Protests return to Bogotá streets as tensions rise over health “reform”

Anti-government rallies were held across Colombia after Petro presented his tax reform in 2022. Photo: Richard Emblin

President Gustavo Petro’s call for pro-government supporters, civil servants, health care professionals, teachers, unionized workers and members of left-wing parties to take to the streets on Tuesday, February 14, will be accompanied by an address at 11:00 am from the balcony of the Presidential Palace.

Petro’s use of mass mobilizations has been criticized by moderate and centrist politicians for consolidating the “figure of a caudillo,” stated former presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo. “The risk of confrontation on the street is too large,” highlighted Fajardo.

An original anti-government march had been summoned for Tuesday, but was moved back to Wednesday, after Petro decided to rally his bases on the same day. One of Petro’s outspoken critics, right-wing Senator of Centro Democrático party, Paloma Valencia, claims that by taking reforms to the “streets” without having been debated in Congress, is an act of “pure populism.” But the country’s Interior Minister Alfonso Prada disagrees. “The marches are a way of socializing the reforms to the public.”

With tensions running high over the future of the country’s largest public works project, the Bogotá Metro, and recent threats by the national government that the Colombian capital could be left without funding of other transportation infrastructure unless the first overland line of the Metro becomes a subway, many Bogotanos fear that vandals  will seize social unrest on Tuesday will target the city’s articulated bus system TransMilenio.

As residents of Bogotá face two days of protests, as well as fears that a return to social unrest on the streets of the capital will bring mobility to a standstill, Petro’s call for mobilizations appears to be repeat from his term as Mayor of Bogotá (2012-2015), when he called on the district workers to defend his embattled administration.

The former Mayor was removed from office by President Juan Manuel Santos after the Supreme Court acted in a “transparent, efficient and appropriate” manner. Petro referred then to his removal as a “right-wing coup”.

Petro then oversaw a “siege of Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar,” and every evening addressed his base of supporters from a balcony in the Mayoralty. “Those who govern this country have no moral or virtual capacity to do so. They are incompetent” he once stated, and direct reference to Santos who ended up backing Petro’s third bid for the presidency.

Going under the hashtag #14F, for journalist María Isabel Rueda, the pro-Petro march does not intend to give Colombians the opportunity to “think about the future of their health care, but rather believe that this government, blindly, is perfect.” The columnist believes that the “march of sheep” is a “big lie” to sell a health care reform hours after it reaches lawmakers. “As Petro returns to the balcony, he will use public opinion to pressure Congress. Every day he is more radicalized, more populist.”

Petro’s return to the public arena to push a political agenda, from the garbage collection crisis that abruptly ended his term as mayor, to his latest reform and overhaul of the nation’s health system – including possible arrival in the country of Cuban doctors – impacts every Colombian household. For the former Mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez, and presidential hopeful during the 2022 campaign, Petro’s mobilizations are “irresponsible” and incite violence. “Petro has shown that he doesn’t have a clear vision of the country. He is governing with the same hatreds as if he were still on the campaign trail.”