November 28, 2023

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s first leftist president was sworn in Sunday, pledging to fight inequality and heralding a turning point in the history of a country haunted by a long war between the government and rebel groups.

Senator Gustavo Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, won the presidential election in June, defeating conservative parties that offered modest changes to the market-friendly economy but failed to connect with voters disenchanted with growing poverty and violence against human rights leaders and environmental groups in rural areas.

Petro is part of a growing group of left-wing politicians and political outsiders who have been winning elections in Latin America since the pandemic broke out and hurt incumbents struggling with its economic aftershocks.

The former rebel’s victory was also extraordinary for Colombia, where voters have historically been reluctant to support left-wing politicians often accused of being soft on crime or allied with rebels.

A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia shifted much of the focus of voters away from violent conflicts in rural areas and focused on problems such as poverty and corruption, fueling the left’s popularity parties in the national elections.

Petro, 62, has promised to tackle Colombia’s social and economic inequalities by boosting spending on anti-poverty programs and increasing investment in rural areas. He has described US-led anti-drug policies, such as the forced eradication of illegal coca crops, as a “big failure”. But he has said he would like to work with Washington “as equals,” creating programs to fight climate change or build infrastructure in rural areas where many farmers say coca leaves are the only viable crop.

Petro also formed alliances with environmentalists during his presidential campaign and promised to turn Colombia into a “global force for life” by slowing deforestation and taking steps to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The new president said Colombia would stop granting new oil exploration licenses and ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry makes up nearly 50 percent of the country’s legal exports. He plans to fund social spending with a $10 billion-a-year tax overhaul that would boost taxes on the wealthy and eliminate business tax breaks.

Petro also said he wants to start peace talks with the remaining rebel groups currently fighting over drug routes, gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC after its peace deal with the government.

“He has a very ambitious agenda,” said Jan Basset, a political scientist at Bogotá’s Rosario University. “But he will have to prioritize. The danger Petro faces is that it does too many reforms at once and gets nothing” through the Colombia conference.

Eight heads of state attended Petro’s inauguration, which took place in a large colonial-era plaza in front of Colombia’s Congress.

Stages with live music and large screens were also set up in Bogotá’s city center parks so that tens of thousands of citizens without invitations to the main event could join the festivities. This marked a big change for Colombia, where previous presidential inaugurations were more somber events limited to a few hundred VIP guests.

“It’s the first time that people from the grassroots can come here to participate in a presidential inauguration,” said Luis Alberto Combe, a member of the Guambiano tribe who appeared at the inauguration wearing a traditional blue poncho. “We feel honored to be here.”

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