Colombia’s Petro tells Amazon summit “flying is for rich men”

Colombia's Gustavo Petro made his 23rd international trip to Belem, Brazil. Photo: Presidencia.

In the fast-paced world of politics, one could be forgiven for thinking that international diplomacy resembles a game of hopscotch. Yet, Colombia’s first left-wing President, Gustavo Petro, seems to have taken this metaphor quite literally, amassing an astounding 23 international trips in his inaugural year.

Petro champions the idea that taking to the skies is a pastime of “rich men” as he recently stated at the Amazon rainforest summit in Belem, Brazil, and while he added that “neoliberals” are also guilty of flying, he seems to forget – and forgive – that his Vice-President Francia Márquez commutes several times a week between Bogotá and Dapa, near Cali in the southwest of the country, in a military Blackhawk.

Now, granted, the comfort of sitting inside the Presidential Boeing 737 outweighs that of a heavy metal gunship, but the Colombian President could be advised to “practice what you preach,” especially if preaching revolves around carbon emissions and wealth redistribution. Márquez’s Blackhawk sorties have been immortalized in reggaeton by the Caleño salsa band Manu Victoria, and a trailblazing song titled: “El helicóptero.”

While advocating that taking to the skies is a privilege of the “rich,” no preceding Colombian President has amassed such an extensive collection of air miles, nor has any occupied as many foreign territories courtesy of the Presidential jet. A recent incident exemplifies this trend: Petro made a swift return from Germany, pausing for a mere 48 hours at the Presidential Palace in Bogotá, solely to set off once more, this time to France, for a rendezvous with Emmanuel Macron at the illustrious Elysée. Petro’s cameo appearance in his home country, just long enough to water the plants before taking off again, is the sort of frenetic globetrotting that has left even the most moderate critics of his newly-minted administration breathless.

While the Colombian President pushes zero-carbon economics at international summits, gatherings and environmental forums, even Brazil’s Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva wasn’t amused by Petro’s affirmation that the Brazilian giant should end oil exploration in the Amazon basin. According to Petro, wealth isn’t about money anymore; it’s about CO2 emissions. Forget traditional economic indices; what we need in Latin America are carbonometers. “Wealth, whether it’s an individual, a nation, or a bloc, is measured by CO2, CO2 is the basis of wealth,” affirmed Petro from the heart of the Amazon.

Petro’s jet-setting agenda in 12-months has upset the mere 12 international trips of his predecessor Iván Duque, who during most of his four-year-term was locked out of foreign nations given COVID-19 restrictions, while also giving priority to saving lives at home. Even former President and Nobel Peace Laureate Juan Manuel Santos, during his second four-year term, also counted 12 overseas trips.

Petro began his international travels on August 29, 2022, in Peru, where he held a meeting with the deposed president of that nation, Pedro Castillo. At that time, Castillo faced increasing political pressures from his opponents, which ultimately led to his ousting from the Peruvian presidency.

But it isn’t just Petro’s travel agenda that has raised real concerns of cost versus benefit, it’s also the fact that the Colombian President likes to keep the plane of the ground in foreign lands, longer than the scheduled. On Tuesday, as the majority of senior government representatives from South America, including three Presidents, departed the Brazil summit to their respective nations, Petro decided to remain in the country for an additional day, with no explanation given by Casa de Nariño. Petro’s most recent AWOL moment in Belem do Para was accompanied by him missing the official photo of the summit. A similar “where is Petro?” incident occurred in Europe when the President after his encounter with Macron, “disappeared for three days” – according to local headlines – to somewhere in France.

Even the prestigious news outlet Bloomberg submitted a request to the Administrative Department of the Presidency in May of this year, to obtain details about the Petro’s travel expenses. As a result of this request, the following data was handed-over to journalists, and the numbers are staggering.

In 2022, between August 7 when Petro was sworn in, and December 31, the Presidency allocated a total of COP$7,095 million pesos for domestic and international travel. Of this sum, COP$3,189 million corresponded to per diems or travel costs, including the value of tickets, ground transportation, accommodation, and meals. The high number (COP$7,095 million or equivalent to USD$2 million) was broken down as COP$4,756 million for Colombia, and COP$2,338 million to visit colleagues, and counterparts, across the Western hemisphere.

If Petro suffers from wanderlust, and Márquez from territorial homesickness, both afflictions come with a heavy price tag to Colombians, and at a pivotal moment when the Colombian leader needs to justify a burdensome new tax reform, and soaring petrol prices at home.