Faculty Voices

Episode 30: The Challenges Facing Gustavo Petro's Colombia

Episode Summary

In the wake of Gustavo Petro’s August 7 inauguration, Alisha Holland, Associate Professor in Harvard’s Government Department who specializes in the Andean region, talks about the challenges facing the incoming left-leaning government. In a wide-ranging interview from Bogotá, she discusses his cabinet and such issues facing his government as land and police reform, security issues, health care and the environment.

Episode Transcription

June Carolyn Erlick:

Alisha Holland is an associate professor in the government department at Harvard who specializes in the Andean region. Alisha, welcome to Faculty Voices.

Alisha Holland:

Thanks so much, June. It's wonderful to be here.

June Carolyn Erlick:

Well, we've a lot to talk about today. Gustavo Petro will be inaugurated this August 7th as Colombia's first left-leaning president. What's the significance of this?

Alisha Holland:

Well, it's huge for the country. And there have been so many election cycles where Petro was a candidate himself, or the sense was that the left really had no chances in Colombia due to the civil war and the stigma against the left in Colombia.

Alisha Holland:

And so, to have a politician come to power, who himself was a former guerrilla, part of M-19, and really running on a left-wing platform, also with a Black Afro descendant vice president, is a huge transformation for a country that's been governed by the center right, or right for democratic history.

June Carolyn Erlick:

So, what made the difference here? How did he get elected?

Alisha Holland:

On the one hand, to his credit. He's had years of work in politics. I mean, people will say Petro is a populist, but he is not an outsider to the political system. He has been working on his platform for many years. He's also in many ways learned, I think in this election we saw, to negotiate a set of alliances with more established politicians. That proved very important in mobilizing turnout in the second round of the election.

Alisha Holland:

And then also, a lot of people would say that his vice president, Francia Marquez, who really also turned out voters, both young voters who had previously been very disengaged in a country that doesn't have compulsory voting, and also indigenous Black marginalized groups who really identified with Marquez's personal story and charisma.

Alisha Holland:

So, I think both Petro's own transformation and ability to negotiate alliances and work in the political system, and then his alliance with Francia Marquez turned out to be really critical in the second round of the elections.

June Carolyn Erlick:

So, what is her symbolic role in this government?

Alisha Holland:

She, in terms of position, will be running a new ministry of equality. And the campaign really emphasized a rhetoric around dignity or this phrase that she had, Vivir Sabroso, which people mocked as being to live fully and oh, she wants to get to the presidential palace, but she very much defended as about being a call that every Colombian should have a dignified life.

Alisha Holland:

And this new ministry is really going to be in charge of creating conditions of greater equality. She is single mother as well. And it's meant to also be supporting single mothers and giving them a vital minimum to live on.

Alisha Holland:

And so, I think that she is really emphasizing the rights and position the dignified lives of many Colombians who feel like they've never had a voice in government and are often neglected by the political system.

June Carolyn Erlick:

And what about her role as an environmental activist?

Alisha Holland:

Well, here's where I think, and we'll probably dig into this. There are more questions about the compromises that Petro has had to make to win power and also to build a governing coalition.

Alisha Holland:

So, just today, for instance, there was the announcement of the new ministry of transportation, Yir Moris, who was also the controversial figure because he was the lawyer for Ashanti gold mines in South Africa, which was precisely the mining company that Francia had protested in her home municipality in Cauca.

Alisha Holland:

So, there were questions about, is this going to be a government that continues to defend environmental rights, that maintains all of its promises to stop extractive projects in the country, or are the necessities of politics going to force a certain moderation and the presence of figures that might also dilute some of the hopes of the environmental movement?

June Carolyn Erlick:

Could you parse his cabinet for us for a minute?

Alisha Holland:

Sure. So, there's lots to talk about here. Perhaps let's start on the economic side where some of his early appointments came. So, many people were worried, a leftist president that they're going to be a huge outflow of investors and economic fears about seeing the appropriate things.

Alisha Holland:

And early on, Petro signaled that he was going to have mainstream conventional macroeconomic policies. So, he named Jose Antonio Ocampo as his finance minister. He was a previous finance minister, played key roles at Colombia Central Bank, and I think has a social orientation that is well within the Colombian establishment.

