“Public anger towards the right-wing establishment paved the way for Petro to win the 2022 election on the promise of change.”
By Justice for Colombia
As Colombia’s first progressive government, the Historic Pact coalition of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez, approaches one year in office, what have been the main achievements and challenges?
Petro has attempted to introduce expansive labour and healthcare reforms to alleviate crushing living conditions that make Colombia one of Latin America’s most unequal countries. However, the president’s Historic Pact coalition lacks a parliamentary majority and has struggled to pass legislation amid strong right-wing opposition towards the progressive agenda.
The health reform aims to widen access to healthcare, particularly in rural zones where many communities lack even basic clinics, forcing the sick and injured to seek treatment at home or travel long distances. It also proposes higher wages for workers, while increasing the state’s role in managing health budgets. The health reform passed the initial hurdle in Congress and now awaits further debate.
There is less optimism around the future of the labour reform, which was blocked in Congress last month. Colombia’s appalling labour record has been documented by the International Trade Union Confederation, which frequently identifies worker rights there as among the weakest in the world.
The reform pledges to guarantee trade union rights, break down gender inequalities and strengthen employment contracts. While trade unions blasted right-wing politicians who have plunged the reform into doubt, advocates of the labour reform are planning to resubmit it in the next legislature. Millions of workers could benefit if it becomes law.
Despite the historic 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, many regions of Colombia remain racked by conflict. Having campaigned against the peace process, the previous right-wing government of President Iván Duque refused to implement important elements such as rural development and security programmes.
The new government immediately attempted to reverse the damage done but faces a huge task to consolidate peace. The Duque government’s failings have played a major role in new conflicts emerging and the human rights crisis that has killed over 1,500 social activists and 370 former FARC members since the agreement’s signing in November 2016.
In 2021, trade unions and social movements launched huge protests, known as the National Strike, over inequality, conflict and the Duque government’s disregard for the peace process. In response, police committed intense violence, killing at least 44 young people alongside other appalling abuses, such as sexual assault, deliberate eye injuries and attacks on medics and journalists.
The United Nations condemned the “disproportionate use of force” by police, yet very few officers have been held to account. By contrast, more than 180 young people are in prison, despite a lack of evidence, over their participation in the 2021 protests. They recently ended a hunger strike after the government agreed to meet them. The Attorney General, a close ally of Duque, has blocked their release.
In May 2022, a Justice for Colombia delegation met survivors of an army massacre that killed 11 people two months earlier in the southern region of Putumayo. The unprovoked attack came as residents in the village of El Remanso held a community celebration. Following the visit, alongside an international campaign for justice supported by the British and Irish trade union movements, 25 military officials are facing trial over the killings. This was just one of several human rights scandals involving the military under Duque.
Public anger towards the right-wing establishment paved the way for Petro to win the 2022 election on the promise of change. The victory was achieved through the grassroots mobilisation of rural communities, Indigenous and African-Colombian populations, young people and trade unions, energised by the vision of a fairer society.
But lacking a congressional majority, Petro needs to accommodate traditional political groups, while also attending to the urgent needs of the social movements that were fundamental to the election result. Successfully navigating this uncharted terrain will be a big test for the progressive government.