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Colombia’s first ever left-winged president

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On Sunday, June 19th, 2022, Colombia’s presidential elections made history, with the country electing the first ever left-winged president. However, there is a whole backstory as to why this happened. What led to this election? And how has President Petro governed during his first month as president?  

On August 7, 2022, Gustavo Petro was sworn in as Colombia’s first left-winged president in all its history. President Petro studied political science and economics; however, he is more famous for being a part of the “Movimiento 9 de abril”, also known as M-19, a revolutionary socialist guerilla movement. The M-19 began as a form of protest against the presidential elections in 1970, however it took a turn from its political agenda and terrorized the country until the 1990s. They kidnapped politicians and their families, stole weaponry from the Colombian military, and in 1985 took over the Palace of Justice in Bogotá holding the Supreme Court hostage, which left almost half of the 25 Supreme Court magistrates dead. 

After the siege, the US and the Colombian Justice Minister at the time asserted that drug traffickers financed the operation in order to get rid of various criminal files that were lost during the event, hoping to avoid extradition. In the 1990s the guerrilla group signed a peace agreement with the government establishing itself as a political party. President Petro began his political career in 1991, when he was elected member of the House of Representatives. He became mayor of Bogotá in 2012, and ran as candidate for Presidency in 2010, 2018, and was finally elected in 2022 with 50.44% of the votes. 

Although he is the first leftist leader, and an ex-guerrilla member, his election didn’t come as a surprise. It was a result of dissatisfaction with the previous government’s regimes. On November 21st, 2019, the first big manifestation against the government exploded. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians took the streets to protest, escalating quickly into a violent riot, leaving 3 dead, 120 injured and 68 public transport stations in Bogotá destroyed. The protest began as a manifestation of discontent with a new plan for the pension system (which had only been discussed and in the end was never implemented), but it later became what many international newspapers denominated “the purge: Colombia.” It was taken over by violent gangs which turned it into a meaningless “war” of all against all. The situation was cleared through military presence, and the turmoil was mitigated for a while. However, discontent and inequality kept rising. 

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In 2020, due to the pandemic, the situation in Colombia was relatively peaceful, although many anti-government protest organizers stated that the movement continued to evolve amid the coronavirus outbreak. Despite the restrictions, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Bogotá in November 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of the protest, and the death of one of the protestors who suffered a head injury as a result of an anti-riot projectile. The protest lost momentum after to the coronavirus outbreak. But everything really went downhill in 2021. 

On April 28th, 2021, Former President Ivan Duque proposed increased taxes in order to mitigate the fiscal deficit that worsened due to the pandemic. The protests went on for 3 whole days: bus stations were burned, and the rioters became more and more violent.  Duque and his team decided to draft a new tax reform as response to the social unrest, but this did not mitigate the situation. The city of Cali was completely taken over by indigenous and drug-trafficking groups, and the situation escalated exponentially into a terrorist takeover for the next month and a half. 

At least 45 people were killed, 1,106 civilians and 1,192 policemen were injured. Vandalism inundated the streets, with 1,136 buses, 206 public transportation stations, and 14,479 red light stops destroyed, 96 police stations burned down, 363 local shops mugged and damaged, and a blockage of many roads that connected the city of Cali with food and petrol suppliers. The social discontent was clear, but the means used to bring attention to the issue transformed what was supposed to be a civilized, peaceful protest into a terrorist and violent takeover of a whole city, leaving the government with an even greater fiscal deficit. The tax reform was never implemented, and Colombia’s economic and political atmosphere worsened.  

The 29th of May 2022 marked the day of the first round of presidential elections. The political climate was then divided into two: Gustavo Petro, the left-winged candidate, and Rodolfo Hernandez, who could be categorized as a pragmatic centrist, tending more towards the right. It’s important for the reader to understand that, given the political environment in South America, left-winged candidates tend to follow communist ideologies. This means that the left-winged party in Colombia is commonly associated with the Chavez/Maduro regime in Venezuela, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru. The resulting election of President Petro didn’t even represent 50+1 of the population, but Colombia’s electoral system follows the majority rule. With all this violent past, electing a former guerrilla member was very contradicting, and the country is currently split in half, since at least 45% of the voters were completely against Petro and his whole movement.  

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 During the presidential campaign, his 5 key proposals consisted of: 

  1. A change in the economic model: fostering agriculture and an agrarian reform which would guarantee the right of land to rural families. Its main objective is to disincentivize latifundia. 
  1. A change in the energy system: protecting ecosystems and natural resources and transitioning from a gas and carbon dependent system to one utilizing renewable energy. 
  1. Measures to promote gender equality such as increasing women’s participation in politics and creating an Equality Ministry. 
  1. A change in the armed forces: removing the mandatory military service and dismantling the special riot forces (ESMAD).  
  1. A tax reform. 

This past Wednesday, September 7th, 2022, marked the first month since Gustavo Petro assumed presidency. President Petro has been working on not only re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela but has also officially solicited the entrance of Venezuela to the CAN (Andean Nations Community), a group formed by Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. This proposal of incorporating Venezuela inside the group without conditioning it to respect basic human rights is a huge step-back in the international efforts of pressuring Venezuela into ceasing the political repression that has been ongoing since Chavez’s regime.  

Additionally, during his first month as president, Gustavo Petro has already presented to Congress a new tax reform in order to raise $25 billion Colombian pesos (around $5.8 million USD) which would be around 1.72% of the GDP, in 2023. Around 32.4% of these $25 billion Colombian pesos would be recollected from the taxation of natural persons with the highest incomes in Colombia. This project introduces measures implementing a permanent wealth tax. Since Colombia suffers big inequalities, taxing wealth is logical as long as it is well implemented. It is also looking to charge additional taxes to people who earn more than $10 million pesos a month ($2,289USD). Furthermore, this new tax reform would raise a tax in some of the products that are part of the basic basket of goods consumed every day by Colombians.  As a matter of fact, many lawyers and accountants in Colombia have proven how in terms of numbers, Petro’s tax reform and the tax reform that caused terrorism and riots in 2021 are very similar. However, the past tax reform wouldn’t have affected the basic consumer basket.  

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It will be quite interesting to continue studying and analyzing the socio-economic and political landscape in Colombia throughout the following 4 years, especially under Gustavo Petro’s ruling. Many Colombians fear that the country will “end up like Venezuela”. But at this point, only time will tell.  

Author profile

My name is Emma Velásquez Mariucci and I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia. I studied in an international American High School in Colombia. After graduating in 2019, I attended East China Normal University's intensive Chinese program in Shanghai for a year. I am currently in my first year at Bocconi's bachelor's in international politics and government. All these experiences have shaped me into who I am: an innovative, conscientious brave woman who is eager to explore the world and its surroundings.

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