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Symbols of Change and Five Challenges for the New President of Colombia


Petro’s rise to power is a milestone in Colombian history: he is the first President of the left, Congress will be controlled by progressives, and he has appointed Afro-American and indigenous leaders to key posts in his government.

By Armando Jimenez San Vicente

Gustavo Petro ‘s rise to power is historic as he is the first leftist president in Colombia’s two hundred year history. He arouses great interest internationally because of his past as a member of the M-19 guerrilla group and his progressive agenda . Locally, there are enormous expectations about his mandate, and his government will have to face great challenges to meet the complex political, economic and social demands of the Colombian people.

Petro’s rise to power is considered historic for three reasons:

1. The triumph of the left in a country that until now had been markedly conservative in its political options.

2. Control of Congress by a progressive force.

3. The presence in power of community leaders. For example, Petro has appointed Francia Márquez , an Afro-Colombian feminist and environmental activist who worked as a domestic worker, as vice president of government. Undoubtedly, this appointment is a claim to the plurality and diversity of the Colombian people.

These three points and his progressive agenda have generated great expectations in the Colombian marginalized classes. Citizens have seen in Petro the leader of the country’s political transformation and the architect of a great social claim. The actions of the Petro Government are loaded with a symbolism that indicates how it will face these five great challenges:

1. Meet social expectations

Petro promised an agenda with a high social sense, focused on equality, peace, the environment, women’s rights and the claim of the most disadvantaged. The great challenge is not how to implement it, but how to finance it. For this he has proposed a deep tax reform.

To achieve a profound change in Colombian governance and society, the new president will have to manage important counterweights. Among them, the Congress, the Constitutional Court, the control bodies, the Colombian military forces and the markets. Petro built his candidacy on the image of an anti-system ruler and now he will have to negotiate with the system to ensure governance.

2. The claim of the marginalized

During the campaign, the Colombian president promised the full vindication of the rights of the indigenous people and the Afro-Colombian population (called the nobodies ). And now he has selected important Afro-Colombian figures for his government, such as Vice President Márquez and the ambassador to the US, Luis Gilberto Murillo, as well as indigenous people.

Thus, the ambassador to the UN, Leonor Zalabata, is a prominent representative and defender of indigenous rights. Powerful symbolism, although the real challenge is to incorporate these traditionally marginalized groups into progress.

3. The relationship with the military

A former M-19 guerrilla is now the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Colombia. At his inauguration, a powerful symbol was that Senator María José Pizarro, daughter of M-19 leader Carlos Pizarro, assassinated in 1990 when he was a presidential candidate, placed the presidential sash on him. Now, at the head of the Colombian government, Petro must work with the military to ensure peace and governability in the country.

4. Economic growth

According to the OECD , Colombia will lead economic growth in Latin America in 2022, with 6.1%, thanks to the strengthening of the prices of raw materials (mainly oil). However, they also consider that such growth may be temporary.

On the other hand, it will have to face year-on-year inflation of 26%, the rise in interest rates and the high level of unemployment (11.6%). All these factors are going to interfere with his inclusive growth agenda and affect, above all, the popular classes, a bastion of Petro’s political support.

5. International geopolitics

For the United States, Colombia represents a geostrategic military ally due to its dual access to the Pacific and the Caribbean. Testimony of its military relevance are the American bases on its territory. They have also been allies in the OAS , currently greatly weakened by the polarization of the countries in the region.

The hitherto tense relationship with the Government of Venezuela will surely improve as both governments are left-wing. However, Petro will have to keep his distance so as not to lose his international image as a progressive, pragmatic and moderate. In any case, the wave of the left that dominates Latin America will favor its integration with the region.

Exchange symbols

The surprising procession of Bolívar’s sword has been interpreted by some as the reaffirmation of an anti-imperialist position against foreign investment. However, it is, above all, a symbol of Petro’s past in the insurgent struggle. The theft of the sword in 1974 was the action that made the M-19 guerrilla movement known.

The arrival of Petro to the presidency of Colombia has been loaded with symbolism, which seeks to vindicate those who, for decades, have felt marginalized by the system and development. A fair claim that demands urgent care. However, it will require a lot of political tact so as not to polarize society, as well as many resources to achieve far-reaching changes at the social level. The end is unarguable; the challenge is in the means to realise that end.

Petro’s presidency is already a historic event for Colombia and Latin America, but his government can only be evaluated after achieving full democratic governance, as well as clear and measurable results in social and economic matters.

Armando Jimenez San Vicente is a Professor of Economic Analysis of Law, Ortega y Gasset University and Research Institute. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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