“I do not want two countries, just as I do not want two societies. I want a strong, just, and united Colombia,” declared Colombia’s first leftist president Gustavo Petro in front of tens of thousands of attendees at his inauguration in Bogotá on August 7, 2022. Donning the tri-color presidential sash, Petro pledged targeted tax reforms, fundamental expansions to environmental protections, a transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy, a new approach to the drug crisis, and a commitment to extending peace negotiations with non-state armed actors.
Coming at the heels of a resurgence in conflict-related violence, Petro's election and campaign promise to bring “Total Peace” to the country offered Colombians renewed hope after six decades of internal armed conflict that generated over nine million victims.
In just his first year, Petro has already faced several challenges to overhauling and transforming a political system that left many parts of the country to fend for itself. Without a majority in congress, he was unable to push through his reforms, resulting in a call for the mass resignation of his cabinet on April 25. Petro’s ambitions have the potential to bring sustainable change to Colombia and its people, but opposition against his political agenda remains strong; whether he will be able to fulfill his campaign promises before the end of his presidential term remains uncertain.
Progress Towards Enhanced Protection of Indigenous and Environmental Rights
The resource-rich Americas have a long and bloody history of violence executed against Indigenous and environmental rights defenders, which according to Front Line Defenders, accounted for 36.7 percent of all global human rights violations recorded in 2022.
The most dangerous country surveyed was Colombia, where 47 percent of human rights defenders murdered were environmental and Indigenous rights activists who were located in regions with limited or no state presence.
These defenders are routinely exposed to violence linked to transnational corporations, multi-generational landowners, and state authorities, who often forcibly expropriate ancestral territories to advance the financial interests of extractive and agro-industrial activities, in collusion with state and non-state armed actors.
Against this backdrop, Petro made two bold promises: to implement the Escazú agreement and to shift away from an extractive fossil fuel-based economy. One year on, have these promises materialized?
Petro kept his word by ratifying the Escazú accord in November 2022, an international treaty that enhances protections for environmental rights activists and the territories they defend. The accord awaits confirmation by the Constitutional Court, upon which Indigenous communities will be able to legally challenge the state for environmental non-compliance.
In the same month that the Escazú agreement was ratified, Petro’s proposition to reduce fossil fuels received a boost through the passage of a $4 billion Tax Reform Law through congress despite not having a majority. These reforms included a windfall tax on extractive industries’ profits and up to 15 percent higher duties on crude oil and coal exports.
This initial success was followed by turmoil when Mines and Energy Minister Irene Vélez-Torres stated at the 2023 World Economic Forum that the government had “decided not to award new oil and gas contracts.” Finance Minister José Ocampo then publicly retracted this stance on multiple occasions, due in large part to the fact that fossil fuels account for more than half of Colombia’s exports.
The public disaccord created an uncertain financial environment for investors, causing panic in the markets and triggering an immediate devaluation of the Colombian peso. These disputes highlight the lack of coherency and unity among state officials, which threatens Petro’s environmental ambitions and plans to reduce Colombia’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Transitioning from Fossil Fuel Dependency to Renewable Energy
Colombia, as with much of Latin America, has a long history of dependence on natural resource extraction, with crude oil ranking as the most exported commodity in Colombia in 2021.
So, when Petro vowed to reduce the country's fossil fuel reliance in line with UN recommendations, he was incorrectly labeled as radical by opposition parties and state employees, including senior security officials amid fears that his economic proposal would provoke the collapse of Colombia’s GDP.
For Petro, this shift is far more than a tactic to jump on the environmental bandwagon, with roughly 75 percent of Colombia’s current energy coming from renewable sources, mainly hydropower. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Petro told journalists that “a big investment in tourism, given the beauty of the country, and the capacity and potential that the country has to generate clean energy, could perfectly, in the short term or as part of a transition, fill the void left by fossil fuels, on which we depend.”
Although the transition initially caused short-term strain on Colombia’s economy—amid South America’s escalating inflation crisis, with Colombia ranking third in the 2022 inflation index—Petro’s proposed shift away from a failing extractive economy is more of an inevitable move than a contentious one.
Alternative Drug Strategy: Rural Development in lieu of Eradication
In 2021, illicit coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 43 percent, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Coca production was historically tackled by deploying security forces to forcibly eradicate coca crops using fumigation techniques, now banned after warnings from the World Health Organization. This approach failed to substantially disrupt the business cycle of powerful drug trafficking organizations, instead disproportionately affecting small-scale farmers whose livelihoods were destroyed.
In this context, Petro announced a new approach to tackle the drug trafficking crisis, proposing a focus on rural development instead of forced coca eradication. The policy reduced the eradication target for 2023 by 60 percent and paused the forced eradication of individual farmers’ coca crops until an alternative economic opportunity was operational.
This approach was particularly important for Indigenous communities that had seen an increase in the area of their protected territories being used for coca crops from 2020-2021, after the vacuum left by the demobilization of the FARC guerrilla group in 2016.
Petro responded using a different strategy from his predecessors by reframing the matter as an economic issue: with no alternative means of survival, local communities were being forced into the drug trade.
