Gustavo Petro, a former leftwing guerrilla, will be sworn in as Colombia’s president on Sunday, marking a break from decades of mostly conservative rule in the South American country.
Petro, who was a member of the defunct M-19 urban guerrilla group in his youth, has also served as mayor of Bogotá and in both houses of congress. Despite over 30 years in public office and two previous failed runs for the presidency before winning in June, the combative politician has cast himself as an outsider, free from what he portrays as the corruption and power-sharing of traditional elites.
The 62-year-old economist has promised to shake up Colombian society, pledging to fund universal healthcare and higher education, wholesale land reform, and a halt on open-cast mining and new oil exploration projects.
Tens of thousands of supporters are expected to fill streets and squares across the capital on Sunday, with concerts scheduled to coincide with the ceremony at the historic Plaza de Bolívar square where Petro and his running mate Francia Márquez will take their oaths. Márquez, a prize-winning environmental crusader from the country’s war-torn south, will be Colombia’s first black vice-president.
The top brass of the armed forces will also recognise Petro as their commander-in-chief. The relationship between the executive and the military will be important to the success of his government.
Leaders from across the region will attend the inauguration, although Peru’s Pedro Castillo was barred from travel this week by the country’s congress because he faces numerous judicial investigations. The US delegation will be led by Samantha Power, the head of development agency USAID. Colombia has traditionally been Washington’s staunchest ally in the region although the relationship could be tested under a Petro government.
Petro has a gamut of challenges ahead, including taming inflation, which is running at an annual 10.2 per cent, the highest in 22 years, and tackling deep-rooted inequality. His legislative priority will be passing a tax reform that raises funds for the ambitious social programmes he promised on the campaign trail.
Failing to do so would risk alienating his base, partly made up of disaffected young people who marched in the thousands last year in protest against Colombia’s inequalities.
Petro’s finance minister, José Antonio Ocampo, a market-friendly, Yale-educated economist, has said that a tax reform bill will be sent to congress on Monday.
The new government will also have the dual responsibility of tackling the country’s armed groups and drug traffickers, while also implementing the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which stalled during the administration of the unpopular outgoing president Iván Duque.
Petro is also poised to reset relations with neighbouring Venezuela. The two countries share a 2,200-km border but have been estranged since 2019, when Colombia joined the US and its allies in recognising opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuelan president in a failed bid to oust leftist strongman Nicolás Maduro.
“Petro is likely to present his priority reforms, which are tax, agricultural and anti-corruption policy in the first few weeks,” said Silvana Amaya, a Bogotá-based political risk analyst with Control Risks. “This would let us know how strong the relationship between Petro and legislative is going to be, marking his entire reform agenda in congress.”