Bogota Colombia – On his first day in office, Colombian President Gustavo Petro presented Congress with a new tax reform proposal designed to fund the ambitious programs and policies he hopes will transform the country.
The move by the country’s first left-wing leader on Monday was the first step in fulfilling his promise to millions of Colombians, like Maydany Salcedo, a 47-year-old social leader from Putumayo province, who watched Sunday’s inauguration with high expectations of Colombia’s new left-wing president .
Like many in Petro’s base, much depends on Salcedo’s success. Her home in Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia on the border with Ecuador and Peru, is riddled with armed groups who threatened her in July after she joined Petro’s transition team.
Salcedo, who advises the government on drug policy, believes Petro can bring the long-awaited peace awaited by a 2016 deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government.
“We are incredibly happy,” said Salcedo, dressed in a white lace blouse and gold cross, hours before Petro’s inauguration on Sunday, which she attended as a special guest. “But poor farmers’ expectations of what Petro can do are high and we hope his discourse will not be confined to paper.”
During the election campaign, Petro promised a profound transformation of Colombia, a country historically ruled by a small group of elites and fraught with political violence. The uprooting of government policies that have kept indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, poor farmers and women from equal income, access to land and development has been at the heart of his platform.
Since the election, Petro has appointed cabinet ministers who have shown commitment to the mission and reconciliation with political opponents – moves that have increased his overall popularity. Now his supporters hope that the political will and great favor will be enough to meet the many challenges that lie ahead.
Petro has articulated a vision of a more inclusive society for one of the most unequal countries in the world. He has promised full implementation of the peace agreement; the removal of the police from military control; the resumption of relations with Venezuela; a resumption of negotiations with armed groups; big social programs, like new subsidies for poor single mothers and free college tuition; and a move away from oil, a top export.
Tackling inequality is a key concern for Colombians, who have been hit hard by the pandemic lockdowns. Around 40 percent of the population, around 20 million people, therefore live in poverty today. The war in Ukraine and its disruption to supply chains have only exacerbated the cost of living in Colombia.
In addition to rising inflation and food prices, security conditions for civilians have deteriorated, particularly in rural areas where conflict has historically been concentrated, as illegal armed groups proliferated and cocaine production increased.
Those hurdles have not escaped Petro, who has been working to expand his coalition in Congress, where his most ambitious proposals must get through. While Petro’s political party, the Historic Pact, made significant gains in the last election, it still needs the support of mainstream parties, which Petro has previously criticized, to pass future legislation.
The Center Democratic Party, the only party so far to have openly opposed the Petro government, has sharply criticized his proposals. It has argued that halting new oil exploration would hurt the economy and that negotiations with armed groups would encourage impunity.
One of the most controversial bills is the tax reform measure. It’s vital to fund Petro’s social programs and stem inflation, which hit 10 percent in July, the highest rate in 20 years.
The reform is expected to boost revenue by 25 trillion Colombian pesos ($5.75 billion) in 2023 by raising income taxes on Colombia’s wealthiest, raising oil and gas export tariffs and closing loopholes for tax evaders will. The radical change in tax collection could make it difficult for some in Congress to support it, analysts say.
“The challenge is to approve reforms in the first year or two [while Petro enjoys popularity] because what is not achieved in this time will be difficult for the rest of this term,” Daniela Garzon, political analyst at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
Social reforms aside, Petros’ other key pledges, such as full implementation of the 2016 peace accord, require a concerted effort to “regain lost time,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes expert at the Washington Office for Latin America.
The deal lost momentum under the Duque administration, which openly opposed it. The Kroc Institute reported that as of November 2021, only 30 percent of the peace deal, which includes rural development provisions and a coca substitution plan, had been implemented. The Office of the Inspector General investigates suspected corruption development projects commissioned under the peace accord.
On Sunday, the Gulf Clan, one of the country’s largest paramilitary groups, announced a ceasefire and its willingness to negotiate with the new president. Other armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), the main left-wing rebel group, and a faction of FARC fighters who opposed the 2016 peace accord, have also expressed interest in negotiations, a key step forward for Petro’s “full peace.” “-Strategy .
But getting these groups to disarm may require incentives that could raise problems within Colombia and with its key ally, the United States, Sanchez-Garzoli told Al Jazeera.
“A lot of work needs to be done to convince the United States in particular that this is a path that will not only lead to a decline in these groups, a decline in their reappearance, but also dents in the drug trade on which most.” US-Colombia relations are based,” said Sanchez-Garzoli.
Nevertheless, Salcedo is optimistic. For the first time, communities that have historically been marginalized are a central part of a president’s political vision. As a coca farmer who counters death threats in a conflict zone, Salcedo says this is the first time her interests have been represented in government.
“I know there will be successes. Maybe not all because time is short, but I know this is the beginning of a new democracy, a new path,” Salcedo said.