The Trials and Tribulations of Colombia’s Petro Administration

The Trials and Tribulations of Colombia’s Petro Administration

Colombia’s president is facing significant political headwinds and scandals. Critics worry that he may opt for democratic backsliding in pursuit of his agenda.

 

President Gustavo Petro’s time at the helm of Colombia thus far has come in two acts. The first began with his taking office in August 2022 and was defined by his pushing ahead on key policies and living up to the hope that his center-left government would help steer Colombia to a more peaceful, greener, and economically equitable future. Act two began with the failure to pass health care legislation in April 2023, which was followed by a cabinet reshuffle and the failure to pass other reform bills. Furthermore, a scandal broke in June involving his former chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, and his ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti blindsided the administration.

Petro is now seeking to regain momentum, but he faces a challenging political and economic landscape, which could be defined by gridlock with Congress, policy drift, and potentially opening the door to social instability. Given Colombia’s importance as a reliable U.S. partner in South America, observers and policymakers in Washington ought to pay attention to these developments.

 

The Petro Show: Acts I and II

Petro’s victory in 2022 came amid considerable excitement. A former member of M-19, a flag holder for Colombia’s Left, and mayor of Bogóta, he inspired many youthful voters and other marginalized groups who had tired of center-right and conservative governments often hit by corruption scandals, human rights violations, and a hard-nosed approach to dealing with the country’s arms-bearing radical Left. Petro was seen as a new type of Colombian leader; one that could clean up the country’s politics and enact a progressive agenda that would, among other things, pursue more eco-friendly policies (by downsizing the country’s coal and oil sectors) and orient Bogóta toward ensuring socio-economic justice.

Petro’s first act saw the formation of a broad-based cabinet, the passage of a tax reform bill, and an accord to buy land from cattle ranchers and give it to landless rural people. At the same time, he was able to bring the country’s largest remaining armed revolutionary (and drug trafficking) group, the ELN, to the negotiating table as part of his “Total Peace” policy—an ambitious plan to minimize violence, protect civilians, and dismantle the country’s many armed groups. He also restored relations with the dictatorial Maduro regime in Venezuela in 2022—a sharp change in direction that seeks to normalize the border and improve trade, departing from the approach of his predecessor, President Iván Duque.

Act two began roughly around April 2023, following the failure of his health care reform package to make it through the lower house of the country’s congress. Petro, in response, took his government leftwards. He replaced seven cabinet members with leftists, seeking to reinvigorate his reform program. Particularly noticeable was the departure of the market-friendly and internationally-respected Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo, who was seen by the country’s Left as a sop to the center-right and Right (and whose earlier support was essential to passing legislation in the Congress). He was replaced by Ricardo Bonilla, a former finance chief of Bogóta and close Petro ally.

In practice, the cabinet reshuffle is important. Petro barely won the majority of the vote on the second round (50.47 percent) and his party and allies failed to obtain a majority in either chamber of Congress, making a politically broader cabinet necessary passage of his legislation. While the president appears intent on having a more ideologically cohesive group of people around him that will pursue his agenda with greater vigor, it also sets the stage for less cooperation in Congress and potential gridlock.

The Nanny Scandal and the Family Scandal

Following the cabinet reshuffle, Petro’s administration was hit by a scandal in early June around accusations that his former chief of staff’s nanny, Marelbys Meza, had stolen a large sum of cash in a briefcase from her apartment. Meza told the media that she was taken to a basement near the presidential palace in January 2023, accused of stealing the briefcase, and forced to take a polygraph test.

