On Sunday, Colombia began a new political chapter with the inauguration of Gustavo Petro, the country’s first-ever leftist president and a former guerilla. Observers have differed widely on what Petro’s presidency may mean for Colombia and its democracy.

To many of Petro’s supporters, his inauguration symbolizes a historic opportunity for Colombia to finally address its deep-seated challenges. Despite its relative economic and political stability over the past decades, Colombia remains one of the most troubled countries in Latin America. Discontent reached an all-time high prior to the election, leading to repeated waves of protests between 2019 and 2021. Factors driving discontent include crippling socioeconomic inequality, a lack of public services, massive rule-of-law problems and organized crime leading to the forced internal displacement of almost 80,000 Colombians in 2021, rising public debt, high youth unemployment, and high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Another sign of discontent are the record levels of Colombians arriving at the U.S. border.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a nonresident scholar affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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But most of the country’s traditional political, economic, and military elites were sufficiently concerned about Petro’s rise that, in the June runoff, they embraced Rodolfo Hernández, a real-estate tycoon and political novice whose views on many major policy issues remained unknown. Many of Petro’s foes still associate the left in Colombia with the country’s guerilla movements, such as the now-disbanded Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and expressed fear that Petro will turn out to be a populist—like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, at best, or Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, at worst. And Petro’s somewhat messianic style can add to these fears, especially after he called his loss in the 2018 presidential elections fraudulent, despite presenting no evidence to corroborate his claims.

But Petro had to cobble together a broad coalition to obtain a governing majority in Congress. His party, Pacto Histórico, has fewer than 20 percent of seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and his narrow runoff victory gave him a relatively weak mandate. The risk of radicalization or of concentrating political power does not seem significant at this stage. Rather, considering Petro’s ambition and the complexity of the challenges facing Colombia, the greatest risk seems to be public frustration with what is likely to be a slower pace of change than many of his voters expect—above all because not all parties of his coalition think alike.

Since winning the election, Petro has also sought to assuage fears that he would govern as a radical. He appointed José Antonio Ocampo—a renowned economist who is known as a defender of a more progressive taxation—as his minister of finance. Currently, only 5 percent of Colombians pay personal income tax, and Petro plans to increase taxes on the rich. Still, some of Petro’s proposals, such as offering every unemployed person a public-sector job, are unlikely to be feasible and may scare investors. Petro picked conservative political veteran Álvaro Leyva as foreign minister and Alejandro Gaviria, who worked for center-right governments, to head the ministry of education, in another sign that Petro seeks to project himself as a pragmatist capable of reaching across the aisle.

Petro also differs from the likes of Latin American populists by projecting himself as a more modern and progressive leftist. While both the Mexico’s and Venezuela’s leaders embrace fossil fuels and often describe environmental concerns as a fig leaf of Western imperialism, Petro has established strong ties to grassroots environmentalism, even promising to ban fracking and announcing that he would wean Colombia off fossil fuel exploration. (He is unlikely to implement this plan immediately, given the current economic boon from exporting oil in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) By picking Francia Marquez, an environmental activist, as the country’s first Black vice president, Petro also underlined his commitment to addressing gender inequality and racism, which remains pervasive in Colombia but rarely is a topic of public debate. Politicians such as Marquez reflect the emergence of highly effective feminist activism, which was crucial to explain the country’s decriminalization of abortion earlier this year.

One particularly sensitive area for Petro—and for Colombian democracy—will be the president’s relationship with the military. Petro has been a longtime, leading critic of the armed forces, accusing them of collaborating with paramilitaries and participating in drug trafficking. The military made little secret of its concerns about a leftist electoral victory: during the campaign, General Eduardo Zapateiro accused Petro of corruption—a violation of the Colombian Constitution, which forbids active-duty military from engaging in politics. Petro’s decision to name Iván Velásquez as defense minister is a courageous move, given that Velásquez is certain to examine corruption allegations within the armed forces. The new defense minister is an internationally recognized corruption prosecutor and has helped uncover ties between politicians and paramilitary groups that led to the conviction of numerous congressmen, including former president Alvaro Uribe’s cousin. Velásquez also led an anticorruption unit in Guatemala, where he faced resistance from political elites after opening investigations into people close to former presidents Otto Pérez Molina and Jimmy Morales.

Velásquez will also play an important role in delivering Petro’s campaign promise to advance the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC, an agreement that is progressing but is far from complete. (One example is the debate over the deal’s promise of land reform aimed to reduce rural inequality.) Petro also hopes to expand the agreement to include other armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN). His predecessor disliked the agreement and, as a result, did not prioritize its implementation.

Colombia has traditionally prioritized its U.S. ties and maintained somewhat distant diplomatic relations to several of its neighbors, such as Brazil. Petro will likely seek to alter the country’s overall foreign policy strategy by placing greater emphasis on its Latin American neighbors—even though trade ties to the region are limited and unlikely to grow significantly, given the region’s emphasis on mining, cattle, and oil and on growing economic ties to China. Petro has been highly critical of Colombian-U.S. cooperation in the war on drugs, which emphasizes reducing supply, a strategy which he considers to have failed.

Petro may have the greatest impact on U.S.-Latin America relations by mobilizing regional leaders to more forcefully question the wisdom of coca eradication and the militarization of the fight against drugs. Such concerns are legitimate and have the potential to lead to an approach that is more effective and humane for both the United States and Latin America. Colombia will remain a U.S. ally, but U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration should prepare for a greater number of disagreements. For example, Petro will recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s leader, diverging from Washington’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as president. On other issues such as human rights and the fight against climate change, cooperation may even intensify.

Petro’s inauguration is a major opportunity for Colombia to advance on a host of problems that keeps the country from realizing its full potential. Yet, in the same way, its new leader should not underestimate the risk that either political deadlock or the slow pace of progress leads to further public frustration and large-scale protest.