Alisha Holland:

On the one hand, this was seen as him reassuring markets, but also still maintaining some of his leftist credentials. That was an early appointment. And then, probably the other really significant appointment, which has been much more controversial, was the naming of Ivan Velasquez as the minister of defense.

Alisha Holland:

Many herald Velasquez as this principal. He's an accomplished jurist. He played a pivotal role in uncovering the parapolitica scandal in Colombia. And then, he served as the UN commissioner for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

Alisha Holland:

And on the one hand, a surprise to see him as defense minister. I think many people anticipated him perhaps in the justice ministry. But putting him in the defense ministry was really this direct confrontation with the armed forces.

Alisha Holland:

On the other hand, many people were very excited about the appointment. It shows Petro is serious about tackling corruption and tackling corruption within the armed forces, which is a very sensitive topic.

Alisha Holland:

On the other hand, there are all of these questions about, will he be able to reduce rural violence or urban violence, or how is this going to interact with his ability to actually maintain security in the country? So, that was a really interesting appointment.

Alisha Holland:

And so, what I would say is his appointments more generally, some of them have been expected, like Carolina Corcho in the health ministry. Others have shown him really broadening his alliance structure. So, for example, former presidential candidate Alejandro Gaviria was tapped as minister of education.

Alisha Holland:

And then, as I mentioned, perhaps the most controversial and recent appointment was the minister of transportation, which many see as an indication that the conservative party is actually really close to joining the governing coalition, which shows you just the breadth of alliances that Petro has negotiated to both gain power, and then looking forward, gain a congressional majority through which he's going to be able to govern.

June Carolyn Erlick:

What you're describing seems to be rather measured although unusual appointments. What about the rest of the cabinet?

Alisha Holland:

I mean, I think that some of them, they're big question marks still about how far they're going to go in key areas. So, for example, one of the big themes on the campaign trail was around the reform of the health system.

Alisha Holland:

Carolina Corcho, his appointment as minister of health, has made very controversial statements about eliminating the HMO system in Colombia, the EPSes. And then, she's called them neoliberal and exploitative intermediaries. And the real question's about whether Petro is going to spend his political capital doing really large structural overhaul of the health system.

Alisha Holland:

The big question there is also, what would replace the current health system? So, Corcho has favored a very decentralized health system, giving municipalities and governors more control over the health system. That has a lot of other people nervous in a country that has a lot of inequality and a lot of questions about the ability of less capable municipalities to manage the resources involved in health system.

Alisha Holland:

So, that's an area where there's really big questions about how far is Petro going to go in terms of his progressive agenda. And really, what are the priorities going to be for a president who promised change in so many areas? And as I've talked about negotiating all of these alliances, each of these reforms is going to require major political capital.

Alisha Holland:

And so, I think one of the big questions watching these appointments is, which are the areas where he's really going to push farther to the left and maybe spend a lot of time negotiating these complex reforms? And which are the areas where frankly things are going to get toned down a bit?

Alisha Holland:

So, for example, Ocampo, the ministry of finance and there already is really almost hilarious early interviews with Ocampo where he didn't even seem to know Petro's program. People asked him about, "Well, is Petro going to complete his promise to provide a job to everyone who isn't employed?" And Ocampo said, "The government's not the employer of last resort.", and said this crazy idea.

Alisha Holland:

So, that's one area where you can immediately see Petro is going to be rolling back some of his campaigning promises. And then, there are other areas like defense, police reform, corruption and health where you really see, huh, is Petro really going to fight on this? And are we going to see a much more radical proposal going forward?

June Carolyn Erlick:

Do you have any sense at all about how he is going to prioritize?

Alisha Holland:

I mean, I think it's still a bit of an open question. What most people expect as the first thing on the agenda is tax reform. Part of that is an economic necessity that Colombia has a large current count deficit that's recently downgraded from investment grade. But this was also the cause of protests in '21 that led the government to then retract its tax reform proposal.

Alisha Holland:

So, this is key to a more progressive economic agenda, shifting a burden to corporations, increasing the wealth tax. There are questions about how far Petro will be able to go with progressivity of his economic measures. But I think everybody is expecting a tax bill will be the first major piece of legislation we see.

