Petro's first 100 days: Peace takes priority

Reading time: 5 mins approx.

Gustavo Petro’s election campaign promised peace and environmental protection, with the slogan “Colombia Potencia Mundial de Vida” (Colombia, world power for life). He took power on 7 August, and quickly built alliances with different parties in Congress giving him an overall majority. Thanks to this, he has managed to pass key pieces of legislation, including his “total peace” policy, a tax reform bill, and the Escazú Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The “total peace” law, signed on 4 November, seeks to make peace a state policy, harmonise the efforts of different state institutions, and make peace with the remaining armed groups in the country. It enables the government to hold peace talks with remaining rebel groups and negotiate the “submission to justice” of high-impact criminal groups, establishing a special commission – comprising the High Commissioner for Peace, the Minister of Defence, and the head of intelligence services – to determine negotiation criteria for each group. It also creates regional peace commissioners to facilitate community dialogues and designate “regions of peace,” by strengthening mechanisms such as the Territorial Peace Councils.

Implementation of the 2016 peace accord signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), saw lacklustre progress under Iván Duque’s administration (2018-2022). Petro has restructured government peace bureaucracy, centralising implementation within a unit of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace. He re-activated the Commission for Monitoring, Promoting and Verifying the Implementation of the Final Agreement (CSIVI), a bilateral body comprising former FARC-EP members and government officials, and the National Commission for Security Guarantees, both inactive under Duque. Point 1 of the agreement on rural reform was particularly under-implemented, and Petro has signed a pact with the National Federation of Cattle-ranchers (FEDEGAN) for the government to buy three million hectares from the ranchers to create a land bank to distribute to peasant farmers without land, part of point 1. The UN Security Council has extended its Verification Mission in Colombia for another year.

Peace negotiations have restarted with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla, discontinued under Duque, and the High Commissioner for Peace is in discussions with 10 criminal groups who have expressed a will to end violence, including dissident splinter groups of the former FARC-EP.

A major challenge to peace is the cocaine trade. In his speech to the UN, Petro called for the international community to recognise that the war on drugs has failed, and that legalisation is needed to tackle the drug-trafficking which has fuelled Colombia’s conflict since the 1980s. Instead of criminalising poor coca-growing farmers, he promises to carry out substitution programmes and improve development in marginalised regions, as agreed in the 2016 peace accord. However, he insists this is an international problem, and must be dealt with as such. His approach finds echo with Joe Biden’s review of drug policy, but progress in this area will depend on the balance of power in the USA.

Drug policy is connected to Petro’s other flagship issue, the environment, as coca cultivation and fumigation have devastated Colombia’s Amazon region. Petro is building a regional coalition with other Latin American leaders, including the newly re-elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to lobby internationally for protecting the Amazon rainforest. The Escazú agreement was the first legislation passed under Petro, which seeks to build a regional commitment to environmental protection. Petro attended COP27 and called for decarbonising economies and global mobilisation on climate change. One of his most contentious policies domestically is his promise to transition away from fossil fuels; his minister for Mining and Energy, Irene Vélez, is reviewing existing mining licences, but has been criticised for her views on “degrowth”.

After a tense election campaign, Petro has diffused fears about polarisation by meeting with leader of the opposition Democratic Centre party, former president Álvaro Uribe, and politicians across the spectrum. This success was reflected in high approval ratings of 69% in his first thirty days. However, concerns about a record-high dollar exchange rate, Petro’s attitude to the oil industry, and the tax reform bill, brought many criticisms, and after 60 days this dropped to 46%.

Although the opposition is weakened, right-wing groups are holding small but regular demonstrations, and tensions could increase over time. Progressive politics create fear among more conservative sectors, but some on the left could also radicalise and see Petro as being too tepid. Petro will need to work hard to find a delicate balance amid these complex political tensions. Ongoing “binding regional dialogues” bring different actors together to discuss each region’s needs to shape the National Development Plan of 2022-26, and these are so far keeping Petro’s supporters united.

Internationally, Petro has re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela. He met with President Nicolás Maduro and signed a pact committing to collaborate on the difficult border situation. Venezuela will be key in peace talks with the ELN and FARC dissidents, as these groups are binational and have used Venezuela as a haven. Colombia, for the first time, is synchronised with “pink tides” of left-wing leaders in Latin America, but Petro has also wisely condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and spoke with Biden within days of being elected.

The international community has welcomed Petro’s commitment to peace. His critical stance on the environment and drug policy could alienate him from some international institutions. But if he succeeds, Colombia could lead a global paradigm shift toward tackling climate change. The success of “total peace” depends not just on domestic dynamics, but on the challenges of the global geopolitical moment.

Dr Gwen Burnyeat

Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology - Merton College, University of Oxford

Gwen is author of two books on Colombia: The Face of Peace: Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia (University of Chicago Press, 2022) and Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), producer of award-winning documentary Chocolate of Peace, and member of peacebuilding organisation Rodeemos el Diálogo.

Dr Andrei Gómez-Suárez

Senior Research Fellow - Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester

Andrei is author of El triunfo del No: La paradoja emocional detrás del plebiscito (Ícono 2016) and Genocide, Geopolitics and Transnational Networks: Con-textualising the Destruction of the Unión Patriótica in Colombia (Routledge 2015), and cofounder of peacebuilding organisation Rodeemos el Diálogo.

This blog post was edited by Freddy Nevison-Andrews.

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