To implement his plan, Petro committed to the full implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement, for which Colombia had already accepted $1.5 billion in financial assistance from the United States since 2017. However, after Petro publicly criticized U.S. drug policy, labeling it a failure in a speech at the United Nations, the historically close relationship between the two countries fractured, placing the funding necessary for Petro’s Total Peace plan in jeopardy.
Petro’s Quest for Total Peace
Colombia has been engaged in a violent and bloody conflict for over six decades, one of the longest-running civil wars in modern history. State forces, leftist guerrilla groups, paramilitary organizations, and drug cartels have long been embroiled in battles over issues such as land ownership, political power, and control over drug routes. While a peace agreement was signed between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, conflict-related violence continues to this day.
To date, this war has forcibly displaced 8.4 million people, positioning it second for the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, in addition to a confirmed death toll of at least 450,000 people. In light of these circumstances, Petro was elected in 2022 on the promise of securing Total Peace, an approach that would require full cooperation from all illegal armed groups operating in Colombia.
This was a risky strategy that could potentially alienate his support base, much of which had been systematically victimized by these groups. However, since the government of Nobel Prize-winning Juan Manuel Santos from 2010-2018, peace has been central to all presidential campaigns regardless of political ideology. While Petro’s Total Peace plan is certainly a gamble, it is principally an expansion of a peace project set in motion many years ago.
To do this, Petro successfully passed his Total Peace Law through Congress, creating a legal framework for the government to negotiate with illegal armed groups, offering reduced sentences and guarantees of no extradition in return for cooperation. Although undoubtedly ambitious, this complex journey towards peace is essential to prevent a recurrence of the situation Petro inherited after the signing of the 2016 Peace Agreement. In 2021, the year leading up to Petro’s election, one Indigenous person was reportedly murdered every four days in areas controlled by illegal armed groups, according to the National Commission of Colombia’s Indigenous population. Additionally, overall homicides surged reaching a seven-year high.
This pervasive violence underscored that Petro’s Total Peace plan was operating in a reality far beyond the remnants of a simple rivalry between the government and the FARC. During Petro’s first year, his administration entered third-round negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerilla group that had never sat down at the negotiating table before. The meeting concluded optimistically with the announcement of a bilateral ceasefire that took effect in August.
Not everything went according to plan. The infamous Clan del Golfo broke agreement terms and Petro took to X, then Twitter, to announce a suspension of the ceasefire. “We will not allow them to continue sowing anxiety and terror in the communities,” he wrote. On a more positive note, FARC dissidents—who rejected the previous peace agreement and resumed arms after its incomplete implementation—agreed to commence peace talks with the Colombian Government in July 2023.
Petro’s bold peace initiative will undeniably face challenges, but the progress already made towards his pioneering "Total Peace" plan, centered on rural development and the inclusion of previously excluded armed groups in the negotiation process, is encouraging.
Can Petro Rewrite History for Colombia's Left?
Colombia’s past is littered with assassinations of leftist presidential candidates, positioning the simple fact of Petro’s survival as a major achievement for the Left in Colombia.
His peaceful transition to power is illustrative of Colombia’s progress towards a free, fair, and stable democracy which many feared would not be possible without triggering political instability and a resurgence of violence. A much-anticipated revolt against Petro never materialized, and only two dozen senators joined the opposition. Even former president Álvaro Uribe, a vehement opponent of Petro’s peace process, told journalists, “The first one who has to cure himself of Uribismo is me.”
At the one-year mark, Petro's initially positive reception is under threat, with a 21 percent drop in approval ratings positioning him at a vulnerable 33 percent as of July, as reported by Invamer.
Petro’s proposed reforms require considerable consensus and legislative backing to move forward. This looks increasingly unlikely within a fractured congress and no absolute majority in either chamber. On International Worker’s Day on May 1, Petro called on the working-class public to “go out onto the streets” and pressure Colombia’s institutions to support his reforms.
Given Petro’s predicament, he has three possible outcomes: he pushes through all reforms he presents to congress—an unlikely scenario; he pushes through some reforms and survives the full term of his presidency; or he is forcibly ejected from his presidency, as was the case for Pedro Castillo in Peru when, on December 7, the Peruvian legislative body voted to oust him from his presidency following Castillo’s declaration of plans to disband Congress and govern through decree.
Petro’s presidency could currently be considered successful, but the very nature of what constitutes success is an open question in modern-day Colombia. Should it be measured by his popularity, a reduction in the number of homicides, or the nation's financial stability? Or perhaps by his efforts to envision and bring about sustainable alternatives in a country long plagued by violence?
With Petro constitutionally restrained to serve one four-year term, the success of his far-reaching initiatives will depend on the willingness of the next elected president to continue with the implementation of his plan. Many have been critical of his inability to deliver on his campaign promises, but Petro's performance should also be framed within the historic context of him being Colombia’s first leftist president.
At this early stage of his presidency, Petro is certainly not playing it safe. While his Total Peace plan may be unachievable in such a short time, he has taken the first steps towards a generational, inclusive, and enduring peace.
Madeleine Vallier is an independent journalist based between the UK and Latin America who writes on social justice issues across Latin America and the Caribbean. She is currently completing an MPHIL in Latin America Studies at Cambridge University in the UK.