Gustavo Petro, a former urban guerrilla who was jailed for his political beliefs in the 1980s, was sworn in as Colombia’s president on Sunday at the head of what is likely to be the most left-wing government in the country’s history.
In a ceremony rich in symbolism, Petro, 62, took the presidential oath in Bogotá’s Bolivar Square, in front of Congress and in front of the Palace of Justice. In 1985, while Petro was in prison, the urban guerrilla to which he belonged stormed the palace. About 100 people died when the army tried to retake it.
In his speech, Petro repeated many of his campaign promises, saying that after decades of bloody conflict, Colombia needed a complete overhaul to make it “a potential for life.”
“We’re here against all odds . . . against those who didn’t want to let go of power. But we did,” he said.
Petro’s running mate Francia Márquez was also sworn in on Sunday as Colombia’s first black vice president. Born in poverty in the south-west of the country, plagued by violence, she is an environmental activist and won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2018.
In a ceremony that broke with tradition, butterfly patterns in Colombia’s national colors — yellow, blue and red — were projected onto the screens flanking the stage. Unlike previous government handovers, thousands of people were able to enter the square.
Across the city, Petro supporters gathered in parks and squares to watch the ceremony on big screens. Some waved the red, white and blue flags of M-19, Petro’s former urban guerrilla group.
“It’s a great victory for the Colombian people to finally have a popular government, away from the oligarchy and political clans,” said Xiomara Jimenez, a psychologist, as a drum beat and street vendors waved flags at revelers. “I am happy for my children and for my people.”
Jairo Barahona, a barber in Bogota, said he hoped Petro would help the working and middle classes. “There are opportunities now to support small businesses and workers,” he said.
During the campaign, Petro promised wholesale land reform, a halt to oil and gas exploration, and funding for universal access to healthcare and higher education.
He also pledged to tackle corruption in military and public life and to implement the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which stalled during the Iván Duque administration. Petro has also expressed his willingness to negotiate with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing guerrilla group.
A new scenario in the war on drugs is also likely. Colombia is the world’s leading producer of cocaine, and the drug continues to finance armed groups throughout the country. “It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” Petro said in his inauguration speech. “The war on drugs has strengthened the mafias and weakened the states.”
Passing tax reform will be one of Petro’s top legislative priorities if he wants to fulfill his campaign promises. Failure to do so would risk alienating his base, which is partly made up of disaffected young people who marched by the thousands last year in protest against inequality in Colombia.
Petro Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo, a market-friendly, Yale-educated economist, has said a tax reform bill will be sent to Congress on Monday.
Before being sworn in, Petro held meetings with presidents from across the region, including Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, Bolivia’s Luis Arce and Ecuador’s Guillermo Lasso. Peru’s president, Pedro Castillo, who is facing numerous judicial investigations, was unable to travel to Colombia for his congress.
The American delegation was headed by Samantha Power, head of the USAID development agency. Colombia has traditionally been Washington’s staunchest ally in the region, although the relationship could be tested under a Petro government.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s strongman, was not invited despite Caracas and Bogotá poised to restore their frosty relationship.
“Petro is likely to present his priority reforms, which are fiscal, agrarian and anti-corruption policy in the first few weeks,” said Silvana Amaya, Bogota-based political risk analyst at Control Risks. “This would allow us to know how strong the relationship between Petro and the legislature will be, marking his entire reform agenda in Congress.”