September 27, 2022


BOGOTA, Colombia—Gustavo Petro, a former member of a leftist guerrilla group that had fought the Colombian state, was inaugurated Sunday as president, a change in a country with a history of guerrilla wars that have stifled modernization and polarized its people.

In front of tens of thousands of supporters in Bogota’s colonial central square, Mr Petro, 62, pledged to work to reduce poverty and hunger in this country of 50 million and secure peace by engaging in talks with several armed groups. It also created a platform to redistribute wealth, modernize a poor countryside and adopt environmentally friendly economic policies.

“I want to say to all the Colombians listening to me in Bolivar Plaza and throughout Colombia and abroad that today a new opportunity begins,” Mr. Petro said. “It’s time for change. Our future has not been written.”

Although a longtime member of Congress after demobilizing from the M-19 guerrilla group in 1990, Mr. Petros is an anti-establishment populist who has been critical of the pro-business, pro-military policies of his predecessors, including former President Iván . Duque.

Supporters gathered in Bogota for the inauguration of President Gustavo Petro on Sunday.


Photo:

Diego Cuevas/Getty Images

The president’s supporters celebrated on Sunday in Bolivar Square in Bogotá.


Photo:

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

His first mandate as president came after his inauguration. Speaking from a stage, Mr. Petro asked that the sword of Simón Bolívar, hero of the wars of independence, be brought to his inauguration ceremony from the presidential palace. Mr. Duque had earlier banned the movement of the sword, for security reasons.

“Bring the sword of Bolivar,” Mr. Petro said as the crowds cheered. The president’s order had special symbolism: M-19 stole the sword in 1974 from a museum, and returned it only after it was disarmed.

The opening included leaders from across Latin America and a US delegation led by Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Mr. Petro also welcomed by name the Colombians who received special invitations: a fisherman from a river town, a coffee farmer from the mountains and a street sweeper from Medellín.

“I never thought I would see such a monumental change in my life,” said Maria Alzate, a pensioner who braved the crowds to reach the square where Mr. Petros spoke.

Juan Carlos Jaramillo, a university student, said: “We finally have a leader who cares about the average people instead of the very rich.”

Cadets with the sword of Simón Bolivar.


Photo:

mauricio duenas castaneda/EPA/Shutterstock

Mr Petros’ victory in the June 19 election, when he won with 50.4% of the vote, signaled a different approach from the long line of centrist and conservative presidents who have ruled here. It has unnerved businessmen in Colombia, who say they worry the new president may implement policies that could hamper Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.

“My concern, like anyone who believes in the private sector, is that Petro’s rhetoric over the last 30 years has been against the free economy,” said Alejandro Ender, a businessman and politician.

In his speech, Mr. Petros called for inclusive policies and higher taxes on the rich. “Equality is possible if we are able to generate wealth for everyone,” he said, “and if we are able to distribute it more fairly.”

Criticizing the US-backed war on drugs, Mr Petro said he would review the way Colombia manages the fight against the cocaine trade and drug-trafficking groups.

“Peace is possible if we change our anti-drug policies,” he said.

Soldiers stood guard in Bogota on Friday.


Photo:

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

He and his closest aides have moved quickly so that on his first day in office on Monday he can take steps to raise more revenue to fund broader social programs, while armed drug-trafficking groups are engaged in talks leading to their demobilization.

The three largest groups – among them the Gulf Faction and the National Liberation Army – have said in recent days that they are ready to engage the government in talks. The Clan said in a statement that it would seek a unilateral ceasefire with the state.

Mr Petros inherits a country that saw poverty rise from 35% in 2019 to 39% in 2021, the national statistics office said.

But the economy is the strongest in Latin America of any major country. It grew nearly 10.7% in 2021, according to the central bank, after contracting 7% in the first year of the pandemic, in 2020. The economy is forecast to grow 6% in 2022, outpacing the rest of Latin America, according to the Economic Organization Cooperation and Development.

Mr Petro, however, will face a budget deficit of around 7% of GDP and annual inflation at 10% in July, the highest since 1999.

Jose Antonio Ocampo, new Minister of Finance.


Photo:

VANESSA JIMENEZ/REUTERS

New Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, who headed the central bank’s board here in the mid-1990s, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he is set to unveil a tax reform plan on Monday that would raise revenue by about $12 billion over the next four years. The money will boost social spending and help some six million Colombian households who cannot afford three meals a day.

The plan would raise taxes on individuals, only 5% of whom pay personal taxes, according to the OECD. Loopholes and exemptions will end for some companies.

“Tax reform is a critical issue for us,” Mr. Ocampo said.

He added that the new government would also apply windfall taxes on coal and oil, two of Colombia’s biggest exports, to take advantage of high international commodity prices. The government will continue to work to transition from extractive industries, part of Mr Petros’ commitment to combating climate change.

Mr. Ocampo, who was also a professor at Columbia University, said his appointment was designed in part to quell fears about Mr. Petros’ handling of the economy. “There will be a sound economic policy,” Mr. Ocampo said, assuring that Colombia would not turn to protectionist measures or expropriate property.

Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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