By José Luis Granados Ceja
MEXICO CITY, Mexico, (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro celebrated the inauguration of Gustavo Petro as president of Colombia, with leaders pledging to rebuild the long but fraught relationship between the two Caribbean countries.
“I extend my hand to the people of Colombia, to president Gustavo Petro, to rebuild fellowship on the basis of respect and love between peoples,” said Maduro on Sunday.
For his part, Petro called for Latin American governments to leave aside their political differences and work toward regional integration.
“It is time to leave behind the [political] blocs, the groups, and the ideological differences in order to work together. Let us understand once and for all that there is much more that unites us than what separates us and together we are stronger,” said Petro during his inaugural address to his country from Bogotá’s Bolívar Square.
The leftist politician made references to a number of Latin American historical figures who pushed for integration, including Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century independence leader who is widely celebrated in both Colombia and Venezuela.
In a move laden with symbolism, after being sworn in Petro interrupted his own ceremony in order to have the original sword of Bolívar brought to the square.
“Let’s make that unity dreamed of by our heroes, like Bolívar, San Martín, Artigas, Sucre and O’Higgins, a reality. It is not a utopia nor is it romanticism. It is the way to make us strong in this complex world,” said the Colombian leader.
The president specifically called for the development of “concrete projects” that would facilitate integration.
Petro’s foreign policy represents a significant departure from his predecessor Iván Duque who sought to maintain Colombia’s exceptionally close relationship with the United States.
Duque, a protegé of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe, faithfully followed the dictates of Washington, supporting regime change efforts in neighbouring Venezuela, leading to a rupture of diplomatic ties between Colombia and Venezuela in February 2019. Petro has committed to restoring the diplomatic relationship with Caracas, having previously dispatched his foreign minister, Álvaro Leyva, to meet with his Venezuelan counterpart Carlos Faría.
In an important test of the new relationship, Venezuelan National Assembly President Jorge Rodríguez called on Colombia to extradite opposition leader Julio Borges over his alleged involvement in the August 4, 2018 assasination attempt against Maduro.
The National Assembly resolution came on the heels of Venezuelan court convicting 17 people in connection to the incident that was caught on television. The alleged participants included former far-right opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens, who was sentenced to eight years after confessing to having assisted in bringing in the explosive-laden drones used in the attack. The other sentences ranged from 8 to 30 years.
Despite Petro’s wish for a delegation representing the Maduro government to be present, the outgoing Duque denied that possibility over ideological differences with Caracas.
The ceremony nonetheless counted on the presence of various leftist presidents from the region, including Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, Bolivia’s Lucho Arce, and Honduras’ Xiomara Castro. The election of 62-year-old Gustavo Petro was widely viewed as the latest in a series of victories at the polls by leftist and progressive leaders in Latin America.
During his address, the former M-19 guerrilla member committed to strengthening ties with the Caribbean and the African continent as well.
The new Colombian president is widely considered the country’s first-ever progressive head of state. His inaugural statement left little doubt that the 62-year-old politician intends to break with the country’s long dominant conservative rule.
In addition to the radical reorientation of Colombia’s foreign policy, Petro also promised to fully implement the country’s 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). A fierce critic of the peace deal, former president Duque was accused of deliberately failing to implement the accords, resulting in the assasination of hundreds of former combatants and social leaders.
Petro likewise committed to push for a series of significant reforms to Colombia’s labor laws, healthcare, education, as well as pensions and taxation systems.
A major cocaine production hub, Colombia has been at the center of the US-led “war on drugs” that Petro said had left one million dead in Latin America in 40 years.
“It is time for a new International Convention that accepts that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed,” he said.
The Colombian president also swore in his cabinet, the first gender-balanced government in the country’s history, with Petro promising to address gender inequality together with his running mate Francia Márquez, the first Afro-Colombian woman elected vice-president.
Upon taking her oath of office, Márquez said she would “work for Colombian men and women who have historically been excluded, until dignity becomes customary,” invoking a phrase commonly employed by social movements throughout Latin America.