Colombia: can Petro’s constituent assembly break the deadlock?

On Friday 15 March, Colombian President Gustavo Petro took to the streets of Cali. In the speech he delivered on the day, he proposed a constituent assembly as a route out of the various problems his presidency has encountered in attempting to pass the reforms for which he was elected.

To quote that speech:

“If the institutions we have today in Colombia are not capable of living up to the social reforms that the people have decreed through their vote… then it is not the people who must return home on their knees, defeated. Rather, we must raise the transformation of those institutions… And therefore, if this possibility of a popularly elected government in the context of the present state and under the present constitution of Colombia cannot apply the constitution because it is surrounded in such a way as it cannot be applied and is stimied, then Colombia has to go for a national constituent assembly.”

The oligarchy has raised a hullabaloo around this question. The reactionary right wing, with links to drug traffickers and paramilitaries, has declared that Petro is finally moving in the direction of perpetuating himself in power. María Fernanda Cabal (currently the closest thing the opposition has to a leader) declared that this speech represented a “coup d'état”.

This proposal is a reflection of the crisis of reformism, which ultimately has not been able to implement any of the reforms proposed in the 2022 elections or the list of demands for which the National Strike Council derailed the national strike of 2021. After a year and a half in power, the government of Pacto Histórico (Petro’s electoral coalition) has not been able to pass the health, pension or labour reforms that it promised. But the real question is: Are Colombian capitalism and capitalist democracy that a constituent assembly would reaffirm sufficient to achieve these social reforms?

The paralysis of Petro’s reform programme

GP Image La Moncloa Gobierno de España FlickrNone of the reforms whose promise brought Petro to power have made it across the presidential desk / Image: La Moncloa Gobierno de España, Flickr

As of today, none of the reforms whose promise brought Petro to power have made it across the presidential desk. Each of the reforms has stirred a major national debate. The oligarchy has sown panic with the idea that labour reform would increase unemployment due to the formalisation of labour and the implementation of night surcharge and holiday pay. They have claimed that health reform would completely destroy what Forbes magazine calls “one of the best health systems in Latin America”. And they have raised a hue and cry over how pension reform would supposedly end up with the state stealing workers’ retirement funds.

However, the reality behind these slanders is telling. Businessmen, through the National Federation of Businessmen Traders (Fenalco), declare that the labour reform means a 30 percent increase in costs, while the Bank of the Republic has declared that the labour reform could end up eliminating 450,000 jobs. Not only this, but the labour reform had to die in the seventh commission of the Senate due to the low quorum in its debate and the trickery of the opposition in abstaining in order to kill it. But what does this say about Colombian businesses? In a country where the minimum wage is $1,300,000 pesos (equivalent to $335 USD), the fact that an increase in labour costs would apparently eliminate so many jobs shows precisely that so many companies cannot even offer a living wage to their workers.

Health reform, similarly, has found no way through the legislative maze, after the purge of health minister Carolina Corcho for daring to suggest that Colombia’s monopoly of insurance companies had to be replaced with a single health model, who was removed and replaced by Guillermo Jaramillo who watered it down to 50 percent. Petro has had to resort to executive manoeuvres like the implementation of health reform to the EPS (public health insurance providers) which are controlled by the government at the moment.

Land reform is possibly the most important historical debt that Petro’s government has sought to settle. Analysis by Oxfam (2018), using data from the National Agricultural Census, indicates that Colombia is the Latin American country with the highest concentration of land. 1 percent of the largest farms hold 81 percent of the land. The remaining 19 percent of the land is divided among 99 percent of the farms. The 0.1 percent of farms that are larger than 2,000 hectares occupy 60 percent of all land. In this context, it is highly telling that the ‘government of change’ has proposed an agrarian reform from the executive branch that compensates the landlords and resells the land to the peasants. Its progress is also telling: only 4 percent of the land projected for resale by 7 March had been purchased under this plan.

In each of these reforms, there is a common factor: the low room for manoeuvre of Colombian capitalism has greatly limited the speed at which reforms can be implemented. This gives the oligarchy more and more time to sabotage them and to preserve their profits by any means necessary. But this is not a problem of time alone, but a reflection of the state of world capitalism. None of the present day reformists are proving capable of achieving extensive reforms to improve the quality of life of the working class. We are living in a period of reformism without the reforms.

However, it is clear that the oligarchy will pay a price for this sabotage. To the degree that the mass of workers, peasants and students see first hand how Colombian capitalism drowns its reforms for which they marched in 2021 in bureaucracy, propaganda and blood, they will come to understand that reform will not be obtained through legal manoeuvres from above, but in the streets.

