International

Ex-rebel takes oath as Colombia president in historic shift

Supporters of Colombia's new President Gustavo Petro watch on a giant TV screen his swearing-in ceremony in San Antonio, on the Venezuelan border with Colombia, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s first leftist president was sworn into office Sunday, promising to fight inequality and bring peace to a country haunted by feuds between the government, drug traffickers and rebel groups.

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

On Sunday, he said Colombia was getting a “second chance” to tackle violence and poverty and promised that his government would implement economic policies that seek to end longstanding inequalities and ensure “solidarity” with the nation’s most vulnerable.

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 fed violent conflicts across Colombia and other Latin American nations.

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

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

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

A 2016 peace deal between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia turned much of the focus of voters away from the violent conflicts playing out in rural areas and gave prominence to problems like poverty and corruption, fueling the popularity of leftist parties in national elections. However smaller rebel groups like the National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC.

Petro, 62, has described U.S.-led antinarcotics policies as a failure but has 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 coca leaves are the only viable crop.

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

The incoming president has said Colombia will stop granting new licenses for oil exploration and will ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry makes up almost 50% of the nation’s legal exports. He plans to finance social spending with a $10 billion a year tax reform that would boost taxes on the rich and do away with corporate tax breaks.

“He’s got a very ambitious agenda,” said Yan Basset, a political scientist at Bogota’s Rosario University. “But he will have to prioritize. The risk Petro faces is that he goes after too many reforms at once and gets nothing” through Colombia’s congress.

In Cúcuta, a city just a few miles from the border with Venezuela, trade school student Daniela Cárdenas hopes Petro will carry out an educational reform that includes financial aid for college students.

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

Eight heads of state attended Petro’s inauguration, which was held at a large colonial-era square in front of Colombia’s Congress. Stages with live music and big screens were also placed in parks across Bogota’s city center so that tens of thousands of citizens without invitations to the main event could join in the festivities. That 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 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 feel honored to be here.”

Hours before Petro took office, at the most important border crossing bridge with Venezuela, a group of people carried a Colombian flag as they walked toward Venezuela chanting “Viva Colombia, Viva Venezuela.” People crossing in both directions joined their chants.

“We wish peace for both Venezuela and Colombia,” organizer Salvador Albarracin said. “Today, we are in Colombia sowing the possibilities of peace through a person who is President Gustavo Petro.”

Dozens of people erupted in cheers the moment Petro took office.

“Seeing Gustavo Petro as president is something very impressive and being aware that for the first time in our lives we are in a government,” Javier Uscategui, a human rights defender who works with victims of the armed conflict, said while wearing a baseball cap with the faces of the late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other leftist leaders.