_
_
_
_

Gustavo Petro accelerates change in Colombia to revive his government

The president responded to the rejection of his health reform in Congress with an energetic speech and intervention in the public-private EPS system

Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro delivering a speech on Wednesday.Presidencia Colombia
Juan Diego Quesada

It was a dismal day for Gustavo Petro. The reform around which his entire government has orbited during his time in power had just crashed in Congress. The opposition has subjected his idea of transforming the health system, which he considers to be disastrous and in the hands of companies that think more about the bottom line than about patients, to a slow death. This initiative of the president’s, which some people around him consider to have become an obsession, provokes a lot of resistance in Colombia, making it almost inevitable that Petro’s months-long battle would reach a dead end. The fateful moment came Tuesday, when he was defeated and somewhat humiliated. But his life has been cemented blow by blow and he has always bounced back from reverses, even if it has been shakily on occasion. As such, there were expectations about how he would use his appearance on the stage at the National Coffee Assembly, which was held in Bogota on Wednesday.

Petro appeared unperturbed and launched into one of his long historical dissertations, this time on coffee, which took in the two previous centuries, the industrial revolution, and the modern era with the arrival of the yuppies, a term he often uses. That was not where the headlines would be generated, but in what came next. Petro was wearing the official presidential cap that members of the army presidential guard wear when they are in rural areas, which lent him the image of commander-in-chief. And, after the usual detours and discursive tricks, he made a clear and direct statement: “What could have been a calm, orderly and problem-free agreement, is now a coup.”

The Petro era is experiencing one of its most dispiriting moments. The past 12 months have been a period of paralysis, something that even the president himself and his right hand, Laura Sarabia, recognize. His office connects with hers. In these two adjoining spaces a presidential offensive has been forged that aims to rescue the government from inaction. Petro feels that he has lost precious time, that he was mistaken in including ministers in his Cabinet from the center and the political establishment and who made him believe that gathering all kinds of sensibilities around him would facilitate his mandate. It was a trap, he now believes; a way to rein him in and slow down his reforms. “Look at how the National Agreement is doing, it has become an oxcart,” he said before the coffee growers when he warmed to his themes, after a third round of applause that increased his stature at the lectern. If the reforms do not come about due to the lack of quorum in Congress, or due to the opposition of parties that at the outset gave him their support but have now withdrawn it because they consider that the president has set himself at odds with them, they will come via another route. And they will be more turbulent.

The first to find out how turbulent are the managers of the EPS public-private health entities that have interceded in the health system since the 1990s, when the scheme was created. Petro ordered the government to administratively intervene in the two largest EPSs in the country — with almost 18 million affiliates — shortly before the collapse of his reform in Congress. The Superintendency of Health, the public agency that is carrying out the operation, based its decision on the companies’ lack of funds to meet their obligations as insurers, an indispensable requirement for their operation. The reform included support for the EPSs, a new form of management to which they would have to adjust. Now, according to Petro, this role will be even more limited. The intervention, in theory, is not intended to eliminate the EPSs, but to manage the system for a year, as well as replacing the manager and the board of directors and appointing an auditor. In short, they are now in the hands of a government that wants to set an expiry date for the EPSs and establish an entirely public health system.

This freshly unchained Petro has been on display for two weeks now, after he proposed a National Constituent Assembly that, paradoxically, would serve to apply that of 1991 that was formed to draft the Constitution, one of a progressive nature one that emerged after the laying down of arms by M-19, the guerrilla organization of which the president was a member. There is something contradictory in that, but Petro’s logic is that there are several brake mechanisms in the Colombian institutionality that prevent a fundamental change: everything was changed back then so that nothing would change. At least he sees it that way. The move could turn out badly for the president, whose approval rating is around 30% — it has risen compared to previous months — and there would be room for the right to obtain a greater number of constituent assembly members. And it is not that he would necessarily improve the Constitution by force of will: it could regress and become more retrograde. That is a risk Petro seems willing to take.

One of his greatest fears is that of falling into irrelevance, as happened to his predecessor in office, Iván Duque. So, sheathed in a military cap, he considers that the time has come to govern, even though he has awakened the fears of an opposition concerned to see him testing the democratic seams. But a Constituent Assembly is not illegal — it is voted on by the people themselves — nor has the intervention of the EPS system been carried out by skirting the rules: it had already been done by previous governments. Petro simply believes that the time has come to move the country in the direction he wants.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
_
_