The limits of bourgeois democracy

In an interview in El Tiempo, Petro attempted to clarify his perspective, explaining that for him, a constituent assembly would not be an opportunity to initiate a new constitution, but to reorient the constitution of 1991 on several points that were not considered at the time. Petro ends the interview by proposing an eight-point programme that covers various issues such as agrarian reform and climate change as focal points for a possible constituent assembly:

  • Fulfilment of the peace agreement with the demobilised FARC guerrillas,
  • Improvement of living conditions for Colombians in terms of health.
  • Access to water and a basic income, especially for the older population.
  • Recovering the objectives of the 1991 Constitution, prioritising public education and agrarian reform.
  • Fight against the climate crisis and decarbonisation of the economy.
  • Guaranteeing monetary policy while maintaining the independence of the central bank and prioritising employment and production.
  • Territorial reorganisation to include historically excluded regions.
  • Separating politics from private finance and reforming the judicial system.

This political programme is based on the idea that Colombia is a feudal country. In his interview with El Tiempo, Petro declared that he is “a socialist” but that “a post-capitalist society will appear because capitalism will develop”. However, it is necessary to understand the nature of the tasks Petro proposes for a constituent assembly. These tasks, such as land reform and territorial unification, are bourgeois democratic tasks that the struggle for independence could not achieve at the time.

Petro Image World Economic Forum FlickrAccording to Petro, the 1991 constitution was not applied and that is why a constituent assembly must be convened / Image: World Economic Forum, Flickr

However, in the present period of capitalism, the landlords and capitalists are too late on the scene of history to fulfil these tasks and are completely tied to the world market. This not only prevents them, for example, from conducting a campaign of land expropriation as we saw in the American Civil War and the French Revolution, but also puts them in defence of the monopolisation of land.

From the mobilisation of paramilitaries for the purpose of land grabs, to the manoeuvres of FEDEGAN (Federación Colombiana de Ganaderos, effectively the voice of the Colombian latifundia) to seize the leadership of the land reform to ensure that it will be based on compensation for their latifundias, it has been clear that the Colombian latifundists are highly interested in preserving its relationship with the US market (to whom the export $580 million USD worth of beef and more than 17,000 tons of milk).

According to Petro, the 1991 constitution was not applied and that is why a constituent assembly must be convened. But this raises an obvious question: why was the 1991 constitution not applied? In his interview with El Tiempo, Petro states that this is because the state was captured by mafiosos. But at the same time, he states that he cannot say that his government is free of this same corruption since the state is intimately linked to the same mafias even under his administration.

A recent case in point are the two former prosecutors (Francisco Barbosa and Marta Mancera, both holdovers from the Duque presidency) who were accused of covering up the crimes of Francisco Martinez, who during his time as director of the CTI (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, a division of the Attorney General’s Office) in Buenaventura covered up several cases of drug trafficking. This is one of the many cases of corruption that Petro has inherited from the oligarchy in relying on the aforementioned officials.

However, in the face of these cases of corruption, the communists in Colombia have explained that this is the true nature of the bourgeois state. It is not a neutral actor that can be reoriented towards the needs of the masses. Rather, the state is formed of armed bodies of men in defence of private property and the institutions that support them. There is no constitution that can get rid of this reality without touching private property.

Not only this, but the phenomenon of corruption (i.e. illicit enrichment through the use of the institutions of the capitalist state) is part and parcel of every capitalist country, from Britain (where the UK Conservative Party had no qualms in handing out pandemic response contracts to friends of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leading to a 20 percent failure to deliver, costing billions of pounds and thousands of lives) to the United States (where senators like Dianne Feinstein have enriched themselves through the use of classified information to inform their speculation and investments).

The cause of Colombian corruption is not to be found in the mere malice of its businessmen and their cronies within the drug trade (although that certainly plays a role) but in the nature of an economic system driven by profit and exploitation of the working class, in which Colombia functions as part of the capitalist world market. This cannot be solved by simply changing the rules of the system, but only by a root-and-branch change.

The monopoly of the oligarchy

The slogan of a constituent assembly is incorrect, because a new constitution will not be able to solve the question of the reform bottleneck. The failure of the oligarchy to comply with the constitution is precisely owed to the fact that real political and economic power lies in its hands.

The problem is not simply Colombia’s political setup. Rather, the mistake is one of failing to recognise the historical period in which Colombia finds itself. Today, the world economy is characterised by ever greater concentration of capital and wealth in the hands of a few banks and giant monopolies. This is demonstrated by the fact that 55 percent of Colombia’s GDP comes from the five largest cities in the country, and all industrial production is concentrated in the large conglomerates such as Nutresa, Argos and Terpel among others. Colombia’s 100 largest companies only declare 45 dollars for every 100 dollars in market sales.

World School banner

The problem is not that capitalism has not developed in Colombia. The problem is that the development of the system worldwide depends on the backwardness of countries like Colombia precisely in order to exploit its working classes at the lowest possible cost.

