Former rebel sworn in as Colombian president in historic turning point

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombia’s first left-wing president will be sworn into office on Sunday. He promises to fight inequality and heralds a turning point in the history of a country plagued by a long war between the government and guerrilla groups.

Senator Gustavo Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, won the June presidential election, defeating conservative parties that offered moderate changes to the pro-market economy but failed to engage with voters at risk of rising poverty and violence frustrated human rights leaders and environmental groups in rural areas.

Petro is among a growing group of left-wing politicians and political mavericks who have won elections in Latin America since the pandemic hit, hurting incumbents struggling with their economic aftershocks.

The ex-rebel’s victory was also exceptional for Colombia, where voters have traditionally been reluctant to support left-wing politicians, who have often been accused of being lenient on crime or allying with the guerrillas.

A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia diverted much of the electorate’s focus from the violent conflicts in rural areas and gave more prominence to issues such as poverty and corruption, boosting the popularity of left-wing parties in national elections.

Petro, 62, has promised to tackle Colombia’s social and economic inequalities by increasing spending on poverty reduction programs and increasing investment in rural areas. He has called US-led anti-drug policies, such as the forced eradication of illicit coca cultivation, a “great failure”. But he has said he would like to work “on an equal footing” with Washington, building programs to tackle climate change or bringing infrastructure to rural areas where many farmers say coca leaves are the only viable crop.

Petro has also forged alliances with environmentalists during his presidential campaign, promising to transform Colombia into a “global powerhouse for life” by slowing deforestation and taking steps to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The new president has announced that Colombia will stop issuing new oil exploration licenses and ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry accounts for nearly 50% of the country’s legal exports. He plans to fund welfare spending with a $10 billion-a-year tax reform that would increase taxes on the wealthy and eliminate tax breaks for corporations.

Petro has also said he wants to start peace talks with remaining rebel groups currently fighting over drug routes, gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC after its peace deal with the government.

“He has a very ambitious agenda,” said Yan Basset, a political scientist at Rosario University in Bogota. “But he has to prioritize. The risk Petro faces is that he implements too many reforms at once and gets nothing through the Colombian Congress.

At least 10 heads of state are expected to attend Petro’s inauguration, which will take place in a grand colonial-era square in front of Colombia’s Congress. Stages with live music and giant screens will also be set up in parks in downtown Bogota to allow tens of thousands of uninvited citizens to attend the celebrations. It’s a big change for Colombia, where previous presidential inaugurations have tended to be somber events limited to a few hundred VIP guests.

“We want the Colombian people to be the protagonists,” Petro’s press chief Marisol Rojas said in a statement. “This inauguration will be the first taste of a new form of governance in which all life forms are respected and into which everyone fits.”

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