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He promised to transform Colombia as president. Can you fulfill that vow?

by YAR

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In a packed stadium in Bogotá on Sunday, amid an explosion of confetti and under a banner that read “Colombia won,” Gustavo Petro celebrated his victory as Colombia’s first left-wing president-elect.

“The government of hope has arrived,” the former rebel and longtime lawmaker said, to a cascade of applause.

For decades, Colombia has been one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, where the left has long been associated with a violent insurgency and previous leftist presidential candidates have been assassinated on the campaign trail.

In that context, Petro’s victory was historic, signaling voters’ frustration with a right-wing establishment that many said had failed to address generations of poverty and inequality that were only made worse during the pandemic.

Petro’s choice as his running mate, Francia Márquez, an environmental activist who will be the country’s first black female vice president, made the victory all the more rare. Some of the highest voter turnout rates were in some of the poorest and most neglected parts of the country, suggesting that many people identified with his prominent and repeated calls for inclusion, social justice and environmental protection. .

As a candidate, Petro promised to reshape some of the most important sectors of Colombian society in a nation that is among the most unequal in Latin America.

But now that he will occupy the presidential palace, he will soon have to turn those promises, some of which critics call sweeping, into action.

“This is a program of very profound transformations,” said Yann Basset, a professor of political science at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá. “On all of these issues, he’s going to need significant support from Congress, which promises to be quite difficult.”

Mr. Petro promised to greatly expand social programs, providing a significant subsidy to single mothers, guaranteeing work and a salary to unemployed people, reinforcing access to higher education, increasing food aid, changing the country to a publicly controlled health care system and remaking the pension system.

He will pay for this, in part, he says, by raising taxes on the 4,000 richest families, eliminating some corporate tax breaks, raising some import duties and cracking down on tax dodgers.

Central to his platform is a plan to move from what he calls Colombia’s “old extractive economy,” based on oil and coal, to one focused on other industries, in part to fight climate change.

Some of Petro’s policies could cause tension with the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into Colombia over the past two decades to help its governments stop cocaine production and exports, to little effect. Petro has promised to remake the country’s drug strategy, moving from the eradication of coca crops, the base product of cocaine, to emphasizing rural development.

Washington has already started to move in the direction of prioritizing development, but Petro could clash with US officials over precisely what this looks like.

Mr. Petro also pledged to fully implement the 2016 peace agreement with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and to halt the destruction of the Colombian Amazon, where deforestation has reached new levels. maximums in recent years. .

One of Mr. Petro’s biggest challenges will be paying for his ambitious agenda, in particular finding new revenue to make up for lost money from oil and coal while expanding social programs.

Two other leftists, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru, recently took office with ambitious promises to expand social programs, but their popularity plummeted amid rising inflation, among other issues.

Colombia collects less taxes as a proportion of its gross domestic product compared to almost all other countries in the region.

The country already has a high deficit, and last year, when the current president, Iván Duque, tried to promote a fiscal plan to help lower it, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest.

“The budget numbers just don’t add up,” wrote James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political risk consulting firm in Bogotá, in a newsletter Monday. “The costs of Petro’s proposed social programs are likely to eat up the budget and leave a rapidly widening deficit.”

“By the second or third year of his administration,” Bosworth continued, “he will have to make tough decisions because of financial constraints, and that will end up angering part of the coalition that elected him.”

Mauricio Cárdenas, a former finance minister, said the first step Petro should take is to announce an experienced finance minister who can calm market and investor fears by assuring the public that it will not engage in uncontrolled spending or intervention. excessive government.

Another major challenge could be working with Congress. Petro’s coalition, called the Historic Pact, has the largest number of lawmakers in the legislature. But he doesn’t have a majority, which he will need to push his agenda. He has already approached political leaders outside his coalition, but it is unclear how much support he will get, and whether forming new alliances will force him to give up some of his proposals.

“I think he’s going to have to drop certain parts of this show,” Basset said. “However, I think he does not have a majority to implement everything he has promised.”

Mr Petro will also inherit a deeply polarized society, divided by class, race, region and ethnicity and marked by years of violence and war.

For decades, Colombia’s government fought the FARC, and the war turned into a complex battle between leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the military, all of whom have been accused of human rights abuses.

Despite the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, many of the conflict’s dividing lines remain, which have been overloaded by social media, allowing rumors and misinformation to fly.

Pre-election polls showed growing distrust in almost all major institutions.

“In my opinion, this election is by far the most polarized we have seen in Colombia in many years,” said Arlene B. Tickner, a political scientist at the University of Rosario. “Just calming the waters and talking in particular to voters and sectors of Colombian society who did not elect him and who have significant fears about a Petro presidency, I think that will be a key challenge.”

One of Petro’s toughest tasks might be tackling the violence in the countryside.

Despite the peace agreement, the armed groups have continued to flourish, mainly in rural areas, feeding on drug trafficking, the cattle industry, human trafficking and other activities.

Homicides, massacres and assassinations of social leaders have increased in recent years, and internal displacement remains high, with 147,000 people forced to flee their homes last year, according to government data.

Many people affected by this violence voted for Mr. Petro and Ms. Márquez, who was born in Cauca, one of the most affected parts of Colombia.

Mr. Petro’s plan to tackle the violence includes land reform that would discourage ownership of large parcels of land through taxes and give land titles to the poor whose lack of resources often forces them into armed groups.

But land reform has blocked president after president, and Petro admitted in an interview this year that it may be “the hardest part” of keeping his campaign promises.

“Because it is this issue that has caused the wars in Colombia,” he said.

Megan Janetsky contributed reporting.

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