The inauguration of Gustavo Petro in June 2022 was truly a watershed moment for Latin America. Petro is a Colombian leader reimagined. On June 20th, the day after the election, a political climate of inertia, austerity and corruption, was replaced with a sense of hope.
As Colombia’s first left-wing president, Petro’s victory is the signal of change that Colombia so desperately needed, after years of strife. Exacerbated by the pandemic, income inequality began to rise, leading to increased poverty, theft and violence. Petro led a campaign focused on dealing with these issues, promising increased spending on social programs, a tax increase for the wealthiest Colombians and a plan to diversify the nation’s economy. As Bogota’s mayor, he had claimed that Colombia’s economy was on track to fail, ever since it abandoned its coffee-centric economy and replaced it with oil, coal and cocaine. Fossil fuels are unsustainable and not a long-term economic model for Petro. He knows he needs to reform the agricultural sector if he is to have a chance at re-vamping Colombia’s economy. The scale of the change needed is monumental and with only a quarter of the seats in the legislature, he has his work cut out for him.
Marquez the Marvel
Francia Marquez, now the first black, female vice-president of Colombia, was instrumental in Petro’s success. Following a lifetime of activism, Marquez, accepted a position on Petro’s ticket in March 2022, uniting different factions of the left. Her election signalled not just a political cleavage, but a sociological one. South America has a complex relationship with racism and discrimination, with people of African descent facing extreme prejudice at the hands of right-wing guerrillas and political leaders. Marquez has risen against extreme odds to hold this position. Formerly a maid, her activism dates back 20 years, to when she campaigned against the construction of a dam on the Ovejas River. Falling pregnant as a single mother a year later, she was forced to work in appalling conditions in a gold mine. She told her website, "I am someone who raises my voice to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and moors. I am someone who dreams that one day, human beings will change the economic model of death, to make way for building a model that guarantees life."
Now she has the chance.
A Modern Future
The Petro- Marquez axis looks to divide and conquer. Marquez has promised to move the Office of the Vice-President from Bogota to Medellin and to set up her own ‘Ministry of Equality,’ dedicated to preserving the rights of ethnic minorities, women and Amerindian tribes.
The question is now whether she will be taken seriously by the political elite. Although more than 6.5% of Colombia’s population is black, very few black politicians are given the time of day by their rivals. Her goal is to push Colombia towards a more progressive path, leaving behind its colonial legacy and into the 21st century.
Her success is anything but certain.
The Turning of the Tide?
Many political commentators are sceptical of this progressive alliance. Some claim the new regime is communist and “regard him [Petro] as an arrogant latter-day Hugo Chávez.” These dispersions will remain. However, Petro finds himself amongst more friends than he might have expected. Alberto Fernandes of Argentina praised his election, saying it “validates democracy and ensures the path towards an integrated Latin America in this time when we demand maximum solidarity amongst brother peoples”. Furthermore, other leftist Presidents in the region, such as Gabriel Boric of Chile, have backed him. Only recently winning an election himself, he described Petro’s win as “a joy for Latin America.” However, there is one endorsement that may not favour the new Colombian leader.
The government of Nicolas Maduro has been a disaster. His communist regime has decimated Venezuela’s economy and political stability. Maduro proclaiming, “The will of the Colombian people has been heard, it went out to defend the path to democracy and peace,” may have adverse consequences. Whilst the two regimes differ greatly as of this moment, who knows which way this premiership will go? Can Petro and Marquez avoid Maduro’s mistakes?
As Petro and Marquez look to instil their vision of the future, all eyes turn to Brazil where the left-wing Lula takes on the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. As the left prevails in Colombia, will the fate of right-wing leaders in South America be confined to the past?
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