“I order the Military House to bring Bolívar’s sword.” Around 3:15 pm yesterday, local time, Gustavo Francisco Petro, 62, was sworn in as the first leftist president in the history of the South American nation. Five minutes had not passed since his inauguration, when, in an unexpected turn and breaking with protocol, the new president annulled the order of the outgoing president, the conservative Iván Duque, not to give in for the ceremony held in the heart of Bogotá the symbolic command weapon of the Venezuelan Liberator.
Duque’s entourage, in charge of the organization, claimed alleged security risks for a 19th century heritage treasure. But the flavor of a final political disagreement between two great contradictors remained in the air. The fact is that the ceremony entered an unexpected recess of ten minutes, while four soldiers of the presidential guard moved the sword from the nearby seat of Government to the Plaza de Bolívar inside a glass urn.
Meanwhile, the almost six thousand spectators on foot gathered in the political and economic heart of the country chanted harangues in support of the progressive leader. The new president of Congress, Roy Barreras, gave a speech that was clearly aligned with the theses of the new government and stressed that it is “a historical break embodied in a man and a woman,” referring to the charismatic vice president Francia Márquez, an environmentalist from 40 years.
Barreras, a controversial and veteran political professional, also urged drug trafficking groups to “stop killing” and urged the Castro guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) to seize the moment to seal the peace. Petro (Ciénaga de Oro, 1960) in a white shirt and dark suit and tie, finally addressed a lengthy greeting at around 4:20 p.m. that included a coffee farmer, a street sweeper, or an artisanal fisherman on the same level, with the chiefs of state present, among whom were King Felipe VI of Spain, President Alberto Fernández, of Argentina, or his counterpart Gabriel Boric, of Chile, among others.
The ritual of the transfer of power in a markedly presidential system like the Colombian one is surrounded by traditions and protocols that today have passed into the background at times. The presidential band, which has always been delivered by the president of Congress, this time was imposed by Senator María José Pizarro, the daughter of Carlos Pizarro, historical commander of the M-19 guerrilla assassinated in 1990. Pizarro and Petro were active during years in an insurgent formation that was characterized by giving media blows such as the kidnapping of the Dominican embassy in Bogotá, or the theft of Bolívar’s supposed sword, precisely, which was hidden for years in Cuba.
Already in the inaugural speech, which lasted just over an hour, Petro lambasted the global “failure” of the “war on drugs”, which he recalled “has left a million Latin Americans murdered” during the last 40 years, as well as 70,000 Americans die “by overdose every year.” That is why he vehemently called for the need to replace the warmongering approach in the fight against drugs with “a strong prevention policy in developed societies.”
He also returned to his intention to achieve an energy transition to renewable energies. One of the visible hallmarks that most agitated Petro’s presidential campaign, and one of the vectors that have guided his political life since he demobilized from the M-19 urban guerrilla in 1990. “We are willing to move to an economy without coal and without oil, but we do little to help humanity with it. We are not the ones who emit greenhouse gases. It is the rich of the world who do it (…)”.
It was a long, general investiture speech, in which at times the populist rhetoric that has characterized some political passages of the also former mayor of Bogotá emerged. In others, the conciliatory figure was imposed and with an emphasis on the dialogue of recent times: “The can’t be over. It was always like that.” From the platform installed in front of the imposing Capitol, a republican-style building, his six children and his wife Verónica Alcocer, a 46-year-old lawyer and anthropologist, watched him attentively.
Two absent former presidents: Uribe and Pastrana
Among the special guest seats, on the other hand, the absence of the two living conservative ex-presidents: Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) and Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). The first apologized to Petro in a letter in which he argued that since the justice system is investigating him for alleged bribery of witnesses, he has a “prisoner complex” and therefore declined the invitation. The second said he rejected it from him due to the “insurmountable ethical and political differences” that separate him from the economist.
And it is enough to take a look at the scenery of the square to realize that there was a break with the aesthetics of other years. Among the guests stood out the indigenous batons, the typical costumes of coastal regions or typical musicians from diverse regions. Everything hunted within the idea of plurality and inclusion that has launched the platform of the progressive coalition Historical Pact. Very much in line with the poem by the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano titled the nobodieswielded as a slogan by the vice president, Francia Márquez, to encompass and give identity to millions of Colombians historically excluded.
Márquez, a brave social leader who received death threats on more than one occasion, arrived at the plaza wearing an indigo blue dress interspersed with a set of white boleros. And she, in front of President Petro, swore in as the first black vice president in the country’s history, promising fidelity to her “ancestors and ancestors of hers” and closing with some words that are already part of her personal seal: “Until let dignity become a habit”.
Thus, the outgoing president Iván Duque passes on as an inheritance a social crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, and with the shadow of an imminent global recession. If in 2018 there were 13 million poor Colombians, by 2019 the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) counted 19 million. A concatenation of factors that has resulted in a deep citizen disaffection, with massive mobilizations and national strikes in recent years. Also in an unsuspected political rupture in two centuries of republican life. On June 19, Colombia elected the first president who has never been a member of either of the two traditional political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative.
It was, furthermore, with the largest vote in history: 11.2 million votes that add an added burden of responsibility to a politician aware that his margin of error, in a country anxious and expectant of change, is limited.