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Petro under siege as progress creeps forward

Colombia’s first left-leaning government has faced subversion from the murderous right-wing elite it deposed, but it has not stopped moving forward with the peace process and social reforms needed, writes NICK MacWILLIAM

AS THE head of the first progressive government in Colombian history and following a 30-year political career challenging the right-wing oligarchy, Gustavo Petro was aware of the intense opposition his administration would encounter upon taking office in August 2022.

It has proven as much. A strong opposition block in congress formed of traditional elites, conservatives and the far right has fought tooth and nail to block Petro’s coalition, the Historic Pact, from enacting an ambitious agenda that seeks to redistribute wealth and build peace in a country where inequality and armed conflict remain daily realities in many communities.

With land and economic resources concentrated among a privileged minority, successive neoliberal governments implemented free-market reforms that sank millions into severe economic hardship.

When in mid-2021 the hard-right Ivan Duque government deployed security forces to kill, torture and maim unarmed youths as they demanded fairer social conditions, the clamour for change propelled Petro into government just over one year later.

Since the historic election, powerful political groups — primarily drawn from business, landowning and military sectors — have sought to obstruct the government agenda, with some degree of success. One main avenue of disruption has been through the office of former attorney-general Francisco Barbosa, whose term ended in February.

A close ally and appointee of former president Duque, Barbosa shielded another former president, Alvaro Uribe — the figurehead of Colombian right-wing militarism — from witness-tampering investigations linked to longstanding suspicions of collusion with paramilitary death squads in the 1990s, while governor of the Antioquia regional department.

Elected president in 2002, Uribe’s eight-year government saw massive human rights abuses by state forces, including the murders of over 6,400 civilians presented as guerillas killed in combat; known as the “false positives” scandal, this is one of the major investigations under way by the transitional justice court.

Uribe’s Democratic Centre party bitterly opposed the 2016 peace agreement with the Farc guerillas, co-ordinating the successful No vote in that October’s peace plebiscite, and appeared to be on a resurgence with the election of Duque, Uribe’s handpicked candidate, two years later.

As anticipated on the left, Duque’s government saw the militarisation of volatile regions, alongside disregard for the peace agreement — fuelling the proliferation of armed groups — and oversaw a surge in inequality through neoliberal consolidation and a response to the pandemic widely condemned by the trade union movement. Police and army killings of civilians rose, protected by impunity.

Barbosa’s presence in one of the country’s most important institutions ensured the continued influence of “Uribismo” in domestic politics, despite the right’s favoured candidate finishing a distant third in the 2022 election. In Petro’s first year, Barbosa refused to accede to the president’s calls to free young protesters imprisoned over the 2021 protests despite criticism from the UN and elsewhere.

He delayed lifting arrest warrants on senior commanders of armed groups, thereby compromising their legal security and throwing the government’s Total Peace initiative of negotiations into jeopardy. While conducting a public feud with Petro, Barbosa attempted to shelve any investigation into Uribe over alleged witness manipulation: the witnesses in question were jailed paramilitaries whom Uribe had reportedly bribed to deny any relationship between them.

As Barbosa’s term neared its end, he adopted a maximalist confrontational approach to government allies. In January this year, his office ordered a raid on the Federation of Colombian Educators (Fecode), one of the country’s largest trade unions, on spurious accusations of its support for the Petro campaign.

Another Duque ally, Inspector General Margarita Cabello, instigated the removal of Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva. Barbosa’s string of nefarious actions, aligned with the Supreme Court’s delay in appointing a successor drawn from Petro’s three-woman shortlist, provoked protests from government supporters, with conservative media absurdly stigmatising these as counter-democratic.

Finally, on March 12 this year, Luz Adriana Camargo was named Colombia’s new attorney-general, wasting little time in setting an opposite course to Barbosa.

On April 9, her office announced that it intended to put Uribe on trial over the witness manipulation allegations: the date, Colombia’s National Day of Conflict Victims, was significant, stirring hopes that justice could finally catch up with the man believed responsible for some of modern Colombia’s bloodiest episodes.

If it wasn’t already, the motive behind the right’s desperation to maintain control of the Attorney General’s Office — now relinquished — was clear.

Meanwhile, the government presses ahead with its Total Peace strategy to pursue negotiated settlements with armed groups, vital to ending the violence that has killed over 1,500 social activists and more than 420 former Farc members since 2016 and which continues to forcibly displace tens of thousands — predominantly African-Colombian and Indigenous people — from their land each year.

Social reform Bills on healthcare, labour rights, pensions and education remain under debate in congress as Historic Pact lawmakers attempt to upend the historic inequalities that have fuelled instability. With the 2026 presidential election, in which Petro is ineligible to stand, looming on the horizon, the success of Total Peace and the social reforms will be pivotal to hopes for a continuation of progressive governance in Colombia.
 
Nick MacWilliam is Trade Union and Programmes Officer at Justice for Colombia (www.justiceforcolombia.org).

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