter he sent in December to the leader of the liberals, the former president César Gaviria. In it he offers to take part in the election of a presidential candidate on the basis of a programme for government that is fair and transparent to all the candidates.(5)
As part of his campaign to save the bourgeoisie he voted for Ordóñez for the post of Procurator. In the debate with Roy Barreras Petro accepted that it was a big mistake to have voted for Alejandro Ordóñez as Procurator. He exclaimed mea culpa a number of times, but Petro’s error was not a simple mistake of voting for the wrong man, of having voted for a man who later betrayed the trust placed in him. It was rather a political, ideological blunder and furthermore, his decision and that of other members of the Democratic Pole was tarnished by bureaucratic agreements on jobs and unlawful favours in decisions taken by the Procurator.(6) Petro defended him tooth and nail. According to Petro, Ordóñez had always complied with his sacred 1991 Constitution, a document which is now the only and very questionable legacy of the demobilisation of Petro and his comrades in M-19.
Gustavo Petro’s office complained that the barbs thrown at him by the president of the Democratic Pole, Carlos Gaviria were part of an “expression of christianphobia”. “Senator I dare you and your colleagues to be tolerant and coherent in their pluralist ideas”, he said. Petro replied that his decision to support him[Ordóñez] could lead to conflicts and cause him to lose half of his electorate, but even so, he would still back him. In a column published in El Tiempo on December 18th Petro publicly justified his decision and highlighted that as a judge, Ordóñez had been faithful to the Constitution and pushed to the background the controversy surrounding the electoral process: “As a Procurator, Ordóñez won’t stop going to Mass nor will we cease to be on the left”, he wrote.(7)His defence of Ordóñez and the so-called christianphobia of an ethical man such as Carlos Gaviria, sounds laughable now, but Petro wasn’t laughing back then and none of the victims of the decisions taken by Ordóñez are laughing now.
The Front Line
Petro defends, above all else, the institutions and that can be seen in the attitude he took to the recent protests during the National Strike. From the word go, Petro, in practice, opposed the strike. Yes, you will find statements he made about an indefinite strike,(8) but as soon as the Minister for Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla had resigned he called for a halt to the protests.(9) Following that he continued with his campaign to condemn violence “on all sides” and asking for what he termed the mobilisation of the multitudes, a confusing expression, as why not just say the mobilisation of the masses? Because it sounds very Marxist, revolutionary etc. In time he clarified that as far as he was concerned the mobilisations don’t mean bringing the country to a halt, nor challenging the Colombian bourgeoisie, but rather registering to vote in 2022. He was opposed to forcing Duque out of office in the strike, as a grassroots victory over Duque would not guarantee power for Petro and less still stability for capitalism in the country.
Petro fears the Front Line more than the oligarchy, he fears the protests more than the institutions, he fears the youths he can’t control more than the Colombian state. He also naively believes that the youths he disparages will vote for him. They represent sectors that never vote and they might not vote this time either as the most likely candidate doesn’t just speak ill of them, he meets with business leaders and makes agreements with Uribistas and the Liberal Party. He makes agreements with everyone except the Front Line.
Perhaps Petro will be the next president of Colombia, but he will not be the change some are hoping for. He is not pushing us towards socialism, not even a reformist version, as some believe, but towards another National Front, this time around with the grassroots movements co-opted with their hands tied. Politically he is not bringing us to a Chile under Allende, but rather a new remoulded government of Samper or César Gaviria.
Without doubt he is a very capable man, and he would surely be a more efficient administrator than Duque. But Santos was also capable, Samper too and Gaviria is still a reference point in national politics even though he left the presidency 27 years ago. There is no lack of good administrators, but rather those who have a vision and are willing to fight for it. He may even carry out some reforms in his presidency in the educational sector that will benefit the poor. He won’t touch the health sector much, or rather he will do so to make it more efficient, without doubt, as Obama did in the USA but without touching the profits of multinational and national companies that invest in the sector. In fact, legally speaking he could face some problems, as these companies invested in “good faith” in the sector and could sue the state, as the mining companies do when the rules of the game are changed. They could take a case to the World Bank International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). For example, in the context of current legislation and policies this year a multimillion-dollar investment by the Lenus Group was announced(10) and in the last few years other companies have invested in the sector.(11) You only have to look at just one company, Colsanitas, which is a Spanish company. Does Petro aim to take their business and profits from them? Would the business leaders who signed up to the Historic Pact agree to this? No and once more, No.
Any progressive measure by a Petro government would run headlong into the fierce opposition not only of the other parties but also of his new allies and Petro is not going to fight outside of the institutions, he respects the health sector companies more than the children of the patients protesting in the streets, he fears the future they might create as the rules are not clear and have not been written by him or the companies. He knows how to negotiate with the accountants in the boardroom and he respects them more than the youths in the street.
