Thousands of people in the South American nation of Colombia have taken to the streets to rally in favour of proposed economic and social reforms put forward by President Gustavo Petro.
The left-wing president presented his healthcare plan before Colombia’s Congress on Monday, introducing initiatives that include greater access, increased pay for health workers, and subsidies for the poor and elderly. The proposal is expected to face opposition from conservative legislators who have argued that the reforms are too risky.
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“What President Petro is doing seems good to me. We need a change for the poor to have access to health, education, decent housing,” Maria Isabel Cubillos, a 43-year-old street vendor, told the Reuters news agency in the capital Bogota.
Así está la Plaza de armas en Bogotá. pic.twitter.com/DTDLtAKYeC
— Gustavo Petro (@petrogustavo) February 14, 2023
Petro’s push for expanded healthcare access fits into his larger platform of reducing poverty and economic inequality in Colombia, where he was elected last June as the first leftist president in the country’s history.
“I do not want two countries, just as I do not want two societies. I want a strong, just and united Colombia,” Petro said in his inaugural speech in August.
The president also hopes to institute changes for labour and pensions, and offer subsidies for the elderly and those in poverty, as well as free university education for those who cannot otherwise afford it.
On Tuesday, crowds marched in the streets of Colombia’s big cities, heeding Petro’s call to make a public show of support that the president hopes will send a message to his fellow politicians.
That popular support could play a vital role in swaying more conservative members of Petro’s coalition in Congress, which includes politicians from left-wing, centre and right-wing parties. The coalition has supported some of his priorities, such as tax-system reform, but is more divided on the issue of healthcare.
Opposition groups also called for marches and asked the public to rally against the health package, which they characterised as a threat to the country’s economic stability.
Historically marginalised groups — including poor, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations — helped propel Petro to the presidency in the conservative South American nation, which has a long history of inequality and political violence.
Part of Petro’s approach while in office has been to enter into negotiations with armed groups, including the National Liberation Army.
“We assume the mandate of CHANGE from the Colombian people,” Vice President Francia Marquez said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Let’s dignify the health system!”
Petro, a former rebel fighter, has promised to address Colombia’s decades of violence by expanding services for the marginalised and decreasing economic inequality, goals that garner both hope and scepticism.
“We support the proposals for change for life, health, agrarian, pension and education reforms,” said 55-year-old Nelson Pereira. “It is not fair that the poor continue to be subjugated. We need social justice, more equity, that there are no privileges for health services health.”