Alisha Holland:

I think the second piece where there's lot of consensus and probably Petro could get an early win is around minimum pension. So, this was a promise Petro made. And Rodolfo Hernandez, his main contender, also has jumped on board in favor of this minimum pension idea. I think that's something that at the end of the day probably is not that costly and where there could be a pretty broad consensus around having some minimum pension.

Alisha Holland:

There are other areas where I think it's more questionable where they fit on the priority list. So, I would put health, police reform in those buckets, drug reform, where there's still question marks of how quickly is Petro going to move and where do they fit on the priority list.

Alisha Holland:

But I think everybody is thinking taxes and pensions could be an area where they're both critical to his platform, and at the same point, especially on pensions, could gain him a little bit of political capital.

June Carolyn Erlick:

Those are a lot of challenges. One of the things that perhaps has settled down a little bit, but the theme of fear seems to be prevalent with this new government in two senses, one is the fear because of Colombia's history that he actually might be killed. And the second is the fear on the part of the rich that this might become a new Venezuela. Could you comment on that?

Alisha Holland:

Sure. So, let me start with the second. So, I think in terms of the new Venezuela rhetoric, that has at least I think faded somewhat with some of these appointments. So, I think Ocampo, well farther to the left than some people in the Colombian establishment might like, I think is seen as a centrist figure.

Alisha Holland:

The new director of the tax agency maybe again is farther to the left, pushing a more radical wealth tax than many Colombians are potentially comfortable with. But the reality is that congress needs to approve the tax though.

Alisha Holland:

And I think that when you see the extent to which Petro is negotiating these alliances, he's probably going to hit some compromise that is not going to threaten Colombian elites as much as those on the left would hope. On the other hand, probably reassuring some investors.

Alisha Holland:

In the economic fear category, it's not that people aren't wondering what the rate of the wealth tax is going to be, but I do think some of that rhetoric has faded with these appointments. And we'll see again once the tax bill comes out and I would expect it in early in Petros's term in office what we'll know more.

Alisha Holland:

And in terms of the security fears, I think that they're still real. And obviously, this confrontation with the armed forces and this appointment of Ivan Velasquez opens this question of what credibility he's going to have with the state forces and then what risks he might run if he really tries to take out on some of these structural reforms to get at these intersections between political and economic power in the country.

Alisha Holland:

On the other hand, what's interesting is you often hear right-wing politicians also trying to appropriate a lot of this language, a fear for their own lives. Some of the right-wing senators have said, "I'm being attacked and at physical risk." I think in a lot of ways, it's maybe diluted a little bit of that sense that this is really about of a credible security threat. It's still real.

Alisha Holland:

Colombia is still a country with many important armed groups and centers of power that are going to be confronted by the Petro government. But again, I'd say some of that immediate threat against Petro's life has softened somewhat.

June Carolyn Erlick:

How do you see him as working with left-leaning governments in the region?

Alisha Holland:

At this point, I think we're still in this stage of formalities. And so, in that sense, I think there are a lot of open questions about who his close allies are going to be. We're still trying to parse what exactly his negotiations with Venezuela look like, which is a very important relationship for Colombia in terms of the management of the migration crisis and the border regions.

Alisha Holland:

And you've seen congratulations coming in from Cuba to the more radical left-leading leaders in the region. But at the same point, those attending his inauguration will include many of the major more mainstream president. So, I'd say that question is still somewhat open in terms of who his close allies really proved to be in the region.

Alisha Holland:

But what I would say is watching his alliance structures he's negotiated, it's clear that he's not going to be trying to rule by decree like some of the less democratic left-wing leaders in the region. He is building what is a very conventional Colombian grand coalition, which already is positioning him closer to left-wing leaders in countries like Chile than potentially a more autocratic counterparts in Venezuela or Nicaragua.

June Carolyn Erlick:

You've mentioned some really big issues like drugs. Could you talk about his stance on drugs?

Alisha Holland:

On the one hand, Colombia is the center of drug policy for the Americas. And there have been back and forth on questions such as aerial fumigation and stock briefly during the Santos government. But by and large, Colombia had long been a good actor and ally to the US in trying to fight the war on drugs by managing the supply.

