Colombia’s First Left-Wing Prime Minister Elected

Former guerrilla rebel Gustavo Petro pledgedambitious reforms in pensions, taxes, labor and health care on the campaign trail.

“What’s coming is true change, real change,” declared Gustavo Petro, the first elected left-wing president in Colombia’s history, on the night of his historic victory at the polls in June. During the campaign, the former guerrilla rebel who had become a senator, then mayor of Bogotá before returning to the Senate, pledged ambitious reforms in pensions, taxes, labor and health care.

To make good on his promises, Petro named José Antonio Ocampo, a long-time Columbia University professor and former United Nations undersecretary general with celebrity status in international economic circles, as finance minister. The choice of the market-friendly, fiscally responsible Ocampo was universally praised; but the challenges he faces are daunting.

“It is a great coup for Petro to have as his finance minister one of the most respected and experienced economists in Latin America, with a distinguished record in both academia and public life,” says Francisco Panizza, professor in Latin American and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

With great expectations, however, can come great disappointments too. The country’s poverty rate is still near 40%. Inflation is worsening, and the peso is at its weakest in two decades. Similar scenarios have helped propel left-wing governments to power in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico; and more recently in Peru, Honduras and Chile. Yet, there are no easy fixes for difficult problems.

“The resurgence of the left in Colombia and across Latin America is a product of the anti-incumbent vote born out of the failure to address chronic issues: low social mobility, inequality, violence and corruption among others, exacerbated by half a decade of low growth and the social and economic impact of the pandemic,” says Panizza. “Another factor is the sheer strength of the women’s, ecological and indigenous movements that constitute the social bases of a political left that is very different from the old one of the 20th century as well as from the Chavez-influenced so-called Pink Tide of the early 21st century.”

While the Colombian economy has performed better than others in the region, Panizza argues, the new finance minister can do only so much. “Ocampo is likely to succeed in reassuring the markets and continue the good macroeconomic management that has generally characterized Colombian governments so far. His greatest challenge, without a doubt, will be to deliver the promise of making the country a fairer society.”