A special day in Bogotá, and for millions of Colombians. This afternoon, August 7th, Gustavo Petro became the 34th President of Colombia. The inauguration ceremony was broadcasted live on TV: national anthem, music, and speeches in front of political representatives from many countries in Latin America and the world, and an overwhelmed crowd.
This is the first time a leftist becomes the President of Colombia. Gustavo Petro, 62 years old, was elected with a very short majority of 50.42% of the votes, which shows how divided is Colombian society.
I met Colombians who proudly voted for Petro and who hope his presidency will bring a big positive change to the country. I also met other Colombians who were extremely disappointed, and who even fear that Colombia will soon look like Venezuela after ex-President Hugo Chavez took power.
Gustavo Petro is well known to the Colombian public. In 1998, he was elected as a member of the Chamber of Representatives. And he would later serve as the Mayor of the capital Bogotá, and as a member of the Senate. During his teenage years, Gustavo Petro was a guerrillero, a member of the M-19 organization.
In the 1980s, remember the years of Pablo Escobar, the M-19 was the second largest guerrilla group in Colombia after the FARC. But it was not as hated by the population as other paramilitary groups since it was mainly a nationalist organization with the goal of opening Colombia to real democracy. In the 1990s, the M-19 transformed into a political party.
Along with the election of Gustavo Petro, Francia Márquez, 40 years old, became the first Afro-Colombian Vice President in the history of Colombia. Márquez comes from a rural village in the Andean region north of Medellín. She became well known for her activism within her community, especially against illegal mining and other environmental hazards. Márquez participated in the Colombian peace process and notably in the negotiations with the FARC in 2014 and the following years. She is a figure in Colombia, especially for marginalized women, the poor, the forgotten members of ethnic minorities, and the indigenous.
Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez came to power in a particular political climate in Colombia and in Latin America. In 2021, Colombia witnessed widespread social unrest due to the economic situation amid the pandemic. The government of Iván Duque, now ex-President, proposed a tax increase and the privatization of healthcare. This among other things explains why many Colombians went to vote for Petro in 2022. But there is also what is called in Spanish “una marea rosa” in Latin America; political analysts talk about a new “pink tide” or new “turn to the left”: Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile have more or less leftist governments. And you probably already know about Cuba and Venezuela. In Brazil, Lula da Silva, 76 years old, the famous member of the “Partido dos Trabalhadores”, is expected to win the elections against Bolsonaro in October 2022.
In his speech today, Gustavo Petro talked about a new opportunity for Colombia. He said that “the future is not written”. He talked about bringing justice to the committed crimes, introducing a significant tax reform, and fighting corruption and narco-trafficking. He also talked about gender equality, helping the poor, and protecting the environment…
What would he be able to do when confronted with realpolitik? Colombia is a country with more than 50 million people, many ethnicities, and a lot of mountains and forests. The gap between rich and poor is disconcerting. Rich Colombians who are in the cities drive nice cars and wear fancy clothes. The poor in rural areas sometimes don’t even have enough to eat. Paramilitary organizations, drug and human traffickers, and illegal miners have broken the country for decades. Colombians are obviously tired of civil wars, armed conflicts, and narco-trafficking. But how can someone change such a big country in only 4 years? The President of Colombia cannot even run for a second mandate. With almost half of the population against him and an established right-wing state apparatus that will fight to retain its power, Gustavo Petro will face great challenges and would struggle not to disappoint his hopeful electors. Politics is hard everywhere, and it’s even harder in such a complex country like Colombia.