People gather at Colombia's presidential palace in Bogotá. (AP)

A Status Check on Gustavo Petro's Five Big Reforms

By Jon Orbach

AS/COA Online covers how the Colombian president has fared with far-reaching health, labor, pension, tax, and political reforms.

Seven months into his presidency, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro has already submitted several far-reaching reforms to Congress. Together, these efforts, which stand at various places in the legislative process, represent Petro’s pledge to bring change to Colombia.

Many presidents promise change and present an ambitious legislative agenda in their first year, but three of Petro’s recent reform proposals—on health, labor, and pension—are different, says Colombian political analyst Silvana Amaya. “What I think is particular to Petro is that he proposed them all at the same time,” she says. That will make it harder for him to get the reforms approved in the shape he would like, she continues. 

Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, and his Historic Pact coalition hold a simple majority in Congress, with this legislative session starting March 16 and ending June 20. Sergio Guzmán, the director and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, says that the president is pushing his big reforms early because Historic Pact could see its bench weakened following October 2023’s local elections. “If you don't think you have governability for the next three-and-a-half years, you try to pass them all at once and see what sticks,” Guzmán says. “And I think that that's exactly what Petro's trying to do.” 

So where do the reforms stand? And what are they? AS/COA Online explains the status of five key reforms, starting with three introduced since the beginning of 2023.

1. Health reform

What it is: The initial proposal, presented February 13, seeks to increase the state’s control of funding and care provision in the health system. It planned to do so by nixing the Health Promoting Entities (EPS) system through which Colombians are required to select from a network of private health providers. The reform, as introduced, aimed to move funds directly to the facilities that offer health services, increase medical access nationwide, and boost health workers’ salaries. Petro doesn’t consider the current system equitable, particularly due to a lack of access in many rural areas. The proposed reform led to protests both in favor and against it last month.

Where it stands: The reform is in Congress and is expected to be brought to a House committee in May. Already, the reform has taken new shape in the wake of a cabinet shuffle that saw Education Minister Alejandro Gaviria step down after criticizing the reform. In addition, the Petro-allied President of Congress Roy Barreras said the bill as presented would lead to an “unmanageable crisis.” The updated reform would not entirely sidestep the EPS, which would still play an administrative role. But after Interior Minister Alfonso Prada announced the final text was “99 percent done” on March 27, the U Party and the Conservative Party dropped support on March 29, with U Party head Dilian Francisca Toro saying the government’s version didn’t incorporate proposals made by some of the coalition parties. On this and other reforms, Guzmán says that Petro “doesn't want to compromise because compromising to these parties would essentially make the next negotiation for the next reform more difficult.” He predicts that the active reforms will either get “very watered down” or not pass at all.

2. Labor reform

What it is: With this legislation, the Petro government says it hopes to bring more stability to Colombia’s workforce through improved work conditions. Among other things, Petro’s proposal seeks to change the official hours of the workday so that it ends at 6 pm to increase access to overtime pay, as well as offering overtime for working on holidays and Sundays. It would also reduce the work week from 48 to 46 hours, require firms employing people for gig work to provide a social safety net, and limit short-term contract work

Where it stands: In Congress, it will be taken up by Senate and House committees in April before making it to general debate in May and a vote in June. The bill was submitted on March 16, the day the legislative session began. Critics, including trade and business associations, claim it could disincentivize job creation due to higher labor costs.

3. Pension reform

What it is: Petro’s government says that only a quarter of Colombians hit the minimum working-week ceiling required to get a pension. This reform seeks to expand pension access by guaranteeing a monthly income of $46 to those unable to attain one. It would also seek to create a mega fund, under the Finance Ministry’s control, that would manage a large portion of the country’s pensions. Given that it involves diverting private funds to increase the size of the state pension firm Colpensiones, analysts have raised concerns that it will harm government financing by restricting those private funds’ ability to invest in public debt.

Where it stands: As in the case of the labor reform, this was submitted to Congress, where it will be taken up by Senate and House committees in April before making it to general debate in May and a vote in June. The government submitted this bill on March 22. “If they don’t get approved in the first debate, each one of these reforms will be archived, so it’s quite ambitious what [Petro’s] trying to do,” says Amaya.

4. Tax reform

What it is: The reform aimed to raise $5.6 billion of additional tax revenue by increasing taxes on the wealthy; removing corporate tax exemptions; raising export taxes on oil and gas; and upping taxes on sugary drinks, processed foods, and single-use plastics. 

Where it stands: Passed. On November 3, 2022, Congress approved a revised version of the bill, which aims to collect $4.2 billion in 2023. Getting this passed ahead of schedule was seen as an early win for Petro

5. Political reform

What it is: The reform, filed in September 2022, looked to outlaw private funding of political campaigns, reduce the minimum age for congresspeople from 30 to 25 in the Senate and from 25 to 18 in the House of Representatives, and obligate political parties to use closed lists with gender parity. 

Where it stands: Petro killed the reform on March 23 following congressional changes that struck down the campaign finance change, as well as the rule that would have required voters to back a party, leading the president to say “no progressive theme remains.” Under pressure from leftist factions in his coalition to cancel the bill, Petro did so days before an expected Senate vote. If the tax reform was an early victory, the political reform demonstrated a limit. “What this shows is that the support that Petro has in Congress is not unlimited as at some point it was thought,“ Amaya says.