Gustavo Petro became Colombia’s first leftist president yesterday, elected by voters who hope he can carry out ambitious social and economic reforms meant to reduce violence and deep inequality in the polarized Andean country.
Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrillas, was inaugurated in Bogota’s Bolivar Plaza yesterday afternoon.
Senate President Roy Barreras swore him in before some 100,000 people, including Spanish King Felipe VI, Latin American presidents and regular Colombians invited by Petro.
New Vice-President Francia Marquez, an environmental activist and former housekeeper, is the first Afro-Colombian woman to hold her post.
Petro, a 62-year-old former senator, has said his first priority will be actions to fight hunger in the country of 50mn, where nearly half the population lives in some kind of poverty.
A $5.8bn tax reform, which would raise duties on high earners to fund social programmes, will be proposed to congress today by the new Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo.
Petro took over from the deeply unpopular Ivan Duque for a four-year term during which he will enjoy support from a left-leaning majority in Congress.
His hard-fought victory in June elections brought Colombia, long ruled by a conservative elite, into an expanding left-wing fold 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.
“I’m also nervous about becoming president,” Petro recently told students at his alma mater Externado University in Bogota, when asked about the challenges he faces.
Petro has pledged free public university education and healthcare changes and constructed a broad congressional coalition of leftist and centrist parties to pass his platform.
Promises of a pension reform and a halt to new oil development have caused investor jitters despite the appointment of Ocampo, a long-time official, as finance minister.
The new president, a former mayor of Bogota, has also promised to revive scuppered peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and apply a 2016 peace deal to ex-members of the Farc guerrillas who reject it.
His foreign minister has said the government will hold dialogue with gangs and potentially give members reduced sentences in exchange for information about drug trafficking.
The sword of Latin American liberation hero Simon Bolivar – stolen by Petro’s erstwhile M-19 comrades in 1974 – will be on display in the plaza.
“We all have to wish each other good luck,” Petro told the students.
Petro starts from an “enviable position, with a large majority in Congress and, in terms of the street, with support that no government had in recent years”, analyst Jorge Restrepo of the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (Cerac) told AFP.
Colombian presidents serve only one term.
Gustavo Petro speaking to media in Bogota after receiving confirmation from Colombia’s National Electoral Council on June 23.