Gustavo Petro sworn in as Colombia’s first leftist President

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On a day reserved for the inauguration of Presidents, and a date that marked 203 years of the Independence Battle of Boyacá, Gustavo Petro was sworn in as Colombia’s 42nd President and first leftist politician to occupy Casa de Nariño.

The heavily-guarded Plaza de Bolívar with some 20,000 in attendance included delegations from foreign governments, six Latin American heads of state, King Felipe VI of Spain, and a specially appointed US delegation from President Joe Biden led by Samantha Power, Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development; Gregory Meeks, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Francisco Palmieri, Chargé d’Affaires at the United States Embassy in Bogotá; Desirée Cormier Smith, Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice, U.S. Department of State; and Juan Gonzalez, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.

With 15,000 members of the National Police in charge of security at an event that will be remembered for its audio-visual effects, a sun splashed Plaza de Bolívar, and swearing-in ceremony of the country’s first Black vice-President Francia Márquez, just after 3:00 pm, 62-year-old Gustavo Petro was accompanied on stage by his wife Verónica Alcocer and their children Sofía, Antonella, Nicolás, Andrea, and Andrés Gustavo.

Just days before the inauguration, President Petro released his official portrait wearing the sash and image taken by fashion photographer Mauricio Vélez. Petro traveled to the waterfall along the river of “Seven Colors” and known as Caño Cristales to pose with the backdrop of one of Colombia’s most famous natural settings.

President Gustavo Petro poses with the backdrop of Caño Cristales. Photo:Mauricio Vélez.

The Latin American Presidents delegation included Gabriel Boric (Chile); Guillermo Lasso (Ecuador); Luis Abinader (Dominican Republic); Luis Arce Catacora (Bolivia); Mario Abdo Benitez (Paraguay); Xiomara Castro (Honduras); Rodrigo Chaves (Costa Rica); Alberto Fernández (Argentina); and Laurentino Cortizo (Panama). Peru’s Pedro Castillo was invited but could not attend after lawmakers in his country denied travel permission to Bogotá. In Castillo’s replacement, Peru’s Congress authorized the trip of Vice President Dina Boluarte.

Other VIPs on the guest list were Mexico’s First Lady Beatriz Gutiérrez, vice-Presidents of El Salvador, Panama, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Uruguay; as well as the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Palestine, Portugal, Cuba, Serbia and Brazil.

Three Colombian ex-Presidents attended the ceremony, among them, Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994); Ernesto Samper (1994-1998); and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018). Conservative ex-Presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe Vélez declined Petro’s invitation, the former citing “profound ideological differences.”

Petro took the oath of office from the President of Congress, Roy Barreras, and sash from María José Pizarro, daughter of the slain demobilized leader of the M-19 (April 19 Movement) and Marxist guerrilla Gustavo Petro joined as a young man. After swearing-in Francia Márquez, President Petro from the podium requested the Presidential Guard deliver the sword of Liberator Simón Bolívar, and be brought to the elevated stage. “This is an order of the President and popular mandate,” he said.

For this, however, to happen, Barreras broke with protocol and called for a 10 minute recess. After a wait of 20-minutes during which the crowd shouted “Petro! Petro! Petro!” members of the Republican Guard emerged from Casa de Nariño, carefully carrying a glass encased box with the ceremonial sword, and unprecedented event in a presidential inauguration.

The sword of Liberator Simón Bolívar during President Petro’s inaugural address. Photo: Screenshot/CaracolTV

President Petro then proceeded to deliver his inaugural speech against a glowing backdrop of a giant flatscreen projecting images of butterflies, natural landscapes and the Colombian flag. After reading the names of the invited guests of honor, including citizens whom he met during his campaign stops, and which include a fisherman from Honda, a street sweeper from Medellín, a street vendor from Quibdó, Chocó, a coffee grower from Caldas, and a traditional carrier of freshly cut flowers – silletero – from Santa Helena, the economist and three-time presidential candidate embarked on what will also be remembered as a unifying, eloquent and poignant 54-minute address to the “most important guests, the people of Colombia.”

Within arms reach of the Espada de Bolívar, Petro recalled that the sword “has plenty of history, and today, more,” he said. “This is the people’s sword, and that is why I wanted it here.” He then went on to talk about peace and the end, “once and for all” of six decades of violence and armed conflict. “It can be done,” he emphasized, and promised to comply strictly with the Peace Accord and Constitution of 1991. “This is the Government of Life, of Peace, and that is how it will be remembered.”

In a speech that touched on climate change, environmental conservation efforts, food and agricultural security, protection of social and human rights activists, drug policy and openness to forge a lasting peace with illegal armed groups, including drug trafficking cartels and the ELN guerrilla, President Petro also highlighted inequality in Colombia and the importance of dialogue with the regions. “For peace to be possible in Colombia we need dialogue, a lot of dialogue, to understand each other, seek common paths, and produce change,” he said. “Our future is not written. We own the pen and we can write the page together, in peace and togetherness. Today, we start the Colombia of the possible”, he highlighted. This statement was also a direct reference to the last paragraph of Nobel Laureate for Literature Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in which the author condemns his fictional Macondo to one hundred years of solitude and abandon.

With a clear mandate to present 10 key policy issues for the new administration, Petro outlined the bases of his tax reform, implacable fight against corruption, transition away from fossil fuels to alternative energies and search for lasting peace. The leftist leader also called on Latin American unity with regional and global challenges, and which include joint efforts to protect the Amazon’s biodiversity with green bonds and carbon taxes. “Where are is the World Fund to save the Amazon? Speeches won’t save the rainforest, nor humanity from extinction.”

The only topic not included in his speech was Venezuela, despite a recent announcement by Petro that full diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro are set to restart after August 7.

Leaving the stage, Petro proceeded to walk to Casa de Nariño holding the hands of his wife Verónica and youngest daughter Antonella. Before entering the Presidential Palace he shook hands with departing ex-President Iván Duque and his wife María Juliana Ruíz. In final words on a day marked by high emotions, Petro’s strongest message was a call for unity: “We have to say ‘enough is enough’ to the division that confronts us as a people. I don’t want two countries, just as I don’t want two societies. I want a strong Colombia.”

 

Richard Emblin
Richard Emblin is the director of The City Paper.

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