Ex-rebel sworn in as president of Colombia in a historic turn

Bogota Colombia –

Colombia’s first leftist president took office on Sunday, vowing to fight inequality and bring peace to a country long haunted by bloody disputes between the government, drug traffickers and rebel groups.

Gustavo Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, won presidential elections in June by beating conservative parties that proposed moderate changes to the market economy but failed to connect with voters frustrated by rising poverty and violence against human rights. environmental leaders and groups in rural areas.

On Sunday, he said that Colombia was getting a “second chance” to confront violence and poverty and promised that his government would implement economic policies that seek to end long-standing inequalities and guarantee “solidarity” with the most vulnerable in the country. nation.

The incoming president said he was willing to start peace talks with armed groups across the country and also called on the United States and other developed nations to change drug policies that have focused on the prohibition of substances like cocaine and fueled conflict. violent in Colombia and the United States. other Latin American nations.

“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” he said. “Of course peace is possible. But it depends on the current drug policies being replaced by strong measures that prevent consumption in developed societies.”

Petro is part of a growing group of leftist politicians and political fringes who have been winning elections in Latin America since the pandemic hit, hurting incumbents who struggled with their economic aftershocks.

The former rebel’s victory was also exceptional for Colombia, where voters had historically been reluctant to back leftist politicians who were often accused of being soft on crime or allied with guerrillas.

A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia shifted voters’ attention away from violent conflicts raging in rural areas and brought issues like poverty and corruption to the forefront, fueling popularity of the left parties in the national elections. However, smaller rebel groups such as the National Liberation Army and the Clan del Golfo continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC.

Petro, 62, described US-led counternarcotics policies as a failure but also said he would like to work with Washington “as equals,” building schemes to combat climate change or bring infrastructure to rural areas where many farmers say that coca leaves are the base. only viable crop.

Petro also formed alliances with environmentalists during his presidential campaign and promised to make Colombia a “world power for life” by curbing deforestation and reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

He has said Colombia will stop granting new licenses for oil exploration and ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry accounts for almost 50% of the country’s legal exports. He plans to fund social spending with a $10 billion-a-year tax reform that would raise taxes on the wealthy and eliminate corporate tax breaks.

“He has a very ambitious agenda,” said Yan Basset, a political scientist at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá. “But he will have to prioritize. The risk Petro faces is that he pursues too many reforms at once and gets nothing” through Colombia’s Congress.

Analysts expect Petro’s foreign policy to be markedly different from that of his predecessor Iván Duque, a conservative who backed Washington’s drug policies and worked with the US government to isolate the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in an attempt to force the authoritarian leader to hold free elections.

Instead, Petro has said he will recognize Maduro’s government and try to work with the Venezuelan president on various issues, including fighting rebel groups along the porous border between the countries. Some border residents hope that better relations will lead to more trade and job opportunities.

Hours before Petro took office, at the most important border bridge with Venezuela, a group of people carried a Colombian flag as they walked toward Venezuela shouting “Long live Colombia, long live Venezuela!” Supporters of Maduro held a concert on the Venezuelan side of the border.

In Cúcuta, a city a few miles from the Venezuelan border, business school student Daniela Cárdenas hopes that Petro will carry out educational reform that includes free tuition for university students.

“He has promised so many things,” said Cardenas, 19, after traveling 90 minutes from his rural community to the city. “We have to work to be able to pay our student fees, which are quite expensive and, well, that makes a lot of things difficult for us.”

Eight heads of state attended Petro’s inauguration, which took place in a large colonial-era plaza across from Colombia’s Congress. Stages with live music and giant screens were also set up in parks in downtown Bogotá so that tens of thousands of citizens not invited to the main event could join in the festivities. That marked a big change for Colombia, where previous presidential inaugurations were more sombre events limited to a few hundred VIP guests.

“This is the first time that people from the base can come here to be part of a presidential inauguration,” said Luis Alberto Tombe, a member of the Guambiano tribe wearing a traditional blue poncho. “We are honored to be here.”

But not everyone feels so hopeful about Petro’s victory. In Medellín, Stefan Bravo, a conservative activist, organized a march against Petro on Saturday that was joined by some 500 people. He worries that Colombia’s new president will undermine the separation of powers in the South American country and follow the policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

“Petro does not represent us,” Bravo said. “This government will be a threat to family values, private property and foreign investment.”

Petro won the election by just 2 percentage points and remains a polarizing figure in Colombia, where many have been wary of former guerrillas participating in politics.

His cabinet appointments have also been heavily scrutinized: the new president has chosen an internationally renowned economics professor as his finance minister, while also choosing an academic who researches the negative impacts of extractive industries as his finance minister. mining, and gave the Ministry of Labor at its head. of the Communist Party of Colombia.

“I think he is trying to strike a balance,” said Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogotá. “He has included the activists he promised to make an integral part of his government, the centrist technocrats who give confidence to the markets, and the various political parties he has to govern with to pass anything in Congress.”


Associated Press journalist Regina García Cano contributed to this report from San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela.

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