President Petro’s speech concluded the day of demonstrations on September 27 in support of the social reforms being pursued by the Colombian government. According to the Secretary of Government of the Mayor’s Office of Bogota, the events unfolded “calmly and respectfully”.
The presidential address in Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar, before more than 32,000 gathered people, revolved around three key themes: truth, land, and education. In his message, the president staunchly defended the reforms sponsored by his government and expressed his willingness for political dialogue with the opposition.
Although there were doubts about his participation in some media reports early in the morning, President Gustavo Petro appeared on the large stage set up in Plaza Bolivar around 2 p.m., where the marches organized in support of the government had converged, after thousands of protesters marched through the capital.
Before the enthusiastic crowd, the head of state emphasized the social support that, according to him, his government enjoys. “They said that this government had lost popularity. They present some polls as if we don’t conduct polls ourselves; the only thing evident in the polls are these lies. If there were elections tomorrow, we would win the presidency again,” Petro exclaimed, referring to polls indicating a high level of popular disapproval of his administration.
National Agreement Based on Truth, Land, and Education
The president called for a national agreement centered on these three pillars: truth, land, and education. In this regard, Gustavo Petro stated, “We must change and transform society so that we can live, plain and simple. Living in Colombia means changing a series of norms, laws, ways of understanding things. Exclusion, inequality, injustice must be changed; that’s why truth, education, and land will be the fundamental bases of peace and national reconciliation.”
Truth, because according to the president, “it allows us not to repeat the misfortunes of the past, it allows forgiveness, and it allows us, together with the mobilized people, to achieve the real change that Colombia wants.” In this context, Petro spoke of what he considers significant progress in the peace dialogue his government is conducting with the guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Education, because it allows progress and social mobility. In this regard, the president defended the educational reform promoted by his government, which, as he stated, “aims to enable young people to enter university and makes education a right rather than a privilege.”
The third pillar, land, is highly concentrated in very few hands in Colombia. “We want the land to be (…) part of a national agreement, in other words, for Colombia to be a power in food and life. But it requires that those who have that land are peasants, and that they can prosper; we want agrarian reform, (…) but in a national agreement, we can do it faster,” declared the head of state.
Defense of Social Reforms
Before an enthusiastic audience and with several of his ministers working on social reforms present on the stage, Petro reaffirmed his government’s right to promote democratic reforms, based on the legitimacy of winning the elections last year. “The change in policy in all ministries has one goal: that you can live better. … Protecting life in Colombia is the State’s, society’s, and the government’s objective.”
In front of the Ministers of Health, Labor, and Culture, he spoke of the need to implement the reforms requested by society. Regarding the healthcare reform, which is still awaiting its second parliamentary debate, Petro stated that the goal is for “users not to be left without the treatment they deserve. The healthcare system is not just for the north of Bogota. What difficulties does a woman from Choco or the Pacific face today in trying to save her life because there is no nearby hospital?” He referred to the poor functioning of the current healthcare system in the more remote regions of the capital.
Mention of Shakira
Regarding the labor reform, which is currently undergoing its second parliamentary debate, Gustavo Petro said, “To be able to live in Colombia means changing a series of norms, laws, ways of understanding things. Exclusion, inequality, injustice. When we talk about labor reform, as Shakira says in her latest song, which hit the nail on the head, what we want is to eliminate exploitation, to eliminate harassment,” referring to Shakira’s latest hit, “El Jefe.”
Finally, concerning the pension system reform, the head of state argued that the sector needs to change so that “the elderly person who walks through Plaza Bolivar selling Bonice (ice cream) can have a bowl of soup, a place to live, a pension bonus that allows them to live with dignity. That’s how simple the reform is.”
Message to the Opposition
The president also remembered the political opposition to his government and invited them to participate in his proposal for a national agreement based on the three outlined pillars.
“In this government, we don’t spy on opposition leaders; we are willing to talk to the opposition. Just because they are in opposition doesn’t mean they will lose their rights. I propose to former presidents, economic guilds, the wealthiest in the country, political parties, social forces; I propose that we talk about truth, education, and land as the fundamental basis for peace,” concluded the president, extending his hand to parties and social players who do not support his government.
However, the reactions of some political opponents have quickly rejected the president’s willingness to negotiate. This has been expressed, at least, by the most ideologically distant party from this government: former President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center party. In a video on their social media, Senator Miguel Uribe, from the right-wing party, has stated that “as long as Petro insists on imposing his reforms, there will never be a national agreement.”
Meanwhile Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, also from the same party and one of the most ardent and vocal opponents of the progressive Colombian government, has discredited the demonstration, claiming it was funded with public funds. Cabal, as usual in her messages discrediting the government, has compared the pro-government demonstration to the marches organized by Chavez’s government in Venezuela. “This is identical to Chávez using PDVSA (the Venezuelan national oil company) resources to fill buses and take them to Caracas to claim they were supporting him,” she wrote in one of her numerous tweets criticizing the show of support for President Petro’s Colombian government.