Alisha Holland:

Petro has said many times that there needs to be a structural rethinking of drug policy. And this is joined by many leaders in the region, even more center right leaders like Brazil's former president, Cardoso.

Alisha Holland:

What would this look like? And what's possible in Colombia? So, one part of it is probably going to be going back to prohibiting aerial fumigation and not participating in those efforts that are seen as both damaging to the livelihoods of rural Colombian, and also having important health consequences.

Alisha Holland:

Second piece is part of Petro's broader attempt to diversify Colombia's economy. So, I think you're going to see more support for crop substitution programs, land redistribution, trying to rethink what is the model through which peasants, rural Colombians can make a dignified living that doesn't depend on drugs.

Alisha Holland:

And then, the third pillar in that is really trying to think about legalization and regulation policies. So, Petro, at various times, has talked about Bolivia and parts of Peru that have legalized coca for certain purposes, and also thinking about broader regulations around coca derived products.

Alisha Holland:

How far, again, in this grand alliance structure Petro could go particularly on the legalization side I think remains to be seen. I think the earlier issues like stopping aerial fumigation, greater support for crop diversification, are easier, but they could be part of a much more ambitious attempt to really say Colombia has been fighting a war on behalf of US and Europe that continue to consume cocaine and large quantities.

Alisha Holland:

And it's not actually helping Colombia or helping Colombia's world economy. And so, in that, I think that it's possible to imagine a really different set of policies to regulate and legalize parts of the coca-derived market.

June Carolyn Erlick:

Do you see this issue as possibly affecting relations with the United States?

Alisha Holland:

Obviously, the war on drugs is central to the aims of the United States. I think again, it depends how far Colombia ends up going down this path, something like stopping aerial fumigation. That was a sore point even under Santos. I think at this point, the US probably is expecting it under Petro.

Alisha Holland:

I think the question of what legalization ends up looking like in Colombia will I think have a huge impact on how the US receives it. I mean, legalizing coca tea is one thing versus trying to regulate a cocaine market internally.

Alisha Holland:

This is something Latin American leaders have been talking about in terms of really saying that the war on drugs is creating lots of violence, and that Latin American countries have been doing this dirty work for the United States and Europe for a long time. And I think it's right to see a shift in this arena, but the question is really how far does one go towards legalization and what regulatory policies Petro would try to put in place?

June Carolyn Erlick:

You mentioned before the big issue of oil, of renewable energy, of environmental policy. How do you see that playing out in Petro's administration?

Alisha Holland:

Sure. So, this is an area where Petro and his vice president, Francia Marquez, need important campaign commitments. So, Petro said that he was going to stop new exploration projects. And this is one area where I think investors were very nervous.

Alisha Holland:

And obviously in selecting Francia Marquez, who has these important environmental credentials, the sense was also that communities were going to have a much larger say in new projects, potentially even strengthening mechanisms like prior consultation that give indigenous and Black communities the right to participate in decisions about extractive projects.

Alisha Holland:

And in this area, I would say there are questions about how far Petro's administration is going to go in maintaining his campaign promises. On the one hand, the commitment to diversify Colombia's energy portfolio to invest in new green projects I think will be very present in his national development plan, which is a document that outlines his priorities.

Alisha Holland:

On the other hand, he's also going to hit some important roadblocks as he thinks about this promise to stop new exploration and break Colombia's dependence on oil and fossil fuels. And you can see this really clearly in the tense relationship that is starting to develop with Colombia's state oil company, Ecopetrol.

Alisha Holland:

So, the former president, Duque, on his way out the door, named a new board of Ecopetrol, which Petro would then have to go through this extraordinary procedure to remove and change. And Ecopetrol has a lot of autonomy, which means that although it may take on board a lot of the push to explore new green energy sources, it also may continue many more traditional exploration projects either in Colombia or abroad.

Alisha Holland:

And likewise, when you look at something like his appointment of this new minister of transportation, who defended gold mines and does not have strong environmental credentials, one has to wonder what respect for local communities and prior consultation procedures are going to look like in this new government. The minister of transportation runs important infrastructure projects that can conflict with the desires of local communities.