A constituent assembly that does not touch private property and which is unwilling to expropriate the commanding heights of the economy will prove to be a dead end, whose only role would be to restore illusions in the bourgeois institutions that have destroyed the lives of millions of Colombians over the decades, overseeing the exploitation of the working class and the dispossession of land from the peasants.

Behind this constituent assembly, Petro is attempting to mobilise his rank and file, but without attacking private property. But after the masses who put him in power mobilise on the streets to fight for this constituent assembly, they are likely to become worn down and disillusioned upon realising that even then they will not be able to implement the reforms they are really fighting for, as each of the reforms Petro proposes (from land reform to labour reform) comes into direct conflict with the wealth of the Colombian ruling class.

In the last year and a half, we have seen how the parliamentary channel has failed to deliver the reforms for which Petro was elected. They have been stalled by bureaucratic officials, businessmen seeking to protect their profits, and hitmen willing to assassinate social leaders. They can only be achieved in the streets. However, the working class, peasantry and youth will not take to the streets for abstract calls for ‘life and peace’. Rather, the masses will come out to fight when they are armed with a programme that would place their destinies in their own hands and allow them to solve the problems that capitalism creates through their own means.

A constitution or revolution?

The programme Petro proposes is the enforcement of all the broken promises of the oligarchy, as listed in the 1991 constitution and the 2016 peace accords. These documents, however, do not reflect the aspirations of the working class for a truly democratic society in which production takes place to satisfy society’s needs rather than the enrichment of a minority. Rather, these documents reflect the aspirations of the sober wing of the oligarchy, which dreams of a Colombia with a greater standing in the world market (and thus, a richer Colombia).

theses on general strike fair useThe potential for a mass revolutionary movement was seen in the national strikes of 2019 and 2021 / Image: fair use

This programme flows from the fact that Pacto Histórico is a popular front that proposes to unite the progressive forces of the country under the banner of ‘progressive’ capitalism. With Colombia Humana (Petro’s party) at the forefront, it defends the utopian idea of a ‘humane’ capitalism that can turn Colombia into a world power capable of implementing the reforms in opposition to which the oligarchy has attacked and killed workers’ and peasants’ leaders throughout the country’s history. The premise underpinning the party programme is, in other words, the development of capitalism in order to create a basis for health, pension, labour and land reforms.

But this programme is a dead end. Petro’s programme proposes the development of Colombian capitalism on a “fairer and more rational” basis in opposition to the Colombian capitalists who maintain total control of the state, and therefore control how the constitution is applied.

What is required is the overthrow of the oligarchy and its corrupt institutions. This can only be achieved on the basis of a mass revolutionary movement of the working class and peasantry, ready to dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with its own democratic organisations, to disarm the paramilitary thugs of the oligarchy, and to nationalise the banks, land and monopolies, and bring them under workers’ control.

On the basis of that struggle, the enormous wealth that Colombia produces for world imperialism and its lackeys in Bogotá could be taken and put at the service of the working class, the peasantry and the Colombian youth to achieve agrarian reform, the “improvement of the living conditions of Colombians”, “access to water”, “prioritisation of public education” and all the other points of Petro’s proposed constituent assembly.

The basis for such a movement exists in Colombian society. Its potential was seen in the national strikes of 2019 and 2021. We have seen it in the large demonstrations in defence of the government’s reforms and in how each manifestation of the aspirations of the masses has tended to go beyond the control of the leadership of Pacto Histórico. However, the potential of this movement is being wasted, straightjacketed as it is within the limits set by the Colombian oligarchy, which has its own representatives within the government and in Pacto Histórico.

The most urgent task of the labour movement is to break with these pro-capitalist ‘comrades’ in the governing coalition and within the Pacto Histórico itself, to establish an independent revolutionary class party capable of leading the exploited masses to victory in the events to come, as we traverse a period not of a constituent assembly and a peaceful development of Colombian capitalism, but of crises and new national strikes, where the traditions of the cabildos (mass assemblies) and the primera línea (self-defence groups inspired by the events in Chile in 2019) will again be put to the test against the forces of the Colombian state.

The raw material for a revolutionary movement that can transform Colombian society from the roots up exists. We see it among the youth, fighting to democratise the National University and the expansion of that movement to universities across the country with the same demands. We see it in the working class, which is mobilising in defence of the reforms under the leadership of its central organisations, and is ready to settle accounts with the bourgeoisie in the streets. We see it also in the peasantry, which has organised its committees to manage agrarian reform and break the barriers of the state bureaucracy in order to fulfil Petro’s promise to make the land “of the peasants from the first day of my presidency”.

This organisation has to be guided by a programme of placing the working class in power so that it can plan the economy for the good of society, and can guide the millions of workers in action, as they seek a lasting solution to the crisis, rather than a mere respite before the inevitable return of the oligarchy to the executive. Only with such organisation can we sweep away the Colombian oligarchy and profoundly transform our society, which the 1991 Constitution failed to rescue from poverty.

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