The scandal quickly blossomed into a wider tangle of alleged illegal wiretapping (something Petro has previously railed against), the alleged suicide of a security officer (suspected of being involved in the wiretappings), expletive-laden leaked audio messages by Benedetti to Sarabia, and allegations of campaign finance violations (made by Bendetti and later retracted). Adding another layer of complexity to the scandal is that Meza appears to have been at the center of a bitter power struggle between Benedetti, a major conservative power broker who allied with Petro during the election, and Sarabia, who worked under Benedetti before leading Petro’s campaign. Sarabia and Benedetti were dismissed from their posts following the announcement that the attorney general’s office had commenced an investigation into the affair. Rounding out the picture, relations between Petro and his attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, are strained, with the president having accused Barbosa, who was appointed by a prior conservative government, of acting against his “change” agenda.

Petro faces other legal problems; there are accusations that his son, Nicolás Petro, might have kept donations to his father’s campaign for his own personal use (some of them allegedly from a former drug trafficker), and that the president’s brother, Juan Fernando Petro, may have received money from the country’s drug cartels. Both men have denied the allegations, but the attorney general’s office has indicated that it is investigating matters. If nothing else, this development only adds to the sense of embattlement felt by Petro and further polarizes the country between his supporters, who believe that this is part of a plot against the president, and those opposed to his progressive agenda.

The scandal has eroded public confidence, with some of the most recent opinion polls putting Petro’s popularity around 33 percent and disapproval ratings a little over 50 percent. When elected he had an approval rating of 56 percent. At the same time, Petro’s reform agenda has stalled. In June a bill to regulate the purchase, sale, and distribution of marijuana narrowly failed in the Senate, while a labor reform bill was shelved after committee members in Congress’ lower house failed to reach a quorum. The fate of two other reforms, pension, and healthcare, remains in limbo.

Where to, Colombia?

Where does Colombia head from here?

Petro sees himself first and foremost as a man of the Left, who, according to The Economist, “believes he is predestined to liberate his country from conservative elites.” He is known to be zealous, temperamental, and impulsive as well as having a tendency to radicalize rather than reconcile after disputes. Petro’s political personality is likely to be severely tested. He is increasingly facing public discontent with lackluster economic growth (with 1.0 percent real GDP projected by the International Monetary Fund for 2023) and high inflation, which is being felt in food prices. Though slowing for the third month in a row, inflation remains high by Colombian standards at 12.13 percent in June.

But that is not all. The nanny scandal has given Petro’s enemies a chance to portray him as a hypocrite, and there is also a degree of public discontent over growing insecurity in urban and rural areas. Under this scenario, there is a risk that Petro may shift his attention away from party politics and seek to take his case for reforms directly to the people hoping for them to demonstrate in favor of his proposed reforms thus pressuring Congress to act.

Frustration with the democratic process has raised the concern that Petro could seek to govern in a more autocratic and populist fashion, much like El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele. Bukele’s populist approach and hard line on law and order are seen in a positive light by increasing numbers of Latin Americans frustrated by threats to their personal safety and the corruption of entrenched political elites. Petro did beat the drum of populist change as Bogóta’s mayor and as a presidential candidate, though it has yet to be seen whether he would take steps to undermine the autonomy of institutions that could check his concentration of power.

Opinion polls are not giving Petro any relief. According to an Invamer poll released in late June, 70 percent of Colombians feel that their country is on the wrong track, 79 percent are convinced that the economy is in bad shape, and 74 percent are convinced that the corruption rates have increased. This of course is bad news for Petro, but he is not alone; Colombia’s congress has an unfavorable rating of 74 percent, the supreme court with 60 percent unfavorable, and the media at 58 percent. The institution or group seen as most unfavorable was the ELN at 89 percent.

While the Petro administration faces a challenging landscape, the political right is happy to goad Petro into moving further left to cast him as a radical of the same ilk as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, who presided over their country’s economic collapse and the exodus of seven million Venezuelans. Moreover, the peace process with the ELN remains controversial, with plenty of critics. In October 2023, Colombians will vote in gubernatorial and local elections. By stalling Petro’s reforms and goading him to become more radical the right can claim that he is an ineffectual leader and position itself as a force for law and order and economic growth with an eye to the next national elections.