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Colombia: One Year of Petro

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

07 August 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

The Petro government has reached its first year in which it promised a lot, came through on some things and changed a lot of other things, particularly its position on certain issues.  Before looking at it, it should be pointed out that the Historic Pact (PH) is not the first left wing government.  The country is still waiting for that.  It is a remould of liberalism in the style of Ernesto Samper.  Even so, it is worth looking at its proposals and what it did in this year, as unlike Samper, it did give a lot of hope to the people.

It is generally accepted that Petro would not have been elected president if it were not for the big popular revolt that began on April 28th 2021, an uprising that cost the life of over 80 youths.  We don’t know the exact number of dead and disappeared and less still of the number of young women who were raped and sexually abused by the Police as part of the repression.  Even the number of political prisoners is a matter of dispute.  Not due to the number of people detained but because the amongst Prosecutor’s Office, the press and sections of the PH there are those who seek to divest the detained youths of any political motivations and simply paint them as criminals and vandals, the last of these words having been covered in glory during those protests.

So, it comes as no surprise that Petro, like Boric in Chile, did not free the political prisoners from the revolt.  He made a few lukewarm attempts to get a handful of them out, but a long way from all of them.  They are still in prison, despite his electoral victory being down to their struggle and actions that led them to prison.  It is perhaps the most symbolic transgression as it says sacrifice yourselves but don’t expect anything from me, not even when I owe you everything.  Petro has defended himself by saying that it is not his decision to free or imprison anyone.  In recent day he stated.

There are still many youths in prison and I get blamed, as if it were up to me to imprison or free them.  State bodies and people inside them have decided that these youths should not be freed.  Not because they are terrorists, who would think protesting is terrorism? If not a dictator or Fascist.  No, but because they want to punish the youths who rebel.(1)

Some may feel that he is right in a technical sense, i.e. it is the Prosecution and the judges who imprison them.  But that is to ignore reality.  He himself denigrated them when he referred to them as vandals during the protests and since taking office, neither Petro nor the PH have been the visible heads of any initiative to free the prisoners.  They washed their hands of the issue.

He didn’t even disband the specialised riot squad, the ESMAD.  Unlike other proposals he didn’t even try to.  He changed its name and promised a couple of human rights courses for its members, as if the problem was their lack of attendance at a course or two, given by some NGO and not a deep-rooted problem.  The ESMAD is a unit that murdered many youths.  It is a body who name is synonymous with violence, torture, sexual abuse and murder.  A name change won’t wash away the blood.

… the promise to put an end to the ESMD was just lip service during the presidential campaign.  It wasn’t carried out and the government will fail to carry through on its commitment to the youths who brought the president to power, through the existence of a repressive violent force like this one.  The temptations to infiltrate the marches in order to justify confrontations with the kids will continue to be part of the landscape.(2)
In economic terms the government promised a lot during the campaign, but once in power, it quickly softened its proposals and in some other cases they didn’t get a majority of votes in Congress.  The lack of votes in Congress is not a simple one of not coming through, nor is it due to betrayals by the PH nor manoeuvres by other forces that Petro can’t control.  The PH is a coalition of sectors of the right with sectors of what passes for social democracy in Colombia.  It was not inevitable, but rather Petro actively advocated that it be like that.  It is worth recalling that at first, he wasn’t going to choose Francia Márquez as his vice-president but rather a right winger like Roy Barreras.

But there are economic aspects that are under his control, but for the moment they remain as just proposals, rather than real policies that have gone through Congress.  On the land question, Petro proposes monocultures and agribusiness.  This was clearly to be seen in the proposal to buy three million hectares from the cattle ranchers.  Petro’s vision of the countryside is one of it being at the service of big money and the promotion of cash crops, despite some references to the production of foodstuffs for internal consumption and the so-called bioeconomy.

Something similar can be seen with his proposals for clean energy.  He spoke a great deal about it during the electoral campaign and some of his proposals, or outlines as they stand, look good.  That Colombia no longer depend on oil and coal is not a bad idea that it be replaced with alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power looks good, until we actually examine the details.  One of his first stumbles, in that sense, was with the indigenous people, as La Guajira is a poor area that has suffered the consequences of coal mining.  He did not take them into account and they reminded him that what is proposed for their territory should have their support, though legally it is not quite the case, and that it should also benefit them.  He partially rectified the case, but the big question is, if he wants an energy transition why does he have to seek out French and other foreign capital to finance it.  Does he want to hand over the wind and solar power as they are still doing with oil and coal?  It would seem so.  According to Petro.

