Gustavo Petro sworn in as new president of Colombia
Tertulia, vol. 35
Hola. This is Barbara, your curator of cultural news from the Spanish-speaking world. This week I’d like to write about the presidential inauguration ceremony in Bogotá on August 7th, 2022. It has been a political event important enough to briefly interrupt my summer break.
In the afternoon of August 7th, Gustavo Petro was sworn in as the 34th president of the Republic of Colombia. I am happy Iván Duque has gone, but am still worried about the course of this new government. I am worried for two simple reasons: I do not like Petro’s emotional and aggressive rhetoric. In November of 2015, I attended one of his speeches during the CLACSO conference in Medellín (CLACSO: Latin American Council of Social Sciences). I was shocked about his hawkish tone and the way the crowd cheered as if he were a rockstar. He can be very polarising, which is the last thing Colombia needs. However, after having been elected as president, he has shown signs of moderation, especially in relation to his staffing decisions. More on the objective side, I am concerned about his presidency because of his former mismanagement of the rubbish collection service in the capital. He was even removed from his position as mayor of Bogotá for that reason by then-president Santos.
The inauguration ceremony was loaded with symbolism conveying an atmosphere of change and progressivism. I have chosen three attractions from the inauguration that I would like to highlight in this newsletter: the political and symbolic value of Bolivar’s sword during the ceremony, the appearance of pianist Teresita Gómez from Medellín, and the success story of Esteban Sinisterra Paz, the fashion designer who creates the outfits for VP Francia Márquez.
It was Gustavo Petro’s wish to present the famous sword previously owned by liberator Simón Bolívar during his inauguration to the public. This sword, kept at the presidential palace in Bogotá, has a highly symbolic meaning for Colombia as an independent republic, a symbol of successful peace negotiations (i.e. the accord between the guerrilla organisation M-19 and Colombia in 1991, which led to the the organisation’s demobilisation) and for Gustavo Petro on a personal level because he was a militant member of this guerrilla organisation. On January 17th, 1974, one of the founders of the guerrilla movement M-19 stole Bolivar's sword from the Quinta de Bolívar in Bogotá leaving behind a note that said, «Bolivar, your sword returns to the battlefield». On January 31st, 1991, Antonio Navarro, a former leader of the M-19, returned the sword as part of the group's peace negotiations with the government. In this sense, the presence of the sword at the inauguration might suggest a certain degree of militancy of the new government, and also - taking into consideration that the sword was finally returned to the Colombian state - the will of Petro’s government to turn the dragging peace accord with the FARC into an enduring peace that deserves that name, just as it had been done successfully with M-19.
Yet, outgoing president Iván Duque used his remaining power to deny Petro’s wish claiming security reasons to justify the absence of the sword at the ceremony. Needless to say, Petro ordered the sword to be brought out from the presidential palace immediately after he had been sworn in. One might think that Duque’s decision was an awkward if not to say immature gesture towards the incoming president; but it is not that easy to judge no matter how silly his justification was. Even though the M-19 demobilised and returned the sword, many Colombians still remember M-19 as the terrorist group responsible for one of the most violent acts of Colombia’s recent past: the assault on the Palace of Justice in 1985, which killed more than a hundred people. I wrote about the assault in Tertulia, vol. 21. I would have cherished if Petro had not insisted in bringing out this sword. By standing back from his request, he could have shown understanding for the families of the victims of that assault and other acts of violence committed by M-19.
Teresita Gómez is a Colombian pianist and music educator from Medellín. I had the pleasure to meet her at a tertulia after a concert at the EAFIT. She is perhaps one of the finest Colombian pianists of our time and works at the Universidad de Antioquia which even named a new hall for the performing arts after her. She has done a lot to promote classical European music in Colombia and Colombian music abroad. She is also a wonderfully gracious person. So it was not a big surprise that she was invited to play the national anthem during Petro’s inauguration. Her appearance was one of the less controversial attractions of the ceremony on Plaza Bolívar. Her appearance created an air of lightness amidst a pompous protocol.
During a break of the ceremony, she also captivated the public with Luis Antonio Calvo’s classic «Hacia el calvario».
You can find her music on all know distribution channels for music. She’s simply great.
Afro-Colombian fashion design
VP Francia Márquez has chosen a young fashion designer from her home region to make a clear statement about her cultural identity. Far from the European likes of wearing tight business coats and skirts, her designer Esteban Sinisterra Paz chooses soft fabrics, bright colours and patterns, and artisanal accessories for the outfits of the new VP. These underline the African and Indigenous traditions of Colombia, especially of the Pacific region. Both Francia Márquez and Sinisterra Paz know what it means to live a poor life and to be displaced by violence. Even before the inauguration, e.g. during her visits to other Latin American countries as VP elect, her colourful outfits had drawn a lot of attention.
You can read a nice portrait of Sinisterra Paz in this Guardian piece. You can also follow him on Instagram.
These highlights from the inauguration on August 7th show how Petro’s team is making a deliberate use of cultural values to signal the political goals of the new presidency: change towards a multicultural and just state.
Let’s hope for the best of Colombia. I wish the new government a good start trying to unify a highly unequal country. Colombians deserve it.
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