Former Colombian rebel Gustavo Petro inaugurated as president


BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Gustavo Petro, a former member of a left-wing guerrilla group who had fought against the Colombian state, was inaugurated as president on Sunday, a change in a country with a history of guerrilla wars that have stifled modernization and polarized its population.

Standing in front of tens of thousands of supporters in Bogotá’s colonial main square, 62-year-old Mr. Petro that he would work to reduce poverty and hunger in this country of 50 million and bring about peace by entering into talks with various armed groups. He also created a platform to redistribute wealth, modernize a poor countryside and implement environmentally friendly economic policies.

“I want to say to all Colombians who are listening to me at the Bolivar Plaza and throughout Colombia and abroad that a new opportunity begins today,” said Mr Petro. ‘It is the hour of change. Our future is not written.”

Though a longtime member of Congress after his demobilization of the M-19 guerrilla group in 1990, Mr. Petro is an anti-establishment populist who has been a critic of the pro-business, pro-military policies of his predecessors. including the former president, Iván Duke.

Supporters gathered in Bogotá for President Gustavo Petro’s inauguration on Sunday.


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Diego Cuevas/Getty Images

The president’s supporters celebrated Sunday in Bogotá’s Bolivar Square.


Photo:

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

His first order as president came after taking the oath of office. Speaking from a podium, Mr. Petro to carry the sword of Simón Bolivar, hero of the wars of independence, from the presidential palace to his inauguration ceremony. Mr. Duque had previously prohibited moving the sword for safety reasons.

“Bring Bolivar’s sword,” Mr. Petro said as the crowd cheered. The president’s order carried special symbolism: The M-19 stole the sword from a museum in 1974 and returned it only after it was disarmed.

The inauguration included leaders from across Latin America and a US delegation led by Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Mr. Petro also welcomed Colombians by name who received special invitations: a fisherman from a river town, a coffee grower from the mountains and a street sweeper from Medellín.

“I never thought I would see such a monumental change in my life,” said Maria Alzate, a retiree who braved the crowd to reach the square where Mr. Petro spoke.

Juan Carlos Jaramillo, a university student, said, “We finally have a leader who cares about average people instead of just the very rich.”

Cadets with the sword of Simón Bolivar.


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Mauricio Duenas Castaneda/EPA/Shutterstock

Mr Petro’s victory in the June 19 elections, when he won with 50.4% of the vote, points to a different approach from the long line of centrist and conservative presidents who have ruled here. It has upset businessmen in Colombia who say they are concerned that the new president will implement policies that could hamper Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.

“My concern, like anyone who believes in the private sector, is that Petro’s rhetoric for the past 30 years has been anti-free economics,” said Alejandro Eder, a businessman and politician.

In his speech, Mr. Petro pushed for inclusive policies and higher taxes for the rich. “Equality is possible if we can generate wealth for everyone,” he said, “and if we can distribute it more fairly.”

Mr Petro criticized the US-backed war on drugs and said he would review the way Colombia manages the fight against the cocaine trade and drug trafficking groups.

“Peace is possible if we change policies against drugs,” he said.

Soldiers stood guard in Bogotá on Friday.


Photo:

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

He and his closest associates acted quickly so that on his first full day in office on Monday, he can take steps to raise more revenue to fund broader social programs while involving armed, drug-smuggling groups in talks leading to their demobilization.

The three largest groups, including the Gulf Clan and the National Liberation Army, have said in recent days that they are ready to engage in talks with the government. The Clan said in a statement it would declare a unilateral ceasefire with the state.

Mr Petro inherits a country that saw poverty, measured by income, grow from 35% in 2019 to 39% in 2021, according to the national statistics office.

But the economy is the strongest in Latin America of all the major countries. According to the central bank, it grew nearly 10.7% in 2021, after contracting 7% in the first year of the pandemic, 2020. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

However, Petro will struggle with a budget deficit of about 7% of gross domestic product and an annual inflation rate of 10% in July, the highest since 1999.

Jose Antonio Ocampo, the new Secretary of the Treasury.


Photo:

VANNESSA JIMENEZ/REUTERS

New Treasury Secretary Jose Antonio Ocampo, who headed the central bank’s board here in the mid-1990s, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday that he will unveil a tax reform plan that would boost revenues by about $12 billion. . the next four years. The money would increase social spending and help some six million Colombian households who cannot afford three meals a day.

The plan would raise taxes on individuals, of whom only 5% pay personal taxes, the OECD said. Loopholes and exemptions would end for some businesses.

“Tax reform is a critical issue for us,” said Mr Ocampo.

He added that the new government will also impose windfall taxes on coal and oil, two of Colombia’s biggest exports, to take advantage of high international commodity prices. The government is said to continue to work to transition the extractive industries as part of Petro’s commitment to combating climate change.

Mr. Ocampo, who was also a professor at Columbia University, has said his appointment was partly to quell fears about managing Mr. Petro’s economy. “There will be sound economic policies,” said Mr. Ocampo, who assured Colombia would not take protectionist measures or expropriate property.

Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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