We need investments that help us carry this out: we would have a matrix of foreign investment centred on the construction of clean energies in South America, with a guaranteed market, if we have direct link to the United States and by sea with the rest of the world.(3)
If you substitute oil and coal for clean energy, you begin to see the problem: the resources of Colombia in the service of big money and the countries of the north.  If we are to have a real change and energy transition, we have to put an end to the idea of consumption of energy in the north regardless of where it comes from as sustainable and that countries such as Colombia must take on the role of continuing to supply energy for a model of consumption that is destroying the planet.

Neither have there been great advances on the issue of peace.  He did reactivate the dialogue with the ELN, but stumbled with something that is still an integral part of his policy, the so-called Total Peace.  In his proposal he compared the insurgent group, the ELN to the drug gangs and paramilitary groups such as the Clan de Golfo.  It was not a mistake, Petro really does see the ELN as a criminal gang.  He made it clear in his speech to the military and he reaffirmed it when he named the blood thirsty Mafia boss and former Murderer in Chief of the paramilitaries, Salvatore Mancuso as a Peace Promoter.  With that he placed the ELN leadership on the same plane as the paramilitaries.  And they have implicitly accepted it for the moment.  In Petro’s discourse Colombia is a violent country and there is no way to understand it and peace has to be made with everyone as they are all the same, the insurgency and the narcos.  Not even Santos was that creative in delegitimising the guerrillas.  Mancuso took on his role and once again spoke of the land they had stolen, the disappeared etc.  He has been telling us for two decades now that tomorrow he will reveal all, but tomorrow never comes.

When Uribe invited Mancuso to the Congress of the Republic, Petro had a different attitude.  His response was blunt and he described Uribe as a president that was captured by the paramilitaries and that Mancuso manipulated the Congress stating that “if under this flag of peace, dirtied by cocaine what is essentially been proposed is an alliance with genocidal drug traffickers and political leaders… then we are not contributing to any sort of peace.”(4)
And we end the year with a scandal.  I have on many occasions compared Petro and the PH to Samper and the Liberal Party of the 90s.  But not in my most fertile delirium could I imagine that Petro and his son would give us another Process 8000.  Samper managed to reinvent himself as a statesman and human rights defender, despite his government’s dreadful record, following the outcry over drug money in his election campaign.  He has publicly supported Petro and the PH.  Now he can advise them on how to deny what is as plain as day.  Illicit funds went into the PH’s campaign as has happened with all election campaigns.

Petro finds himself in the eye of the storm due to the manoeuvres of his son in asking for and receiving money.  His ambassador in Caracas has boasted about obtaining 15,000 million pesos [3.3 million euros] that were not reported to the authorities.  Those on the “left” who gave Petro unconditional support defend him, saying that it all happened behind his back.  The only thing left to say about that is, a little bit of respect for Samper please! He established his copyright, authorship of that expression in relation to dirty money.  They will have to come up with another one.  For the moment Petro says, I didn’t raise him, which is true.  But his son is the beneficiary of a type of political nepotism.  As was the case with Samper, the only doubt is whether Petro knew or not.  That a government which is supposedly progressive has found itself entangled in such a storm is revealing of a government in which politics is a family business.  Something similar happened to the FARC commander Iván Márquez with his nephew who turned out to be a DEA informant.

On the drugs issue it is clear that the discourse and reality do not match at any point.  Petro went to the UN to announce a new drugs policy.  He put forward various aims for his government and criticised the war on drugs.(5) It seems like a bad joke that the said policy has not yet been published.  What we have seen is that the fumigations continue, the Yanks smile on and occasionally there is talk of going after the big fish, without saying who they are.  We know that he is not talking about the banks, and less still of the European companies that supply the precursor chemicals.  The big fish will turn out to be middle ranking thugs in the cities of Colombia, at best.

So, it has been a year that wasn’t that different to others.  Yes, there were changes, some proposal or other that was half interesting, but even the right wing does that occasionally.  The vote of confidence cast in the ballot box is still waiting to see the promised changes.  But we increasingly see a government without a clear aim and reinventing old policies as new ones, with the same results as before.


(1)  Infobae (06/08/2023) Petro se defendió por los casos de los presos del Paro Nacional: “Como si yo encarcelara o pudiera liberar”. Juan Camilo Rodríguez Parrado.

(2)  Pares (11/10/2023) Cambio de aviso: gobierno Petro echa para atrás desmonte del Esmad. Miguel Ángel Rubio Ospina.ás-desmonte-del-esmad

(3)  Portafolio (18/01/2023) El plan que propone Petro para lograr inversión en energías limpias.

(4)  See

(5)  See

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