Petro and the Challenges of Colombian Democracy

Plaza de Bolivar on Tuesday night, photo from the internet
Plaza de Bolivar on Tuesday night, photo from the internet

In the rhetoric of Colombia, the myth of being Latin America´s largest democracy looms large. But on Monday, democracy was once again seen to be more rhetoric, less reality. Bogota´s leftist mayor, Gustavo Petro, was dismissed from office by the Inspector General for problems when he tried to nationalize the city’s garbage collection last December. Pending appeals to the same Inspector General’s office, Petro will cease to be mayor on December 30th and will be forbidden to participate in politics for 15 years.

In order to stop corruption, the Inspector General has constitutionally granted powers to dismiss public officers. According to the magazine Semana, the Inspector General has sanctioned 828 mayors, 622 councillors and 49 governors without a public outcry.
Now this power has been extended to the sacking of Petro, who holds the second highest post in Colombia, after the President.

As happens too many times in Colombia, procedures can become excuses to ensure that the status quo does not change. There are rumours of conspiracies between the right and the Inspector General leading to the sanction, although nothing is confirmed. 15 years is political death; many other sanctioned politicians will be throwing their hats back in the ring in as little as three months.

Members of the European Parliament have sent a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos protesting the dismissal of an elected representative by a non-elected official and the US Ambassador to Colombia has expressed worries about the situations.The United Nations office in Colombia is asking to investigate, but have been refused by the national government.

Throughout his political career, Petro has been a strong opponent against corruption and para-politics, especially the activities of right wing former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. While in Congress, he exposed a contractual scandal and has consistently spoken out against the oligarchical state of Colombian governance. There is a strong tradition of leaders on the left being disposed of by those in power; lack of space for public dialogue and an unwillingness to compromise are part of what lead to the current civil war.

These events set an important precedent for the success of the peace talks, especially regarding the political participation of the FARC in post conflict Colombia. Petro was a member the demobilized guerrilla group, M-19. The group left their arms behind in the late 1990s to become a political party. Therefore, there is legitimate concern, based on the dismissal of Petro, that there will be no actual guarantees of political participation for a demobilized FARC, providing a disincentive to engage in peace talks. After all, if grievances cannot be addressed through public debate and democracy, why stop fighting at all?

The question is not whether Petro is a good mayor or not, (like most governments, his has made its fair share of mistakes) but rather if his dismissal was an abuse of power against an official elected by the people. Petro himself claims that this action is a bloodless coup against progressive governance in Bogota; many Colombians agree and are preparing to mobilize for their mayor, although the longevity and effectiveness of the movement have yet to be determined.

Petro has maintained a strong focus on nonviolence in his speeches. This is very important, as many social movements in Colombia, and around the world, have been discredited by violence. It is especially easy here to accuse the opposition of being linked with terrorism and any violence seems to prove that claim.

The Guardia Indigena, a symbolic nonviolent protection force from many of Colombia’s Indigenous groups supposedly arrived last night to join the group already in the Plaza. Tonight, the call is even greater. From each city neighbourhood, people will begin gathering in the afternoon, and make their way downtown, where they will occupy not only the plaza, but the entire centre. Petro is calling for the biggest popular mobilization in the history of Bogotá and asking campesinos, students, women, unions and any others to join him and stand for democracy.

This is not about personal politics or the characteristics of Petro’s politics. This is about that ambiguous, beautifully difficult concept of the will of the people. This is about a social contract, about marking a piece of paper and making a choice. Voting is a way of participating politically that tries to avoid violence. Instead of using force as a way of demonstrating opinion, democracy tries to give everyone a voice that must then be respected. It is vital for the future of this country that democratic processes be allowed to take place.

"We are confronting a coup of progressive government in Bogota" Gustavo Petro, Revista Semana
“We are confronting a coup of progressive government in Bogota” Gustavo Petro, Revista Semana

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