Colombia’s Petro faces steady opposition during first 100 days

Anti-Petro protestors in Bogotá's Plaza de Bolívar. Photo: Lex Treinen.

Some 200 demonstrators marched on Saturday from Bogotá’s Parque Nacional to Plaza Bolívar, the latest anti-Petro demonstrations following a recent massive tax reform bill and just days before peace talks with the National Liberation Army – ELN – guerrilla are set to begin.

The COP$20 billion tax bill finalized last week raises taxes on wealthier Colombians, adds taxes to processed foods and sugary drinks, and adds income tax to oil and mineral revenues, among others. Many demonstrators expressed concern over the effect of the new taxes. “That’s what we can’t understand,” said Stefan Bravo Martínez, one of the demonstrators. “They hike taxes on the businesses, and it’s the consumers that end up paying.” Martínez wore a suit jacket, jeans, and a baseball cap and carried a sign that read “An ex-guerilla doesn’t represent me,” referring to President Gustavo Petro’s history as a combatant of the M-19 guerilla in the 1980s.

Other demonstrators called the Petro government “communist” and compared him to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. “They’re trying to destroy the middle class,” said protestor Alda Lucía Betacur Velázquez. “They only want there to be a low-low-class.” The tax reform raises income tax on those making more than COP$10 million (approx $2,000 USD) per month, which the government estimates would affect about 2 per cent of Colombians.

The protest was coordinated by a coalition of right wing opposition groups called Mesa Nacional Por La Libertad. It followed on the heels of two previous days of marches.

Saturday’s demonstration was conducted peacefully, and as it reached the city’s central Plaza Bolivar, fewer than 100 people remained. A handful of pro-Petro demonstrators stood in the background shouting at the marchers, separated by a group of district mediators.

The tax reform bill was overwhelmingly approved by both chambers of the legislature, and despite steps towards an ambitious agenda, Petro’s approval rating has dropped below 50% after 100 days in office, according to recent polls released by Guarumo (48,7%), and Invamer (49,7%).

Some of Petro’s economic programs have frightened investors, and the Colombian peso remains near record lows compared with the US dollar, trading close to COP$5,000 per dollar.

The tax reform bill will help pay the government’s agenda of “Total Peace,” social justice, and environmental efforts. The Petro government recently released an outline of its development plan for his four-year term that emphasizes reducing inequality through wealth redistribution and environmental programs.

As part of his “Total Peace” plan to negotiate with all remaining illegal armed groups, peace talks with the ELN begin Monday in Caracas, Venezuela. Colombia only recently normalized relations with the far-left government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Venezuela’s participation as a guarantor nation is seen as key to the success of the negotiations.

Right wing groups have been skeptical of Petro’s “Total Peace” agenda, fearing that it could result in amnesty for the country’s last remaining Marxist guerillas, as well as FARC dissidents. To placate critics, Petro recently named José Felix Lafaurie, president of Colombia’s cattle ranching union, Fedegán, to be part of the government’s peace delegation. The move has surprised many, and was even criticized by several ELN commanders and far right politicians. The start of the upcoming peace talks with ELN, however, was not a clarion call in Saturday’s demonstration.

It’s not clear what effect, if any, Saturday’s marches had on the government. Demonstrators offered a wide variety of demands, some calling for the immediate resignation of the president, and others, just asking for more dialogue with the opposition.