BOGOTA-The scene was both unusual and highly emotional. In her best Spanish, Valentina, the two-year-old blond daughter of Andres Pastrana, officially announced, on behalf of the Conservative Party, that her father, a presidential candidate for the second time, was the new president of Colombia.

The atypical gesture was, for many, a metaphor of the fresh start Colombians are expecting after 12 years of Liberal Party control over the presidency and the government structure.

“In these [last] years, Colombia has seen a political, social, and economic decline with almost no precedence in the history of the Republic,” said independent congressman Carlos Corsi Otarola, a harsh critic of the Liberal administration. According to Otarola, “From the moment in which [President Ernesto] Samper took office, Colombia has only gone down and down.”

Figures seem to support Corsi's opinion. In fact, when Samper became president of Colombia after narrowly defeating Andres Pastrana, Colombia was the South American country with the smallest foreign debt; it competed with Chile for the lowest inflation rate in the region; and it had a stable annual growth rate between 2.5% to 3%. Nevertheless, a dramatic lack of confidence followed accusations involving Samper's campaign with drug money, and it had a severe impact on Colombia's economy, as well as on the government's capacity to negotiate with the ever-growing Marxist guerrilla movement.

This time, Pastrana defeated Horacio Serpa — dubbed by the press as “Samper's political bodyguard” — with a campaign focused on two main promises: immediate peace negotiations with the guerrillas and bold economic reform.

Archbishop Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, president of the Colombian Bishops' Conference, was one of the first to greet the newly elected president.

“We offer our prayers for him and for all Colombians, and we expect that he will start to deliver the promises he made to our people,” Archbishop Giraldo said.

Archbishop Pedro Rubiano Saenz of Bogota, an outspoken critic of President Samper, said fighting corruption, especially the ties between political power and drug money “is a challenge that the new president must face in order to recover the internal and international credibility of the Colombian government.”

Despite the fact that the Catholic hierarchy was clearly neutral during the presidential campaign, sources from the Colombian bishops' conference, off the record, expressed relief about the end of Liberal control, which not only affected the country, but also damaged the Catholic Church with the approval of several laws — including the legalization of euthanasia.

Minutes after his daughter announced his victory, Pastrana delivered an eloquent message, making an appeal “for a reconciliation among all Colombians, especially with those who have chosen the path of violence.... I am starting a conversation with the insurgency right away, I only request the government to provide me with the needed support,” said Pastrana.

His possibilities to broker a peace agreement are better than those of any other president in the recent past: for the first time, leaders of the “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” known as FARC, have announced their willingness to negotiate a peace agreement with the Colombian president.

Pastrana, a practicing Catholic, has requested all Colombians to pray for the future of the country. At the end of his campaign, a few minutes before the electoral authorities confirmed his victory, Pastrana's core political team gathered around a tall image of Mary as the Immaculate Conception and prayed for several minutes in silence. He then left his private studio to speak his first words as president: “Let us pray to God, asking for his guidance in order to achieve peace and justice soon in our country.”

“May he bless you all and bless me, your new president.” (ACI-PRENSA)