“We will not give in to blackmail”: Colombians defend government and progressive reforms

Colombia’s right has launched a coordinated attack on the government of progressive President Gustavo Petro

June 07, 2023 by Zoe Alexandra
Colombian President Gustavo Petro addresses the mobilization in support of the social reforms and against the "soft coup attempt". Photo: Twitter

Thousands took to the streets across Colombia in support of the labor, pension, and healthcare reforms proposed by the Gustavo Petro government. The mobilization called for by the country’s major trade union confederations, including CUT and CTC, also comes in response to the destabilization campaign against the government being waged by right-wing politicians and mainstream media.

Juan Carlos Quintero, a member of the Peasant Association of Catatumbo and the National Coordination of Marcha Patriótica, told Peoples Dispatch that, “The demonstrations have been massive, in support of the current government of Gustavo Petro and the reaffirmation of popular support for a government that in its government program proposed change for Colombian society.”

Colombian congresswoman María Fernanda Carrascal, who is the sponsor of the Labor Reform, told Peoples Dispatch that, “The attacks we are receiving come from traditional political sectors linked to economic interests, which do not want changes and social reforms to take place. They have used blackmail and manipulation to pressure for reforms to be withdrawn or to be accommodated at their whim.”

In recent months, the government led by Petro and vice-president Francia Márquez presented their proposals to reform the country’s healthcare system, pensions, and labor legislation. These reforms were the cornerstone of the Historic Pact coalition’s campaign platform during the 2022 presidential elections. The historic demand from social movements in the country for expanded access to healthcare, education, dignified jobs, and pensions intensified during the 2021 uprising in Colombia wherein hundreds of thousands were on the streets across the country to demand an end to neoliberal policies in these sectors.

As progressive forces predicted, the reforms have been met with staunch opposition from the right-wing bloc in the legislature and in the media.

Former far-right president Álvaro Uribe, for example, has been especially vocal about the healthcare reform which could overturn his infamous Law 100 which paved the way for the privatization of the country’s health system. He said in March in an anti-government protest in his hometown of Medellín, “This law seeks to end the EPS (system of intermediary private insurers), tomorrow they will try to end all of these private entities. This law is the path that will bring us to what there is in Cuba, which is a disaster.”

Despite this opposition, the healthcare reform bill passed a key hurdle on May 23 when it was approved by the Seventh Commission of the House of Representatives. To become a law, the bill will have to go through three more debates and votes: one in the plenary session of the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. Meanwhile the labor and pension reforms are in the preliminary stages and have not been brought to debate in the legislature yet, but have already been widely criticized by the right-wing that has vowed to stop them from passing completely.

Carrascal affirmed that despite the hardline attitude of the right, they will continue to push for these reforms to get passed: “We have to protect the heart, the very structure of the reforms. We can make concessions on many things, we can move in negotiation as in any negotiation, and we can then compromise, but they also have to give something up.”

She added that the Colombian people have been “asking for [these reforms] for many decades. There is a need here and that is to reform pensions, health and labor.”

The anatomy of a scandal

Alongside the debates surrounding the reforms, the right-wing, in coordination with mainstream media outlet Semana Magazine, has exploited a scandal involving a domestic worker in the homes of former chief of staff Laura Sarabia and the former ambassador to Venezuela Armando Benedetti. The incident which involved the alleged theft of USD 7,000 by the worker, her alleged interrogation, and alleged wiretapping after the fact, has been used by the right-wing as ammo to call for the resignation of President Gustavo Petro.

Read more: Colombia’s opposition and right-wing media intensifies destabilization campaign against Gustavo Petro government

Right-wing media has even gone so far as to allege that the 2022 election campaign of Petro’s Historic Pact alliance was funded by drug trafficking groups. This allegation was substantiated by a Semana report which on June 4 published the audio recordings of an alleged phone conversation between Sarabia and Benedetti. Benedetti has since rejected the report and denounced that Semana the allegedly used manipulated audios.

However, former presidential candidates Rodolfo Hernández, Federico Gutiérrez, and Sergio Fajardo, among other opposition leaders, have fiercely attacked the Petro government and demanded the resignation of the head of state.

Since Semana reported the scandal, President Petro and Vice-President Francia Márquez have decisively rejected these charges. Sarabia and Benedetti have been dismissed and Petro has publicly pledged to support the inquiry.

However, the head of state has warned that the attacks are not only coordinated but also have clear political intentions, he stated: “this is a soft coup attempt to stop the fight against impunity.”

Vice-President Francia Márquez meanwhile criticized the opposition for manipulating the people by using the media against the government: “It was expected that the right-wing was not going to sit still and watch how we govern in favor of Change for Colombia. All their lives, they have manipulated and deceived the people to stay in power. That is their modus operandi.”

She added, “President Gustavo Petro, we stand firm with you and with Colombia…Let’s continue moving forward, the people do not give up.”

Regarding the intensified attacks, social leader Juan Carlos Quintero stated: “The soft coup seeks to use a strategy of disinformation from the traditional media, to generate a situation of crisis, chaos and insecurity among citizens in order to deepen baseless discontent in order to take away support to the national government.”

Defending democracy on the streets

The streets of Colombia have taken on a new role in light of the right-wing attacks. While the nature of the message has changed, progressive forces in the country have emphasized the necessity of staying on the streets, this time in defense of the government and its policies.

Carrascal, who has been active in the battle in Congress stated, “We have participated in democracy and we will continue to do so” but she adds, “we will continue to do so in the streets with social mobilization, which is what has brought us to power and through which we have achieved rights, not only for Colombians, but for humanity.”

Carrascal emphasized, “We cannot leave the streets, especially at this moment, where those economic interests and those traditional politicians seek to keep everything the same…it is very important to highlight and emphasize what the President has said, and that is that neither he will give into blackmail, and in this political project we will not give into blackmail.”

For the peasant leader Quintero, in the mobilization on June 7, “the people showed a very important endorsement of the President of the Republic, to his government.” He emphasized that “it is obviously clear that the streets are going to be a very important scenario for the defense of Colombian democracy in the next months and years to come.”

400 leaders from across the globe reject the “soft coup attempt”

On June 7, Progressive International released a letter signed by over 400 political and trade union leaders condemning the “soft coup attempt” against the government of Petro and Márquez. The letter was signed by Argentine human rights defender Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, US intellectual Noam Chomsky, member of UK parliament Claudia Webb, and Gleisi Hoffmann, a member of Brazilian Congress and the president of the Workers’ Party of Brazil.

The letter condemns that “Colombia’s traditional powers have been organizing to restore an order marked by extreme inequality, environmental destruction, and state-sponsored violence.” They state that the goal of the “coordinated campaign” is clear: “protect the interests of Colombia’s traditional powers from popular reforms that would raise wages, improve healthcare, protect the environment, and deliver ‘total peace’ to the country.”