Petro’s UN Assembly speech riddled with post-truths and tense start

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Colombia's Gustavo Petro delivers his second address to the UN General Assembly. Photo: Presidencia

New York (USA) – It will not be remembered in the bibliography of the world’s great speeches as anything other than a doomsday scenario from a Colombian leader whose improvised words at the United Nations General Assembly began with a room full of chatter among diplomats, and for others, a momentary break in the official speeches to walk out of the building.

Whether many of the foreign delegations at the 78th UN General Assembly went for a bathroom break, or others for a smoke down by the East River in central Manhattan, for Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the minutes preceding his address to world leaders were nothing short of awkward. To the extent that, after a five-minute intermission following President Joe Biden’s speech, delegates and heads of state engaged in hushed conversations with allies, and only a handful remained in their seats.

“The meeting is resumed,” declared Dennis Francis, President of the General Assembly, but to little avail. Frustrated by the lack of attention he is accustomed to when he takes to the balcony at the Presidential Palace in Bogotá, Francis resorted to striking the gavel repeatedly, yet failed to control his unruly audience. Petro, visibly uncomfortable and impatient, tapped the lectern and appeared angered. “This is extraordinary,” Francis stated over an open microphone.

Faced with a tumultuous start, the assembly’s presiding officer had no choice but to reintroduce the Colombian President: “Your Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen, may I request the assembly organize itself to receive the address of His Excellency Gustavo Petro Urrego, President of the Republic of Colombia.”

Having arrived in New York after a visit to Cuba, President Petro took advantage of his international audience – or what was left of it – to champion the Cuban regime as one that “gives food, health, and education to children.” His words recalled a recent social media post on “X” (former Twitter) where he accused his predecessor President Iván Duque of “bombing children” instead of towing Castro’s example. Petro’s bombastic peddling on the world’s stage of post-truths received applause from delegates of autocratic states, among them, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. “Cuba is a country that is blocked unjustly” stated Petro during his opening lines to the United Nations.

Petro then challenged the role of the US (without mentioning the country directly), in its global foreign policy objectives. “You forget that, for oil, they invaded Iraq, Syria, Libya. You forget that the same reasons you defend Volodymyr Zelenskyy (President of Ukraine), are the same reasons with which one should defend Palestine,” he stated. “Empires don’t serve to save lives, but to unleash wars.”

In a speech that attempted to meld 20th-Century realities with 21st-Century sustainable development goals, Petro affirmed that international conflicts benefit world powers in their “games of thrones, or hunger games.”  Not exactly a line that will be remembered alongside Dr.King’s “I have a dream” or Churchill’s timeless “We shall fight on the beaches.”

“What’s the difference between Ukraine and Palestine?” raised Petro. This question, appeared to appease Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the same day Zelenskyy addressed the UN Assembly, but has clearly angered the Israeli delegation, and nation with important historical and commercial ties with Colombia. “War is the excuse to not act on the climate crisis,” said Petro.

While Petro genuinely believes his second address to the UN General Assembly marks a watershed moment in his global agenda, Colombia’s first leftist leader then pushed for reforms of the global financial system, multilateral banking, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to “allow developing countries finance climate change adaptation.” Petro insisted that global investment for “decarbonized economies” should come from public funds and societies in “a deeper democracy”. Affirmation that would clearly exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, to name a few states, where “deep democracy” is non-existent.

After a tense start and speech in which Petro warned that because the planet is racing toward extinction, what is needed to halt climate change is US$3 trillion, the Colombian head of state reiterated one of his campaign phrases: “What is more venomous for humanity? cocaine? coal? or petroleum?” Question proposed by the president of country that is witnessing historic levels of coca production and cocaine exports.