Colombia swears in the first left-wing president

Ex-guerrilla and ex-mayor Gustavo Petro will be sworn in Sunday as Colombia’s first leftist president, with plans for deep reforms in a country beset by economic inequality and drug violence.

The 62-year-old former senator takes over from the deeply unpopular Ivan Duque for a four-year term in which he will have the support of a left-wing majority in Congress.

Petro’s hard-fought victory in June’s election brought Colombia, long ruled by a conservative elite, into a burgeoning left-wing surge in Latin America that could be consolidated in October with a likely victory for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil.

At a ceremony in Bogota on the eve of his inauguration, Petro said his government would aim to “bring to Colombia what it has not had for centuries, which is tranquility and peace.”

“Here begins a government that will fight for environmental justice,” he added.

During the campaign, Petro had promised to raise taxes on the rich, invest in health and education and reform the police after a brutal crackdown on inequality protests last year that drew international condemnation.

He has promised to suspend oil exploration, promote clean energy and reactivate diplomatic and trade relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, suspended since 2019.

Petro starts from an “enviable position, with a large majority in Congress and, in terms of the street, with support that no government has had in recent years,” analyst Jorge Restrepo of the Resource Center told reporters for Conflict Analysis.

“Critical” debt burden.

Petro’s presidency is also historic in another sense: alongside him will be the country’s first Afro-Colombian woman vice president, the 40-year-old environmental and women’s rights activist Francia Márquez.

The couple will face an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, an increase in violence and deep-seated anger against the political establishment that culminated in last year’s protests.

Almost 40% of Colombia’s 50 million people live in poverty, while 11.7% are unemployed.

Inflation reached 10.2% year-on-year in July.

On Monday, a preparatory commission set up by Petro said he inherited “a level of debt and fiscal deficit that is critical”.

Peace talks

Petro, who in his youth was a member of the urban guerrilla group M-19, has pledged to implement the pending provisions of the 2016 peace deal that saw the FARC rebel movement lay down its arms after of almost six decades of civil conflict.

The former mayor of Bogota has also promised to continue negotiations with the armed group of the National Liberation Army.

Although the FARC disbanded to become a political party, Colombia has seen an increase in violence as thousands of dissidents battle the liberation army and powerful cartels for control of drug camps, mines of illegal gold and the lucrative smuggling routes.

According to the peace research institute Indepaz, there are 90 armed groups with around 10,000 active members in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

Petro has proposed allowing armed groups to go free in exchange for some form of amnesty.

It will be inaugurated at 15:00 local time (20:00 GMT) in front of a number of international guests.

Colombian presidents serve only one term.


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