Gustavo Petro, an economist, former senator and ex-guerrilla of the April 19th Movement (M-19), and Francia Márquez, a black leader and environmentalist from a small rural town in Cauca, took office as president and vice-president of Colombia to promise that “it is time for change, the Colombia of the possible begins”.

By Aram Aharonian

A day before the official ceremony, Petro was symbolically sworn in by indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and peasants, who called for peace in remote territories, defence of the environment, protection of minorities, changes in anti-drug policies, defence of human rights and renewal of the armed forces.

“We are here against all odds, against a history that said we were never going to govern, against those who have always been here, against those who did not want to let go of power”, said Gustavo Petro, who presented a list of commitments to the Colombian people, and from the very first moment demonstrated that he is not only the new president but also the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

His first measure was to order the military to carry the sword of the liberator Simón Bolívar, stolen by the M-19 in 1974 and returned in the 1990s, to the inauguration ceremony. Outgoing president Iván Duque had denied authorisation to remove it from the presidential palace and display it during the inauguration ceremony.

The biggest challenge facing the next Colombian government is to promote peace, to silence the guns, but also to attack the causes of armed violence such as hunger, enormous social inequality and the guarantee of rights, which have a lot to do with the abandonment of the state, racism, plutocracy, corruption, drug trafficking and paramilitarism that guarantee the production and shipment of coca to the United States.

It is time for change, for the real Colombia, so far and yet so close to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and the genocide of Uribism. Optimism and hope returned to Colombia and it was noticeable in the smiling faces of the white, Afro-descendant and indigenous population. Old people, women and men of all ages, but mostly young people, filled the Plaza Bolivar and the streets of Bogota. Yes, yes, it was possible.

A real change, in the midst of a complicated panorama of de facto powers, violence, social decomposition and an oligarchy that has kept the country under its thumb for almost its entire history, that has not hesitated to resort to dirty war against anyone or anything that questions its power and that does not seem willing to give up its privileges at the drop of a hat.

“I will unite Colombia. We will unite, all of us, our beloved Colombia (…) we have to say enough to the division that confronts us as a people. I do not want two countries, just as I do not want two societies. I want a strong, just and united Colombia”.

Among his first definitions as the new president, he stressed his willingness to comply with the Havana Peace Agreement and open dialogue with armed groups to end six decades of violent conflict, which left at least 450,000 people dead, mostly civilians, between 1985 and 2018 alone.

“This is the government of life, of peace, and that is how it will be remembered,” he said, noting that the main thing will be to “defend Colombians from violence and work to make families feel safe and at peace.

And he pointed out that for peace to be possible, drug policy must be changed. “The war on drugs has failed,” he said, referring to the anti-narcotics policy supported economically and militarily by the US.

He called for an International Convention to accept this failure of the policy promoted by Washington, which has led states to commit crimes and has evaporated the horizon of democracy, as well as his denunciation of inequality, which he described as senseless and amoral.

It was surprising that the US government sent a delegation headed by Samantha Power, administrator of the “US development aid agency” USAID, and not by the Secretary of State. One of the main unknowns that the new government will have to clear up will be the difficult balance in its relationship with the US, so as not to be forced to continue being a pawn of US foreign policy in the region.

“The war on drugs has left a million Latin Americans murdered over the last 40 years, and 70,000 North Americans dead from drug overdoses every year. The war on drugs has led states to commit crimes and has evaporated the horizon of democracy”, he stressed.

Curious: the hegemonic press tried to minimise the sea of citizens who accompanied the presidential couple in the act of taking office and before 24 hours in office, reminded him that he had not yet fulfilled his electoral promises?

The model

The new government’s first measures to tackle poverty, which affects more than 45 percent of Colombia’s population of some 50 million people, will be a law against hunger and a basic income, which are included in the programme of the Historical Pact. Four out of ten Colombians go hungry, according to surveys.

He pointed out that ’10 % of the Colombian population has 70 % of the wealth, it is absurd and amoral’ and spoke of a tax reform.

The new government finds a country between crisis and bankruptcy, with a fiscal deficit that exceeds seven percent of GDP. If it intends to carry out redistributive measures, it requires fiscal resources that must be provided by tax reform. “It is simply the solidarity payment that someone fortunate makes to a society that enables and guarantees their fortune,” he said.

This tax reform could be worth an estimated $12 billion, equivalent to 4 or 5 points of GDP, and needs to redefine the tax structure that has so far favoured big capital. “In other words, taxing the wealth of the wealthy. It will not punish the middle and poor sectors with higher taxes”.

He recalled in his speech that his plans also include free public university education, changes to the health system and subsidies for the elderly poor who do not receive pensions.

His economic promises, including a reform of the pension system and a ban on new oil exploration projects in favour of renewable energy, caused nervousness among businessmen and investors, even though he appointed renowned economist José Antonio Ocampo as finance minister. The president also pledged to fight corruption and climate change and to boost national industry.

Although the left did not win a majority of the 295 seats in Congress, Petro consolidated a coalition with the forces of the centre and traditional parties, such as the Liberal Party, which would guarantee the approval of his reforms and governability.

The new president announced that gender equality is possible, and that caregiving tasks should be considered, given that women often spend three or four times as many hours on them. “It is time to combat these inequalities and to balance the scales,” he said, and announced that Francia Márquez will head the Ministry of Equality.

The road is not easy: it is a matter of rebuilding the social fabric torn apart by the consecration of selfishness and individualism; of building bridges of dialogue in a society contaminated by the rhetoric of hatred and contempt for difference. In this way, the oligarchic sectors have legitimised their dominance for two centuries.

Green government

Petro-Márquez’s government will also face a green future, committing to a sustainable model, balancing the economy with nature. “We are ready for an economy without coal and oil, but we do little to help humanity. We are not the ones emitting greenhouse gases. Where is the global fund to save the Amazon rainforest?” he asked.

Gustavo Petro will be proposing to exchange foreign debt for domestic spending to protect the environment: “If the International Monetary Fund helps to exchange debt for concrete action against the climate crisis, we will have a new prosperous economy”.

The progressive formula managed to defeat the oligarchy that put everything it had to stay in power: money, drugs, drug cartels, state institutions, all the conservative political forces, right-wing liberals with their variants, fake news and shit news, the surreptitious power of the United States, and the cartelised national and foreign media. The triumph was not only Petro’s: it was that of a people fed up with so much repression, corruption, hunger… and with no future in sight.

But government is one thing, taking power is another. And for that, he has four years ahead of him. For now, let them govern.

In the presence of a dozen heads of state, including Alberto Fernández, Luis Arce (Bolivia), Gabriel Boric (Chile), Xiomara Castro (Honduras) and Guillermo Lasso (Ecuador), Petro urged Latin America to be united in concrete projects. “Latin American unity cannot be mere rhetoric; have we achieved an electrical energy network that covers all of the Americas? It is time to work together,” he said.

It is extremely encouraging that Colombia is breaking with centuries-old inertia to move towards progressivism, especially on the horizon of regional integration. With social sensitivity and a sovereigntist approach, we hope that the new Colombian government will be a new engine to face together the common challenges of the Latin American and Caribbean subcontinent.

The original article can be found here