The Bolivar Plaza during one of the mobilizations in support of Petro. Photo credit: http://thellamadiaries.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/petro-and-the-challenges-of-colombian-democracy/
Today the Inspector General of Colombia, Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, ignored appeals by Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro Urrego to stay his suspension from public office for 15 years.
This is a significant development in Colombian politics – in a politically conservative nation, the progressive former-guerrilla Mayor occupied what is commonly referred to as the most important job in the country after the Presidency. Ordóñez’s destitution now has given a major political blow to Colombia’s divided Left.
Petro must now leave the office of Mayor.
The Inspector General (IG) accused Petro of violating the right to free enterprise and threatening the health of bogotanos by trying to deprivatize the Bogota’s garbage collection services. In December 2012, the reluctance of the elites who own the extremely profitable garbage collection business to help with the Mayor’s project (and some argue, mistakes made by Petro on the procurement of new garbage trucks) effectively left the 8 million people of Bogota without garbage collection services for a few days.
The IG has become a very symbolic figure in Colombian politics; he is a fierce defender of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, a staunch social conservative known for his anti-gay views, a devout Catholic, and a vocal opponent to the government’s peace talks with the FARC in Havana. Ordóñez has been criticized in his role as Inspector General for being soft on politicians close to Uribe or implicated in the ‘parapolitics’ scandal/being accused of having ties to paramilitary groups.
Others have pointed out how Ordóñez’s destitutions are perhaps an example of a flaw by design within Colombia’s institutions, or an overreach of the IG’s mandate. In the last few years, Ordóñez has destituted several mayors and dozens of other politicians, most notable Sammy Moreno (former Mayor of Bogota) for corruption scandals, Alonso Salazar, the former Mayor of Medellin for denouncing his electoral opponents as having ties with paramilitaries, and Piedad Cordoba Ruiz for allegedly having ties to the FARC. Some see these destitutions as cleaning up corruption in Colombian politics. However, in the cases of Salazar, Cordoba, and now Petro many more are arguing that Ordóñez is using his authority of being able to dismiss politicians from their offices for misconduct as a form of Inquisition against progressive and left-leaning leaders.
Petro was a divisive Mayor – during his time, reactionary elements within the city were organizing a petition campaign to re-call him from office. Petro is also a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.
However, others see him as a progressive force in the capital city. He helped support LGBT rights, set up an office for attention/service to displaced people and victims of the armed conflict, introduced a gun ban leading to Bogota having one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America (comparable to that of Chicago in the states), and made the deprivatization of the garbage services his flagship battle against the city’s economic elite. Petro, originally a member of the Left-wing Polo Democratico, distanced himself from the party after a corruption scandal with Mayor Sammy Moreno Rojas (who is a member of the Polo).
In the debate around Petro’s destitution, the idea (with some reason) has come up that Ordóñez’s destitution of Petro is a plot to oust the left from the Mayor’s office, and to open the job up for Francisco (Pacho) Santos, former Vice-President of Alvaro Uribe.
Petro’s destiution has been received by many Colombians as yet another sign that either by legal means or violence, some reactionary elements within Colombia’s traditional political classes (or within Uribismo/followers of Uribe) will continue to repress any attempts by the Left or seemingly progressive elements to take power in Colombia. This old story of Colombia’s exclusionary, repressive, generally undemocratic and conservative political system sends a very dangerous signal to the FARC: One of the premises of the peace negotiations is a political opening in which the Left (or at least, whatever the FARC thinks they represent) will be given a “fair” shot in the ballot box/the peace talks are predicated on a supposed political transformation (in theory) which would end what the guerrillas see as a need for ‘armed political struggle’. Petro’s destitution throws all of that in the air.
At best, since his destitution in mid-December, and all throughout the holidays, social movements and everyday bogotanos have been filling the Bolivar Plaza (Bogota’s equivalent to Hyde Park where the Supreme Court and Congress are), and he is again calling for a peaceful and popular revolution/uprising/movement against the IG’s decision (although it’s coming to light today that there is no legal recourse for the destituted Mayor). For only tepid supporters, what seems like an attack by the IG Ordóñez on the popular vote of Bogotanos/Bogotan democracy has martyred Petro as a symbol of the reactionary attempts to block democracy in Colombia.
Here is also an instructive (Spanish-language) piece by Daniel Coronell on Diego Bravo, a civil servant in the middle of the controversy (according to Coronell, Petro voted Ordonez’s re-election to do a political favour for Bravo).
Gerson Martínez, a rapper, graffiti artist, social activist and Petro supporter was murdered last week in what some are calling a politically-motivated killing (Martínez’s body was found with a flag of “Bogota Humana”, Petro’s city slogan/branding material).