Neither are there any guarantees on the issue of peace. Petro has already stated he is in favour of Uribe’s proposal for a general amnesty for the oligarchs and other criminals such as Uribe and Santos. But in the negotiations with the ELN, Petro will be the same if not even tougher than Duque. Petro and his gang in M-19 really believe they changed Colombia when they demobilised, they believe that the 1991 Constitution, wasn’t a step forward but the great unbeatable leap forward, and that is why they don’t want another constitution. They were left with their hands empty, but whilst the 1991 Constitution continues to exist, they can point to it as something positive. To be clear, the 1991 Constitution was useless, in Article 12 forced disappearance is banned by constitutional mandate and yet forced disappearance increased dramatically after it came into effect and Colombia outdoes the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the number of disappeared. Article 56 guarantees the right to strike, however the murder and massacres of trade unionists escalated and it is one of the most dangerous countries for trade union activity. Neither does it protect peasants, or indigenous and black communities from the havoc of mining, nor does it do anything to prevent forced displacement (it doesn’t even mention it).
Petro will tell the ELN that there you have my constitution and I am the former guerrilla who is now in power and so there is no reason to continue in arms. In defence of the legal order and his own legitimacy and the legitimacy of M-19’s demobilisation process he will be unrelenting with them and he will have the support of the “left” and even Timochenko and the other former FARC commanders will give him a hand in defeating this guerrilla organisation as the former FMLN commander in El Salvador, Joaquín Villalobos who acts as an advisor to governments and people like the current Vicepresident of Colombia, Marta Lucía Ramírez, in defeating insurgent movements does. Of course, Petro is not the first former M-19 guerrilla to hold power in national governments. Several former M-19 militants have taken part in Uribe’s governments. Angelino Garzón the former secretary general of the CUT and member of the M-19 Democratic Alliance (post demobilisation) represented for many sectors who now support Petro a progressive voice in the conservative government of Andrés Pastrana (as Minister for Labour) and in the Santos government (as Vice-President).
He may be the next president (though there is gap to bridge between words and reality), but he does not deserve it, for his cowardice, for being lukewarm (yes Fajardo isn’t the only one). Colombia deserves that the next government not be Uribe’s, but it also deserves a government willing to fight the mafias, as Petro would say, but the mafias are not just the Uribe thugs, but also the multinationals who finance paramilitary groups (conjugated in the present, not in the past tense), the mafias have pedigree surnames, some of them are part of, or have been invited to join the Historic Pact and to fight them you can’t obey the rules they themselves drew up.
Petro will be the grand change to change nothing, presuming they don’t rob the elections, and if they do, well Petro is not going to call upon the Front Line or anyone else to protest the theft, as he prefers the theft to the struggle. He didn’t protest the fraud in 2018. He prefers to whine rather than yell like a rebel. As the song says “My vote is for the children, the ones who will change the course of history”. And Petro doesn’t aim to change the course of history, just to slightly modify it.
(1) El Pregonero del Darién (01/08/2021) Nos toca desarrollar el capitalismo: Gustavo Petro https://elpregonerodeldarien.com.co/nos-toca-desarrollar-el-capitalismo-gustavo-petro/politica/
(2) Las 2 Orillas (19/02/2021) Cuando Petro fue el chofer de Bill Clinton https://www.las2orillas.co/cuando-petro-fue-el-chofer-de-bill-clinton/
(3) Data taken from https://www.ewg.org
(4) Data taken from https://farmsubsidy.org/
(5) El Tiempo (05/01/2009) Alianza entre ganadores en el Polo https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-3257635
(6) El Tiempo (14/12/2008) EL NUEVO PROCURADOR Serán ciertos sus pactos burocráticos? https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-3235013 and El Tiempo (16/12/2008) Mojigatería y politiquería https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-3238157
(7) El Tiempo (22/12/2008) ‘Los congresistas deben tener un juez imparcial’: Alejandro Ordóñez https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-4735648
(10) Semana (13/04/2021) Nace un gigante de la salud: hará inversiones hasta por 400 millones de dólares en clínicas regionales https://www.semana.com/economia/inversionistas/articulo/nace-un-gigante-de-la-salud-hara-inversiones-hasta-por-400-millones-de-dolares-en-clinicas-regionales/202113/
(11) Exponencial BI (24/02/2021) Qué ven los inversionistas extranjeros en el sector salud en Colombia? https://www.exponencial.com.co/nuevo-blog/qu-ven-los-inversionistas-extranjeros-en-el-sector-salud-en-colombia