The programme of Colombia’s new government, led by Gustavo Petro Urrego, marks the start of overturning the neoliberal model, replacing it with one that gives the state back its decisive role in the functioning of the economy.
This challenge faces many elements of the developmentalist model, which in the past sought to boost local production of consumer goods while maintaining the export of raw materials as one of the central tenents of the economy.
In Colombia, developmentalist industrialisation involved boosting sectors that had emerged in the nineteenth century but expanded considerably in the twentieth, transforming the country’s very structure. This was the case with the development of the local metal and textile industries, and the production of many everyday consumer goods, although the means of production (machinery, equipment and technology) were never developed and continued to be imported.
The current neoliberal model undid these achievements. Agricultural production in Colombia is a case in point, which demonstrates the perversion of the neoliberal model: the country went from being practically autonomous in terms of food production and raw materials to an importer of many of these. “Cheaper” goods offer nothing in the way of compensation for the many left unemployed in the countryside and cities alike as a result of neoliberalism.
This unemployment is the main cause of the internal and external migrations that have adversely affected millions of people. Some have been displaced “peacefully” by the dynamics of capitalism, but others are victims of extreme official and private violence against the working classes and the political opposition.
In contrast, the closed defence of their internal market is the essence of economic policy in metropolitan nations, who impose open borders and market liberalisation on marginalised countries around the world in a multitude of ways.
If the new president, Gustavo Petro, intends to make advances in dismantling this perverse system, he will meet strong opposition from the local bourgeoisie (whose statements seem like threats), and sabotage from the multinationals that currently benefit from neoliberalism.
The new government is not in for an easy ride. It will have to count on growing popular support and the effective backing of local rural and urban entrepreneurs (especially small and medium-sized enterprises), who have been so damaged by neoliberal policies. Such a boost to domestic production, coupled with fiscal reform, may secure sufficient funds for the new government to implement many of the measures announced.
The country has enough resources, although it is clear that Petro and his team will have to be extremely pragmatic in how they use them to respond to the enormous popular demands of the millions who currently lack basic health outcomes, education, housing, food, decent employment, etc., without neglecting the investments needed.
Colombia is no exception to the well-known challenge that arises in any process of substantial societal change: calculating how to divide the resources available between indispensable and urgent social spending and the economic investment needed to drive solid national development (the importance of which always only becomes apparent in the medium- and long-term).
The new government must encourage fresh forms of social participation that ensure constructive dialogue between the government and the various social collectives. Only then will it be able to reach a national agreement on the spending-investment balance which is sufficiently broad to lead collectives to accept the sacrifices needed to achieve this balance.
This will establish the necessary relationship between the laws and regulations approved by traditional bodies (Parliament, etc.) and the will of the people.
Such balance will represent a new and decisive new way of doing politics, centred on the government’s relationship with the many forms of popular participation (trade unions, associations, neighbourhood councils, minority ethnic groups, etc.). This is what brought Petro to power, in addition to agreements with business groups and the like to ensure sufficient balance.
It will be a key step towards overcoming neoliberal policy, which gives all the power to the markets and reduces the state to mere police control, in the process demonising all independent forms of popular organisation (particularly trade unions).
Giving the state back its functions and allowing forms of popular organisation to play a decisive role makes it possible, for example, to decide democratically what to produce, what not to produce and in what proportions. It also makes it possible to overcome the current consumerism and to try to harmonise production with the urgent need to satisfy the population’s basic needs – while simultaneously achieving a healthy relationship with the natural environment and resources.
Whether this is compatible with the functioning of capitalism is a matter for debate, and a challenge for Colombia’s new government.
Given Petro’s programme and his aims, it seems clear that he is committed to a reformed, democratic capitalism that is fundamentally different from the current neoliberal model.
The proposals of the incoming government seem to favour a new developmentalism, adapted to the emerging social and political conditions (both local and international).
The same can be said of its proposals to advance regional integration as a necessary mechanism to strengthen regional capacity in the negotiation of complex issues, such as foreign debt, foreign investment, new economic relations with the so-called emerging powers (China, in particular) and a necessary review of current ties with the traditional capitalist powers.
A new developmentalism is not just necessary, it is indispensable to overcome the current situation of backwardness, poverty and disadvantageous dependence on the world market.
Of course, it would be a major step forward if food sovereignty and industrial development (as well as the modernisation of trade and services) were combined with the strategic task of developing the means of production, which is indispensable to developing the means of consumption. The advanced countries still largely hold the monopoly on industrial equipment, technology and science; breaking this privilege is a challenge that cannot be ignored.