Colombia writes new chapter with Petro – Uribe encounter

Former President Álvaro Uribe meets President-elect Gustavo Petro. Prensa de Petro

Gustavo Petro, the first leftist leader in this nation’s history, enters Colombia’s presidency with a clear mandate. After clinching more than 11 million votes on June 19, (50,44% of the total cast), President-elect Petro, within 10 days of his victory, has received a host of congratulatory messages and phone calls from world leaders, including U.S President Joe Biden, Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jingpin.

As the nation’s currency and commodities faced a post-election week amid fears of devaluation and slumping share prices of the country’s largest company and energy producer Ecopetrol, Petro’s first port of call was the Presidential Palace to meet President Iván Duque and begin the transfer of power. The image of the two leaders conversing in Casa de Nariño managed – to some degree – assuage investor fears and those of the other 50% of the electorate, represented by Rodolfo Hernández, that Colombia’s democratic process had survived one of the most acrimonious and hostile campaigns in recent history.

Petro then announced the first cabinet member of the new government, Álvaro Leyva Durán, as Chancellor. The 79-year-old conservative politician and former Minister, Senator and peace negotiator, assumes a key role in consolidating Colombia’s geopolitical partnerships within the hemisphere, restoring diplomatic relations with Venezuela, while at the same time balancing Russia’s and China’s expanding influence in the region, with the U.S as Colombia’s cornerstone ally.

Mr.Leyva’s appointment was followed with the announcement on Wednesday, that the seasoned economist José Antonio Ocampo is the country’s next Minister of Finance. Ocampo leaves Columbia University where he was Co-Director of Economic and Political Development Concentration in the School of International and Public Affairs.

The incoming minister has also served in a number of positions in the United Nations and government of Colombia, most notably as United Nations Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs; Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Minister of Finance and Public Credit, Chairman of the Board of Banco del República (Central Bank); and Director of the National Planning Department (Minister of Planning); Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Executive Director of the country’s development federation – Fedesarrollo.

Ocampo has published extensively on macroeconomic theory and policy, international financial issues, economic and social development, international trade, and Colombian and Latin American economic history. The University of Notre Dame graduate (1972), also holds a Ph.D in Economics from Yale (1976).

Despite Ocampo’s appointment, on Thursday, the Colombian peso reached a historic high to the U.S dollar, closing COP$4,180 to the greenback.

The appointments of Leyva and Ocampo show Petro’s outreach to experienced moderates, recognizing professional accomplishments, ahead of political reforms – including a proposed COP$50 billion tax reform – that will require a congressional majority. The latter was achieved this week when the country’s two traditional political parties – Liberal and Conservative – as well as, U Party, Green Party, Cambio Radical and independents, agreed to throw their congressional weight behind the incoming government.

With landslide representation in Congress, Petro also met with his second-round rival Hernández, who with more than 10.5 million ballots from anti-Petro voters, declined to be in opposition to the leftist leader, heralding instead the “start of change.”

Rodolfo Hernández and Gustavo Petro. Prensa Petro.

But the most anticipated meeting took place on Wednesday between two-term President Álvaro Uribe and President-elect Gustavo Petro. The nothing-short of historic encounter between these polarizing politicians on opposing sides of the ideological spectrum was celebrated for being cordial, candid and honest. Both leaders are committed to maintain a “permanent dialogue.”

At the end of the two-hour meeting, the leader of the right-wing Centro Democrático party, declared himself “a reasonable opponent” on issues relating to the national agenda, especially poverty reduction, protection of the business sector, private/public pensions and energy policy. Uribe called on all Colombians to “not leave the country,” instead “work, work, work with enthusiasm and creativity.”

Gustavo Petro faces the daunting task of sealing the Grand National Accord after his inauguration on August 7. As the country grapples with unprecedented economic and social challenges, stability requires consensus, and after a momentous 10 days that culminated with the Uribe meeting, the leftist politician is effusing leadership. Leadership, however, that must still convince almost half the electorate that they are not political pawns.