Alisha Holland:

So, here's where his environmental agenda is going to hit some important stakeholders at a time, the real fiscal demands on the state where Petro needs to find revenue sources for all of these ambitious social programs. And so, the extent to which he's going to be willing to sacrifice oil as a source of revenue to fund his social agenda I think is an open question.

June Carolyn Erlick:

Do you think the war in Ukraine will have a direct impact on that?

Alisha Holland:

Well, there are two important global events going on, war Ukraine and rising energy prices is certainly one of them. So, Colombia, I think compared to other Latin American countries, hasn't seen prices at the pump rising as much, but that's largely because it still produces enough oil that that energy impact is less than some other Latin American countries that don't have oil reserves of their own.

Alisha Holland:

So, I think on the one hand, Petro is seeing the important social buffer of still having independent energy sources. So, again, he'll push to diversify, but maybe he will be unable to honor all of his commitments that is dependent on fossil fuels.

Alisha Holland:

And on the other hand, the thing that is a really big issue right now in the fallout of the global pandemic is inflation. Inflation is running at about 9% in Colombia, which like a lot of Latin American countries is hitting more vulnerable sectors very hard.

Alisha Holland:

And so, it's a time that there are a lot of economic and social demands and high expectations of this government's social policies to address quality of life issues and cost of living issues.

Alisha Holland:

And so, I think those issues are going to be top of the agenda and whether they push out other environmental concerns. I don't think they will entirely, but I think there are real tensions in some areas that he's going to have to confront.

June Carolyn Erlick:

You mentioned before the appointment of the minister of defense. Colombia is a country that on paper is at peace and yet many social activists, many hundreds have been killed in the last year. Is Petro going to be able to do something about that? What is the situation in regards to war and peace?

Alisha Holland:

Colombia did negotiate a really important piece agreement with the FARC. The sense was that the Duque government did not fulfill many of those commitments in the peace deal, especially around issues like rural land reform. And also, the transformation of the Colombian countryside, where many of the killings of social activists have occurred, really have been incomplete.

Alisha Holland:

There's a huge scandal going on around the corruption and stealing of funds destined for projects in war-torn areas. And I think it's just part of this broader sense that those commitments to rural areas haven't been honored both on the security front and then also on the economic front. And so, Petro has a lot to do there.

Alisha Holland:

The concern and naming Velasquez is that he won't have this full backing of the armed forces to really deploy in rural areas to provide that security guarantee to social activists.

Alisha Holland:

On the other hand, those who are optimistic about this appointment really do see it as maybe a turning point for a new security model, where the sense was Duque's governance basic approach was to take military actions against some of the top commanders of illicit groups. And it really hasn't worked at all. It hasn't provided that security to especially human rights defenders and social activists.

Alisha Holland:

And so, when you think about Petro's broader approach, there's something potentially really transformative which is to say, "Maybe he does some amount of drug policy reform that can deny criminal groups some of the rents coming from illicit crops."

Alisha Holland:

Second, with Velazquez's appointment, you have a commitment to root out corruption in the armed forces, which could break some of the linkages between criminal groups and the state, which allow some of these killings of activists to occur.

Alisha Holland:

And then, these are the plan which we don't know what's going to happen with is police reform, where there've been some pretty important proposals to move Colombia's national police force, which is currently in the ministry of defense, into a civilian ministry. And to really say that there's a need to rethink relationships between communities and the police.

Alisha Holland:

So, there's this huge agenda around security, but it can easily go awry. And there's a real question about an appointment like Velazquez of, will he have this political capital to undertake reforms of the armed forces and the police and drug policy in a way that actually could make the Colombian countryside at peace?

June Carolyn Erlick:

Well, talking about the Colombian countryside, I was really surprised to read that Colombia imports about 30% of the food it consumes, including cereals, corn, rice, beans, potatoes. Could you talk a little bit about Petro's position on agrarian reform?

Alisha Holland:

Colombia has some of the highest rates of land inequality in Latin America. And this is an extreme statistic because Latin America has some of the highest rates of land inequality in the world. And the criticism has long been. And this is also at the root of Colombia's armed conflict that land holdings are concentrated among a very small class of elites.