‘Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy
By GUSTAVO PETRO URREGO
Published: December 26, 2013
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — On Dec. 9, I was giving a talk at City Hall on the need to fight corruption when, suddenly, my cellphone alerted me to this message: Colombia’s inspector general had decided to remove me from my job as mayor of the nation’s capital and to bar me from holding office for 15 years.
My alleged sin: bungling a project to bring trash collection — run by an oligopoly of private contractors — under direct city management.
Startled, I told the audience what I had just learned. They were irate; the country’s minister of justice and a United Nations representative in Colombia, seated at the head table with me, both hugged me in a show of solidarity. Tens of thousands of Colombians have rallied in the Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of the capital, in my support. More protests are planned.
For now, I am the mayor. I am challenging the inspector general’s decision, which I consider arbitrary and politically motivated. (In an interview on Sunday, the nation’s chief prosecutor urged President Juan Manuel Santos to postpone the decision.)
I was elected mayor of this city of eight million in 2011, after two terms in the Chamber of Representatives and one in the Senate. My administration has focused on helping the poor, readying the city for the effects of climate change and strengthening the public sphere.
My political career is not one I could have predicted. In the 1970s, I joined a leftist guerrilla organization, the April 19th Movement, or M-19, and was imprisoned and tortured from 1985 to 1987 for my participation. But by 1990, our movement had laid down its arms and made peace with the government — even though our party’s presidential candidate was assassinated that year. Indeed, in 1991, we helped revise the Constitution to make it more democratic.
The M-19 was never part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with whom the Colombian government is engaged in peace talks, in Cuba, to end nearly a half-century of armed conflict. But the effort to remove me has become inextricably tied up with the issue of whether and how to end the longstanding struggle with the FARC.
Those who support the talks with the FARC have said that removing me would demonstrate that former guerrillas could not safely lay down their arms and be assured a role in a fair and democratic government — a concern shared by Kevin Whitaker, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Colombia.
At a Senate confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, Mr. Whitaker said of the decision to remove me, “There’s a fundamental question that’s raised by this, it seems to me, and that is one of political pluralism,” which he described as the challenge of “how to integrate into the legal, unarmed, democratic process individuals of the left.” He added, “If individuals in Colombia were to conclude, based on this action or any other action, that that space doesn’t exist, then the basic conditions for peace are going to be, in some ways, eroded.”
As a Colombian senator, I supported the appointment of the inspector general, Alejandro Ordóñez, because of my belief in the importance of political pluralism, even though he is a close ally of the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe (who has criticized his successor, Mr. Santos, for talking with the FARC).
While the inspector general has power, under the Constitution, to remove certain officials, in my case Mr. Ordóñez has overstepped and abused this authority. In attempting to disqualify me from participation in politics on the flimsiest of pretexts, Mr. Ordóñez is trying to end my political career and weaken the political left. He is also trying to deal a blow to the peace process with the FARC.
It is precisely because of this overreach that many in Colombia are calling for a reform of the inspector general’s powers, so as to require judicial review before an elected official can be removed. This would bring our Constitution into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that Colombia has ratified. It provides that elected officials may be removed only after being convicted by a competent judge in criminal proceedings.
The grounds for my removal are preposterous. Last December, I tried to break the oligopoly of private companies that held the contracts for garbage removal. My administration estimated that these companies had overcharged the city some $300 million in the decade before I took office. Those companies, previously concession holders, are now contractors with the city.
I acknowledge that my government made mistakes that are not uncommon when changing the model for provision of a public service as complex as trash collection in a city with millions of residents. But Mr. Ordóñez has accused me of no crime. He says, among other things, that my administration mishandled our effort to bring trash collection under public control, and in so doing attacked the system of “free enterprise.” He also says that the accumulation of several thousand tons of garbage on Dec. 18-20, 2012, threatened public health. He does not demonstrate how this justified the removal of the democratically elected mayor of the nation’s capital.
Mr. Ordóñez’s background shows a pattern of intolerance. As a student in the northern city of Bucaramanga more than 30 years ago, he participated in the mass burning of books considered “impious” from a public library. These included Protestant translations of the Bible (Mr. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative Catholic) and works by Gabriel García Márquez. As inspector general, Mr. Ordóñez interfered with the construction of a women’s clinic in Medellín, on the theory that abortions might be performed there. He also threatened to remove judges and notaries who performed same-sex marriages, even though the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could join in “solemn union.”
President Santos now faces a choice: He can back Mr. Ordóñez, which I believe would violate democratic principles and international law and defy the will of the voters of Bogotá, while also setting back the peace process, or he can pursue a democratic resolution to this situation, one that respects our nation’s longing for peace, democracy and human rights.
Respect for the popular vote must be the basis of democracy.
Gustavo Petro Urrego is the mayor of Bogotá. This article was translated by Charles H. Roberts from the Spanish.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 28, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy.