By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombians are expressing cautious optimism about the government of new leftist president Gustavo Petro, days before he takes office on a promise to reshape the polarized country with a series of reforms and social programs.

Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla and former senator, will on Sunday become the first leftist politician to govern Colombia, which has historically elected leaders of the center and the right.

Petro has pledged to tackle inequality with free university education and pension reform, reopen relations with neighboring Venezuela, fully implement a 2016 peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebels and seek deals with the remaining armed groups.

“We were never ruled by the left,” said bus driver Hernán Vargas, 55, in the El Rocio neighborhood in southeastern Bogotá. “There is a lot of hope.”

Many people in this working-class neighborhood, overlooking the presidential palace and Congress, said they voted for Petro and approve of his record as the capital’s mayor.

“I know that with him we will have a new Colombia,” said Jorge Eliecer Alegria, 40, who cares for his sick mother and hopes for improvements in the overstretched health system.

Other Colombians are more reserved in their expectations of the Petro.

“Those of us who didn’t vote for him certainly have concerns, because I don’t share many of his ideals,” said Daniela Giraldo, 23, in northern Bogotá.

The high cost of living is a concern, said Giraldo, who works in public relations. She also wants to see progress in education and peace efforts.

“If he’s going to be the change, I hope he is, and he does well,” she said.


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