Alisha Holland:

And the land is not used in the most productive way. There's lots of land that's held for purely speculative purposes or not fully cultivated. Internationally, Colombia has an entire region, Los Llanos, which is one of the few underdeveloped agricultural producer areas in the region on the border with Venezuela.

Alisha Holland:

And so, the sense in what Petro has always said is that Colombia needs to democratize land ownership. And that if more people held land and were cultivating it to its fullest, Colombia could transform into a much more important agricultural producer, serving both the domestic market and internationally.

Alisha Holland:

And the other piece of that which you're highlighting is that Petro's big rhetoric has also been around the diversification of the economy. And so, Colombia as you know, it's an agriculture exporter of some very important crops, coffee, flowers, many fruits. But as you say, that often crowds out other crops and other potential exports, and also things to serve the domestic market.

Alisha Holland:

Now, land reform is a very touchy subject that has failed numerous times in Colombia's history. And so, there's both a question of whether Petro has the political will to undertake this type of redistribution of land, especially when you see the liberal and the conservative parties potentially joining his government.

Alisha Holland:

And also, whether it has the administrative capacities. Many of the promises of the peace deal have been on hold, not just because of the resistance of the Duque government, but because rural land titles are a mess. And it is very hard to figure out what land has been surrendered to who, how it could be retitled and repurposed for productive uses.

Alisha Holland:

Who is actually on the land versus what exists on paper are two totally different things. And so, bringing the full capacity of the state to bear on reorganizing rural land ownership is a big task, but one that Petro has always spoken about the need to undertake.

June Carolyn Erlick:

As you've mentioned several times, Petro is trying to bring together a coalition of politicians to make sure he can get through his economic tax and land reforms. What are the primary obstacles?

Alisha Holland:

The wealthy are a major force. So, as we've talked about tax reform, a major obstacle is going to be really shifting the tax burden onto the wealthy. Petro has talked about a wealth tax. He has talked about raising corporate tax rates.

Alisha Holland:

And the argument is similar to many other countries, where you will hear strong pushback, "This is going to kill entrepreneurship. And the people who do the most for the country are going to move their money abroad to Miami and not invent things anymore in Colombia."

Alisha Holland:

And so, that's probably going to put a limit on what these rates are. And those forces have congressional representation. So, if you think about the liberal and the conservative party, those are Colombia's historic parties now that they're the only parties that represent wealthy Colombians. But if he needs votes in congress for a very progressive tax bill, he will need those parties to go along. So, that's going to be a major obstacle and limit.

Alisha Holland:

Petro, like Biden and many other administrations, has also said part of the effort is going to be to collect existing taxes better using electronic data systems, monitoring financial flows. That's all on the agenda.

Alisha Holland:

And given some of those measures don't need to go through congress, I think they're actually more likely to be successful. So, I'd watch what happens in the tax administration side, as well as the tax reform bill that ultimately passes. But those are going to be challenges for sure.

June Carolyn Erlick:

Will Petro be able to govern?

Alisha Holland:

I think that he's showing that he will be able to govern. The question is, will he be able to govern as a left-wing progressive leader? So, I think for a lot of people, the appointments have been very mixed. A good chunk of the cabinet looks like these are positions that were negotiated to maintain alliances that will allow him to govern.

Alisha Holland:

And a good portion of the cabinet says this was negotiated with factions of his own coalition that want him to keep important campaign promises. And whether he can actually put together an agenda that can really thread that needle and be progressive enough to satisfy the left, and yet moderate enough to actually make it through congress and democratic channels I think is going to be the challenge.

Alisha Holland:

And the risk is that he's going to disappoint both groups in the sense. He's already watering down many of his leftist promises, angering some environmentalists, angering some more economic progressives.

Alisha Holland:

And on the other hand, he's also ruffling the feathers of important segments of the establishment like the military, the health sector. And so, the question is, does that come out as a perfect median point where he can do a left-wing agenda and get it through democratic institutions, or does that end as a failure that disappoints both sides? We will see.

June Carolyn Erlick:

You've been listening to Alisha Holland. She's associate professor in Harvard's government department who specializes in the Andean region. Thank you for participating in Faculty Voices, Alisha.

Alisha Holland:

Thank you so much. This is great and fun.