John Lennon’s famous song “Give peace a chance” has travelled the world since its recording in 1969, chanted by millions of voices as an anthem for peace. In Colombia, death would still thunder for decades, even after a Peace Accord was solemnly signed between the state and the main belligerent guerrillas in 2016.
Even today as yesterday, the US, whose central role in most of the war conflicts of the 20th century is undisguisable, invests all its efforts in sustaining a permanent war against the will of self-determination of the peoples.
But the world has changed since the rebellious youth took up arms against injustice. Those liberation movements today find their wake in the diversified political organisation, in the feminist clamour, in the territorial struggles for socio-environmental defence, in the renewed mobilisation of a courageous youth front line, in the demands for reparation of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, in the active resistance of peasants, in the force of organised workers, in short, in a determined stance of active non-violence to confront the ignominy of the system. And it is the coming together of these diversities in a united pact that has made it possible for a former guerrilla from the April 19 Movement (better known as M-19) and a Negro leader from a small rural town in Cauca to become president and vice-president of Colombia.
The inauguration was surrounded by colour and symbolism. Gustavo Petro unveiled a decalogue of commitments to the Colombian people, the first of which is to “work to achieve true and definitive peace, complying with the Peace Agreement and the recommendations of the Final Report of the Truth Commission”.
Another of the sentences of the aforementioned decalogue, complementary to the first, received a justified ovation: “Defend Colombians from violence and work to ensure that families feel safe and at peace”.
In another part of his speech, he affirmed that “peace is possible if we unleash social dialogue in all regions of Colombia, to meet in the midst of differences; to express ourselves and be heard” and he called on “all the armed groups to lay down their arms in the mists of the past. To accept legal benefits in exchange for peace, in exchange for the definitive non-repetition of violence, to work as owners of a prosperous but legal economy that puts an end to the backwardness of the regions”.
Finally, he emphasised in his speech that “This is the government of life, of peace, and it will be remembered as such”.
These are purposes, whose sincerity no one doubts, since they correspond to the profound feelings of the majority and on which not only the reparation of the wounds of the past, but also the future of the Colombian people depends.
The challenge for the new government is enormous, but so is the hope and will of the people to accompany the change.
Across the border, in neighboring Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro – whose government was relentlessly besieged by former president Iván Duque by order of the imperial mandate – celebrated the words of the new Colombian president, stressing the need to take advantage of the ‘second chance’ he mentioned almost at the beginning of his speech.
In a message on digital networks, Maduro said: “I extend my hand to President Gustavo Petro and the Colombian people, to rebuild brotherhood on the basis of respect and love. Let us take advantage of this second opportunity mentioned by the new President of Colombia, for the sake of happiness and peace. Congratulations!”.
Although the President of the Bolivarian Republic was not invited to the inauguration ceremony as the last act of harassment by the outgoing government, a few days earlier, Carlos Faría, Venezuela’s Minister of Popular Power for Foreign Relations, and Alvaro Leyva, appointed Foreign Minister of the new Colombian government, met in San Cristóbal, a Venezuelan town close to the border. At the meeting, they agreed to strengthen a working agenda for the gradual normalisation of bi-national relations and to begin the recomposing of the interrupted bilateral relations with the appointment of ambassadors and diplomatic and consular officials.
They also reaffirmed in the joint communiqué, described as “historic” by the Venezuelan minister, “their willingness to make joint efforts to guarantee security and peace on the border of our two countries”.
In this way, the main focus of conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean, which was proclaimed as a Zone of Peace during the Second Summit of CELAC (Havana, 2014), seems to be deactivated.
A new impetus for regional integration
The presence of several presidents from the region on the occasion showed the strong impulse towards multilateralism and integration with Latin America and the Caribbean that this first left-wing government in Colombia intends to imprint on its administration.
In attendance were representatives of the progressive bloc such as Gabriel Boric, Alberto Fernández, Luis Arce and Xiomara Castro, but also from the conservative spectrum such as Mario Abdo of Paraguay, the Dominican Luis Abinader, the Costa Rican Rodrigo Chaves and Guillermo Lasso, who received a thunderous applause from the thousands present in Bolívar Square.
Fernández, who currently holds the pro tempore presidency of CELAC, and the president of Bolivia publicly lamented the Peruvian Congress’s mean-spirited refusal to authorise President Pedro Castillo’s trip. Also present were Panama’s president Laurentino Cortizo, the king of Spain and Uruguay’s vice-president Beatriz Argimón, representing Lacalle Pou, and the Frontamplista Yamandú Orsi, mayor of Canelones, representing former president José “Pepe” Mujica, also invited by Petro, as well as ministers and parliamentarians from countries such as Cuba, Serbia and the United Kingdom, and envoys from international organisations.
For its part, the US government sent a delegation headed by Samantha Power, administrator of USAID. One of the main unknowns that Petro will have to clear up will be the difficult balance in Colombia’s relationship with the US, so as not to be forced to continue being a pawn of US foreign policy in the region.
People, a lot of people filled the streets and squares, and it is estimated that more than 100,000 people attended the seventy or so cultural events that marked the beginning of the new government.
Full of symbolism was the space Petro gave to six guests of honour, ordinary people representing the excluded of Colombia, with whom Petro had already met during his campaign. Among them were Arnulfo Muñoz, an artisanal fisherman from Tolima, Katherine Gil, a youth leader from Chocó, Genoveva Palacios, a street vendor from Quibdó, and Kelly Garcés, a sweeper from a cleaning company, whose resistance to the harassment she suffered for having a leaflet from the Historical Pact among her work tools went viral. Rigoberto López, a peasant farmer from Caldas, and Jorge Iván Londoño, a silletero from Medellín, completed the picture.
Petro addressed the crowd saying: “I will unite Colombia. We will unite, between all of us, our beloved Colombia” and further said “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.
Undoubtedly an auspicious beginning, in keeping with a government determined to promote profound changes in a nation that demands healing. A nation that today celebrated the possibility of giving peace a real chance.