By Juan Esteban Lewin, EL PAÍS America, August 16, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
He presented the financial reform bill, opened paths to re-establish relations with Venezuela and negotiate with the principal remaining guerrillas, and confronted the first scandal with a dsignated Minister he had appointed. On Sunday, August 7, at his inauguration, he not only said that he was starting out with “the Colombia of the possible”, his second opportunity. “Starting now we begin the work so that more impossibles can be possibles in Colombia,” he promised.
He did that with a week full of events, decisions, and novelties. “Petro has done more in a week than Duque did in four years,” is the summary by Carlos Suárez, a political analyst and consultant.
The next day, before noon, his economic and international policies were already under way. The recently inaugurated Finance Minister, José Antonio Ocampo, had already presented in Congress a fiscal reform bill that sets down his messages of fighting against inequality and his commitments on the environment, public health, and gender equality; and Petro had met with the President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, the picture of the beginning of the new Latin American axis of the left.
In the next days, he got started with some other of his policies. He initiated the re-establishment of relations with Venezuela, broken off by his predecessor Iván Duque, by appointing Armando Benedetti, his right hand in his presidential campaign, as Ambassador in Carácas. He sent a commission to Cuba, headed by his Minister of Foreign Relations and his High Commissioner for Peace to re-open dialogs with the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army. He appointed a new command staff of the military and the Police, and announced a change in the evaluation of their performance. He opened to the public the plaza that separates the Presidential Palace from the Congressional building, a space that had been closed for a decade.
Along with those decisions, he turned to communicating his intentions. He ordered his Ministers to eliminate the “parallel payroll” (individuals hired outside of an entity’s payroll but who work at the entity). He traveled first to Chocó, a poor and marginalized area, before he traveled to any large city, and spoke in Cartagena at a major meeting of the private sector, the Colombian Business Congress, which organizes the National Business Association of Colombia. There he defended his tax reform bill and presented his economic policy, more centered on industrial production than on services, and with more leadership from the government.
Several of his Ministers abetted this shower of announcements, following the logic that “communicating is governing”. For example, in the same Business Congress where Ocampo himself and his colleague at Commerce, Germán Umaña, presented the business owners with the re-opening with Venezuela as a great opportunity to do business, Irene Vélez from Mining and Energy reiterated to various media representatives the idea of slowing down the exploitation of hydrocarbons and changing in a few years to the generation of energy from cleaner sources. Gloria Inés Ramírez, from Labor, proposed increasing workers’ rights: for example, extending the hours in which they must receive a higher salary as a surcharge for working nights. Patricia Ariza, from Culture, proposed changing the name of her Ministry to Culture, Art, and Knowledge, reflecting the diversity that belongs to the new left.
In all of this, even in the decisions which have annoyed powerful sectors like big business and the military, none of the most extreme fears have materialized. “They were expecting that he would start the first day to do craziness, and that at the end of a week, there would be no gas in the pumps nor food in the supermarkets, and the “front line” would be patrolling the streets,” explained analyst Andrés Mejía Vergnaud. And that’s not what happened.
In fact, in spite of how lively the first week was, Mejía recalls that the new President didn’t do some of the things that he had announced in the campaign, like “the immediate increase in tariffs, the declaration of an economic emergency, and the immediate suspension of exploration of hydrocarbons on the first day.” All in all, for him, “the net balance was positive.”
Even though he started out with a bang, Petro’s first walk was not free of obstacles.
For one thing, as is natural, some of his decisions didn’t please everybody. For example, the business group received his tax bill with concern, and the military was annoyed that that their service records would be graded on their ability to avoid massacres, and they even felt that it was a way of detaching his own political responsibility for avoiding massacres and leaving it in their hands.
This kind of disagreement can be expected when an administration comes in to change things. But others show that some decisions had not been completely made, or that Petro had not foreseen their effects.
The most evident is that only in the very morning of his inauguration did he finish announcing who his ministers would be, and even then there were no appointments to key positions like the Department of Social Prosperity, which manages the government subsidies to the poorest families.
In addition, among those that he did reveal that Sunday, there were at least two ministers who were controversial, part of the quota to be chosen from the traditional political parties that campaigned against Petro.
One of them, the Conservative, Guillermo Reyes, has no experience in the post to which Petro appointed him (transportation). Also, after it began to be rumored that he would be in the cabinet, several weeks ago, an accusation against him was revived: that he had plagiarized the work of the now-dead constitutionalist, Juan Fernando Jaramillo. In spite of that, Reyes maintained the support of the Conservative Party caucus, and Petro, who had already hired him as an attorney when he was Mayor of Bogotá, supported his swearing in.
That was the least serious scandal. The more serious one led to Mery Gutiérrez being suspended as Minister of Information Technology and Communication (TIC) as representative of the U Party. Gutiérrez, little known until now, had been the partner of politician and journalist Hollmann Morris, who is very close to Petro, and she didn’t have much political support from the U Party. As soon as her appointment was made known, several members of the media, including the journalist Daniel Coronell, revealed that Gutiérrez was the principal stockholder and manager of a company that had sued an entity that depended on the TIC Ministry for 45 billion pesos (a little more than USD $10,000,000) and that also had promised part of the stock of the company to an official in a Mayor’s Office who had given the company some big contracts.
The President froze the appointment, but has not appointed anyone else or explained what happened. Neither has he said what would be done to manage the National Planning Department (DNP in Spanish), the entity in charge of structuring the road map for the administration, the National Development Plan, and administering all the funds that will be invested. He had announced the appointment of César Ferrari, an economics professor of Peruvian origin, who can only be sworn in if he renounces his Peruvian and Italian nationalities. Ferrari told EL PAÍS that he does not plan to do that.