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Gustavo Petro 3.0: Colombia’s president is once again open to a national agreement

Amidst political gridlock, the leftist leader has changed his strategy. This past week, he met with former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe and a group of business leaders

Gustavo Petro junto a su esposa y ministros
Gustavo Petro poses for a photo alongside his wife, ministers and some major Colombian businesspeople, in the city of Cartagena, on November 21, 2023.Presidencia

They held a formal meeting in a room. Afterward, they all had lunch together. The men wore light-colored shirts and brown pants. The women wore long dresses. Mealtime should have been a moment of relaxation… but there was still a certain discomfort in the air. For example, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo — Colombia’s richest man — hadn’t said a single word at that point, according to one of those present.

During the meal, President Gustavo Petro displayed that sensation of distance that seems to accompany him like a cloud. To break the ice, First Lady Verónica Alcocer concluded the lunch and directed everyone to a room with dark furniture bathed in artificial light, where she personally offered cigars and Cointreau liqueur to the guests. The president’s wife won everyone over: little by little, the stern faces relaxed. Petro seemed less grave, while Sarmiento Angulo — whom everyone was paying attention to — spoke a bit.

For a few moments, the world was at peace. Everything was flowing. The president wasn’t a communist who had come to destroy capitalism, nor were the businesspeople misers with no conception of a nation.

Petro — aware of all the difficulties that will arise in 2024 — is trying to establish a different political climate in the country, one that’s less tense than the current one. The meeting he held this past week with a group of businesspeople — whose companies have the greatest economic weight in terms of national production — has been the first sign that we’re entering the era of Petro 3.0, a leader who, once again, is open to generating a new political consensus that can unite the country.

The first Petro — who took office in 2022 — sought a national agreement, placing centrist heavyweights in his cabinet to manage finances, agriculture and education. The second Petro — fed up with the resistance that was generated within his own government against his proposed transformation — broke with that moderate wing and returned to his essence, to his base. He began asking his supporters to march in the streets, while he gave aggressive speeches from the balcony of the presidential palace.

This defiant Petro came face-to-face with his country’s resistance. He knew that it was powerful… but he wasn’t aware of how paralyzing it was going to be. His reforms stalled in Congress and the president, at times, found himself isolated. A sense of urgency came over him recently, according to those around him. He suddenly realized that, if he continued down this path, his administration was headed straight for failure. His popularity has dropped, violence isn’t improving, and the economy isn’t doing particularly well. He needed to change the script.

Thus arrives this third version of a president who, throughout his life, has proven to be ambiguous and chameleonic. He’s an outsider who has been a career politician for 30 years; an ex-guerrilla without the soul or discipline of a soldier… and, finally, a president who wants to craft a national agreement. He has ended up disappointed and isolated, but he’s now trying to get back into the fray.

The meeting with the business leaders was accompanied by another meeting with former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe, who served from 2002 until 2010. Petro and his former political nemesis have had five meetings in total. Petro has also met with members of Uribe’s party — the Democratic Center — to discuss their differences regarding the healthcare reform, which has been the proposal most heavily resisted in the Congress and across many sectors of Colombian society. While the summit concluded without any agreement, it is yet another piece of evidence that a new Petro is appearing on the horizon.

“There cannot be an ideological dispute between the public [sector] and the private [sector]. This [relationship] must transcend the ideological dispute,” Uribe declared, after a meeting that he described as having been “a frank debate.” Petro didn’t give any statements. Both meetings were well-received among their critics. The president needs governability, as he seeks to recover a lost legislative majority and achieve a new national agreement between different political parties. He’s worried about his legacy.

With this new mood, Petro has also dismissed a key figure who once enjoyed his complete trust: Danilo Rueda, his peace commission. This move was made amidst a public safety crisis that threatens Petro’s desire for “total peace.” He chose to replace his old ally with Otty Patiño, a more experienced figure, who will now be tasked with carrying out dialogues between different armed factions.

However, some issues appeared during a week that could well mark a turning point in the administration. This past Friday, Petro was expected to attend the ceremony for the seventh anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the now extinct FARC guerrillas. He never showed up. It was a snub to Juan Manuel Santos, another former president (2010-2018) whom he has a good relationship with. This was not well-received by the architects of the peace deal, who are considered to be part of the governing coalition in Congress.

“Unfortunately, he had promised us that he would come today… but he just announced that he won’t be here,” Santos sighed, from the stage of the National Center of Historical Memory. The Nobel Peace Prize winner didn’t miss the opportunity to ask — for the umpteenth time — that Petro’s policy of “total peace” not overshadow the implementation of the agreement that has already been signed. “Just by implementing it, this government would go down in history,” Santos opined. He repeated his request that someone be appointed to oversee the implementation of the peace agreement, with autonomy and a budget. Petro promised this back in March.

The first left-wing president in modern Colombian history also hasn’t been in dialogue with congresspeople from within his own coalition. Many have aired their objections to the president’s proposed healthcare reform, especially those from the fractured progressive Green Alliance party. “Apparently, [he only talks] to Uribe. Not with his other critics,” lamented Representative Catherine Juvinao, from the Green Alliance, in an interview with EL PAÍS. She has advocated that her party become independent of the ruling coalition.

In fact, the summit that was intended to bring Uribe’s hard-right bloc closer to Petro ended up distancing the Greens. Another incident added fuel to the fire: unfortunate statements made by Minister of Health Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, who claimed that nobody could have a position in the government without supporting the healthcare reform. His words triggered multiple indignant voices, who are asking the Greens to declare independence from Petro.

The broad national agreement may be back in style, but it’s still unclear who it will include.

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