Bogota at the crossroads
Sunday 15th December 2013
Progressive mayor of Colombia’s capital Gustavo Petro has been sacked by a right-wing ally of former president Uribe. But the people are fighting back, argues GLORY SAAVEDRA
Widespread shock hit Colombia this week as inspector-general Alejandro Ordonez appeared to summarily dismiss left-wing Mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro from his democratically elected post.
Ordonez accused Petro of alleged incompetence but also, unbelievably, with “crimes of deprivatisation.” He banned the mayor from politics for 15 years.
Ordonez, a civil servant, is well known for his far-right politics and his fanatical religious views.
But more dangerously, he has also attributed to himself limitless powers to depose those he does not like despite having no judicial mandate to do so.
In the last few years he has dismissed hundreds of governors without due legal process, largely without being challenged. Ordonez appears to be prosecutor, judge and jury, even in cases of appeal.
These cases are therefore rightly coming up for review in the Inter-American commission for human rights.
It is evident that among those banned from politics for periods of up to 20 years there are a considerable number of very capable and popular left-wing politicians, such as ex-senator Piedad Cordoba of Antioquia and ex-mayor Alonso Salazar of Medellin.
This is sending a very negative message to the left about its right to democratic participation, with dark echoes of the 1980s when nearly the whole of the membership of the left Union Patriotica party — 5,000 people — were systematically assassinated.
A crucial question is: what lies behind this latest decision?
Mainstream coverage has focused on Mayor Petro’s alleged incompetence and/or the “well-meaning, but somewhat misguided” decisions made by Ordonez.
However the reality behind this week’s events clearly shows the depths of lack of democracy and corruption persistent in Colombia, resulting in thousands of deaths and untold suffering and poverty.
Petro and his administration had had a busy couple of years since early 2012. The many positive changes brought about during this short time in office were astonishing.
A social and civic reconstruction of Bogota and its quality of life was taking place.
The Petro administration markedly decreased poverty and homicides, increased air quality by pedestrianising and improving public transport, banned bloody bull-fighting, promoted LGBTI, minority and women’s rights and advanced inclusion of the impoverished majority in the slums. Drug dealers were kicked out and a whole sector of the city inhabited by the destitute and addicted was rehabilitated.
Educational provision for the under-fives was improved. The best public TV channel in the country was nurtured, with broad, balanced and intelligent coverage of human rights, diversity and points of view, culture, music and debate.
Canal Capital — known as “more humane television” — is still on air and run by the internationally renowned human rights journalist Hollman Morris.
In the 1990s as a senator Petro was already well known for uncovering many of the links between corrupt national and local governments and violent narco-paramilitaries.
Even before his election to the mayoralty he denounced the financial corruption at the heart of the previous Bogota council. Unsurprisingly, his life has been threatened on a myriad of occasions. The far-right, in particular, have never forgiven him for showing them up.
As mayor, Petro has consistently continued to unearth the ingrained corruption underlying the activities of members of the governing elites.
This rancid far-right alliance of drug-running paramilitaries, corrupt business and government officials was severely rattled when in 2012 the new Bogota district government decided to end the outsourced, overpriced rubbish collection service, which was not only inefficient but also abusing its impoverished recyclers and employees.
The contracts were taken over or brought more firmly under public control, as instructed by a Constitutional Court ruling.
Petro once again came up against some of the most powerful and shady elements in Colombia, a toxic alliance of private contractors — particularly those of the street cleaning companies Lime, Aseo Capital, Atesa and Cuidad Limpia — suspected business paramilitary sympathisers such as William Velez, owner of 98 per cent of street-cleaning and recycling in Colombia and who owns stakes in construction and natural resource extraction, and the right-wing media.
Last year, investigations into the matter threw up the names of ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez and some of his family as actors, collaborators and defenders of any number of these obscure far-right characters — as reported in the Morning Star in November 2012.
This week after a shocking turn of events the links between that history and Gustavo Petro’s punishment are suddenly crystal clear for many Colombians.
Two reliable whistle-blowers, Otty Patino and Elias Tapias, who is also a witness in other corruption trials, declared they knew of secret meetings between Ordonez, Uribe and Fernando Londono Hoyos, the corrupt ex-minister of the interior, where Petro’s removal was planned.
The rubbish chaos generated in 2012 that was attributed to “Petro’s incompetence” was, in effect, part of that same plan, as many had suspected.
It was engineered by the private cleaning companies in order to discredit the mayor. So a fuller picture of the desperate manoeuvrings of the right in the face of Petro’s growing popularity begins to emerge.
Ordonez’s decision is now being called into question by none other than attorney-general Eduardo Montealegre, who has the competence to judge the inspector-general’s actions.
An emergency debate to restrict Ordonez’s seemingly limitless powers to depose politicians at will has been called for by Montealegre and members of the congress and senate.
On Tuesday December 10 — Human Rights Day — thousands of people all over Colombia poured onto the streets in peaceful but angry protests at Petro’s ban from office.
Bolivar Square in Bogota has become the point of convergence for all the mayor’s supporters.
The recyclers, students, pensioners, women, indigenous peoples and trade unionists were among many others who took to the streets.
By Thursday December 12 complaints were lodged at international level by the UN human rights commissioner in Colombia and by the European Parliament.
The forthcoming US ambassador to Colombia and the Farc leaders in Havana have also warned that Petro’s treatment puts the peace process in danger. The protests continue.
The Colombian far-right is now desperately squinting under the bright lights exposing their corruption and hypocrisy. The semi-deposed mayor’s popularity meanwhile steadily soars — it’s currently at 53 per cent.
There is hope in Colombia after all.