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Colombia's congress begins new session with ambitious reform agenda

BOGOTA : Colombia's congress opens its new session on Wednesday, with a slate of ambitious tax-and-spend and other legislation on the horizon under incoming President-elect Gustavo Petro, intended to combat poverty and inequality.

Petro, a 62-year-old economist and long-time senator, will take office on Aug. 7 and will be the first leftist president to head the Andean country, where nearly half the population lives in poverty.

A tax reform meant to raise US$11.6 billion annually to fund social programs will be the legislature's first priority, Senator Roy Barreras, who will head congress for the next year, told Reuters.

Lawmakers also plan to debate a rural reform to increase Colombia's agricultural production, a law to combat political corruption, and a bill to create a new peace and security ministry, Barreras said.

"These are the priorities in the first months for reforms that mark a true change," said Barreras, who was elected as part of Petro's Historic Pact coalition.

The rural reform will seek to reduce food imports and improve self-sufficiency, while the political bill would fully finance electoral campaigns and the tax bill will progressively eliminate exemptions and raise duties for higher-income individuals.

The peace and security ministry would be the new home for the national police, removing the force from the control of the defense ministry in an effort to make it more civilian.

Petro campaigned on promises to completely restructure the police, to the chagrin of some officials, after criticizing what he said was excessive use of force during recent anti-government protests.

His economic promises, which include a ban on new oil projects in favor of developing renewables, have created some unease among business leaders and investors, despite his choice of a well-known economist for finance minister.

Barreras, a doctor with a 16-year political career, said the legislature may also debate the creation of a new Ministry of Equality before the end of this session in December. The new ministry would be led by Francia Marquez, a former housekeeper who will be the first Black woman to be Colombia's vice president.

"These are profound changes that mean the country can walk the path of social justice, of peace, of ending massacres, of stopping violence, of closing the gap of inequity... of preserving life," said Barreras.

Other reforms to the healthcare, justice and pension systems will be debated in the first half of 2023, he added.

Though leftist parties do not have a majority of the 295 seats in the lower house and the senate, Petro has built a coalition with centrist parties, including the Liberals, which means his proposals should have a strong chance of becoming law.

"We are going to have enough governability to pass the reforms we're suggesting in the first six months," said Barreras. "It's guaranteeing people their right to life. To food, to a roof, to education, to water. Rights for all are full peace."

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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