BOGOTO, Colombia – Gustavo Petro, a former member of the left-wing guerrilla group that fought the Colombian state, was inaugurated Sunday as president, a change of heart in a country with a history of guerrilla wars that has stifled its modernization and polarized its people.
Standing before tens of thousands of supporters in Bogota’s central colonial square, the 62-year-old pledged he would work to reduce poverty and hunger in this country of 50 million people and secure peace by engaging in talks with several armed groups. It also set a platform for the redistribution of wealth, the modernization of the poor countryside, and the adoption of environmentally friendly economic policies.
“I want to say to all the Colombians who listen to me in Bolivar Plaza and throughout Colombia and beyond that today begins a new opportunity,” said Mr. Petro. “It is the hour of change. Our future has not been written.”
Despite being a longtime member of Congress after his demobilization from the guerrilla group M-19 in 1990, Mr. Pietro is an anti-establishment populist who was a critic of the pro-business and military policies of his predecessors, including the former president, Evan. Duki.
His first order as president came after he was sworn in. Speaking from the stage, Mr. Pietro called for the sword of Simon Bolivar, the hero of the wars of independence, to be brought to the opening ceremony from the presidential palace. Duke had previously forbidden the sword to be moved for safety reasons.
“Bring the sword of Bolivar,” said Mister Pietro as the crowd cheered. The president’s order carried special symbolism: the M-19 sword was stolen in 1974 from a museum, only to be returned after it was disarmed.
The opening included leaders from across Latin America and a US delegation led by Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Mr. Pietro also welcomed by name Colombians who received special invitations: a fisherman from a river town, a coffee farmer from the mountains, a street sweeper from Medellin.
“I never thought I’d see such a huge change in my life,” said Maria Alzati, a retiree who braved the crowd to get to the square where Mr Pietro was speaking.
“We finally have a leader who cares about ordinary people rather than just the rich,” said university student Juan Carlos Jaramillo.
Mr Petro’s victory in the June 19 election, when he won 50.4% of the vote, signals a different approach from the long line of centrist and conservative presidents who have ruled here. That has alarmed Colombian businessmen, who say they worry the new president may implement policies that could derail Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.
“What worries me, as anyone who believes in the private sector, is that Petro rhetoric over the past 30 years has been anti-free economy,” said Alejandro Eder, a businessman and politician.
In his speech, Mr. Pietro urged inclusive policies and higher taxes on the rich. He said, “Equality is possible if we are able to generate wealth for all, and if we can distribute it more equitably.”
Criticizing the US-backed war on drugs, Mr. Petro said he would reform the way Colombia conducts the war against the cocaine trade and drug trafficking groups.
“Peace is possible if we change our policies against drugs,” he said.
He and his closest aides moved quickly so that, on his first full day in office on Monday, he could take steps to raise more revenue to fund broader social programs while engaging drug-smuggling armed groups in talks leading to their demobilization.
The three largest groups – among them the Gulf clan and the National Liberation Army – have said in recent days that they are ready to engage the government in the talks. The clan said in a statement that it would call on the state for a unilateral ceasefire.
The National Bureau of Statistics said Mr Petro is inheriting a country that has seen income-based poverty grow from 35% in 2019 to 39% in 2021.
But the economy is stronger in Latin America than any large country. It grew by about 10.7% in 2021, according to the central bank, after a 7% contraction in the pandemic’s first year, 2020. The economy is expected to grow by 6% in 2022, outpacing the rest of Latin America, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. .
However, Mr. Petro will face a budget deficit of about 7% of GDP and annual inflation at 10% in July, the highest level since 1999.
The new finance minister, Jose Antonio Ocampo, who chaired the central bank’s board here in the mid-1990s, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he is set to unveil a tax reform plan on Monday that would boost revenue by about $12 billion. over the next four years. The money will boost social spending and help about six million Colombian families who cannot afford three meals a day.
The plan will raise taxes on individuals, with only 5% of them paying personal taxes, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Loopholes and waivers will expire for some companies.
“Tax reform is a very important issue for us,” said Mr. Ocampo.
He added that the new government would also introduce unexpected taxes on coal and oil, two of Colombia’s biggest exports, to take advantage of higher international commodity prices. The government will continue to work on the transition from extractive industries, as part of Mr Petro’s commitment to combating climate change.
Ocampo, who was also a professor at Columbia University, said his appointment was partly intended to allay concerns about Mr Petro’s management of the economy. “There will be a sound economic policy,” said Mr. Ocampo, assuring that Colombia will not resort to protective measures or confiscation of property.
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