Thousands take to the streets in Colombia to protest leftist government's reforms

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A protester waves a national flag during a march against Colombian President Gustavo Petro's government, in Bolivar square in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Colombia's opposition is protesting sweeping reforms to the nation's healthcare system, pensions and labor. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA – Thousands of people marched in Colombia on Tuesday to voice their frustration with President Gustavo Petro’s government and its attempts to make sweeping changes to the nation’s health and pension systems, and its labor laws.

The protests were held as Colombia’s first leftist president struggles to keep his coalition in congress together and sees a slump in his approval ratings as violence between rebel groups grows in some parts of the country.

A corruption scandal involving two members of Petro’s inner circle has also put the government on the defensive, with the president now fighting allegations that his campaign was financed with undeclared donations.

“This government is going to take us back decades,” said Jimmy Rosero, a retired army officer, who helped carry a 40-foot-long Colombian flag at a march in Bogota. “We don’t want any of its reforms to be approved” by congress.

Petro was elected a year ago following massive protests over social and economic inequalities that worsened during the pandemic.

He promised to make peace deals with the nation’s remaining rebel groups and said his government would improve access to healthcare, university education and formal jobs.

But Petro’s Historical Pact party lacked a majority in congress. To govern, it built alliances with traditional parties on the center and the right, which were given positions in Cabinet in exchange for their support in congress.

The ideologically diverse coalition began to fracture this year, as differences emerged over legislation that seeks to reform Colombia’s health system and turn a government agency into the sole administrator of insurance payments, sidelining companies that currently handle a large portion of the insurance market.

Petro argues the reform will make it easier for the government to reimburse hospitals and enable it to invest more money in healthcare centers for remote rural areas. But his opponents say the government lacks the capacity to administer billions of dollars in insurance payments.

The health reform is currently stalled in congress, where it has been stonewalled by opposition parties and former members of Petro’s coalition. A labor law that would make it harder for employers to hire workers using temporary contracts is also struggling to gain enough votes in the senate and the lower house.

Ivan Diaz, a psychologist who owns a small empanada stand in a working class sector of Bogota, said he was worried the labor law proposed by the government would force him to lay off one of his two employees. The law obliges employers to pay additional fees for any work conducted after 6 p.m.

“We are just recovering from the pandemic, and the government wants to give us more burdens,” Diaz said. “I want to believe in Colombia, but its very hard like this.”

Petro has vowed to press on with his reform program, arguing that it is part of a popular mandate that is now threatened by Colombia’s economic elite.

Earlier this month, the government organized a march in favor of Petro's reforms that was also attended by thousands of people. But the president’s approval rating has fallen recently, as some Colombians appear to be less concerned with social and economic reforms, and more worried with issues like security.

In a poll conducted in May by Invamer, 73% of Colombians said they believed things were getting worse, compared to just 48% in August of last year. Petro received an approval rating of 50% in a poll conducted in November by the same company, but dropped to 34% in the latest poll conducted in April. The recent poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

Sergio Guzman, a political analyst in Bogota, said the government has failed to build bridges with opposition parties by refusing to make adjustments to its reforms.

“The government is insisting in an all or nothing approach to its agenda” Guzman said. “And that has alienated members of the coalition, that came from traditional parties.”

Meanwhile the president’s efforts to make peace with rebel groups have shown mixed results. In December Petro offered ceasefires to two armed groups, that have fallen apart as attacks on civilians continue. A third ceasefire with the largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, is expected to begin in August.