John I. Laun
December 15, 2013
On Monday of last week Colombia’s Procurador General (sometimes translated as Inspector General) Alejandro Ordonez issued an order dismissing Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro from his position as Mayor and providing that he be prevented from holding public office for the next 15 years. The reasons given by Mr. Ordonez boil down to this: Mayor Petro moved to terminate private garbage hauling in Bogota, ending an exceedingly profitable arrangement under which the City hired 4 private contractors to pick up and haul garbage from Bogota’s residences and businesses. The Mayor offered a three-month extension of the contracts with the private haulers, but they refused. Evidence has now revealed that the contractors met and decided together to refuse the extension, so that the city streets would fill with garbage without pick-up for 3 days (as they did) and Petro would be forced out of office by demand of Bogota’s residents. Mayor Petro did not concede, however, but rented dump trucks and others on a temporary basis to pick up the city’s garbage, and ordered new garbage trucks from South Korea. He also hired people to collect recyclables, something which the City had not previously done (as the contract haulers had received recyclable items from informal collectors on an informal basis).
Procurador Ordonez opened an investigation of Mayor Petro’s actions and after nearly one year issued his order, by which he sought to end Gustavo Petro’s term as Mayor and, effectively, his political career. Evidence presented by a political veteran named Otty Patino indicates how Mr. Ordonez’s decision was arrived at. He says that Francisco Santos, who served two terms as Vice President during the Presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez and who wishes to be Mayor of Bogota, told him that the fate of Gustavo Petro was decided upon through meetings held by Mr. Ordonez, whose political views are on the far right, ex-President Uribe, and reactionary political commentator and journalist Fernando Londono Hoyos. Patino’s account suggests that the 3 conspirators decided that Ordonez would issue the order forcing Gustavo Petro out of office and prohibiting him from holding any public office for 15 more years.
The response of Mr. Petro was to call for a series of rallies in the Plaza de Bolivar square in downtown Bogota, one side of which faces the Llevano Palace, Bogota’s City Hall. Tens of thousands of people have responded, filling the Plaza de Bolivar and listening to Mayor Petro give speeches on Wednesday and Friday nights. Rallies have also been held in several other cities, including a rally very critical of Mr. Ordonez in his home town of Bucaramanga. And Colombia’s Attorney General (Fiscal General), Eduardo Montealegre, publicly stated his opposition to Mr. Ordonez’s order and indicated he would open an investigation to determine whether Ordonez violated the law when he ordered Mayor Petro’s dismissal. President Santos, in whose hands both Gustavo Petro and Fiscal Montealegre said they placed the decision of what is to become of Petro’s mayoral term, has only replied that this is an institutional matter.
What are the results of these events? First, they show a clear distinction between the traditional governing class, to which Santos belongs, and the common people. The governing class is afraid of popular movements and has established means of control to suppress political actions by the poor and their spokespersons. Colombia has been reported to have the 11th most unequal distribution of resources among the world’s countries, and the 2nd worst in South America, after Paraguay. While the tremendously unequal distribution of resources and the virtual gift of mineral resources to foreign investors and multinational corporations have led to formation of guerrilla movements fighting the government, the response of the governing class has been repression of popular movements, funding of large military forces, and recruitment and support for paramilitary forces in the service of their interests and of those of multinational corporations.
Mayor Petro has focused his efforts as Mayor on providing resources for programs for the poor—education, health care, transportation plans designed to make it easier for those who live in poor, marginal neighborhoods to travel much more easily between their homes and the places where they work. He has established progressive programming on the City’s public television station, under the direction of award-winning journalist Hollman Morris. Mayor Petro’s programs present a clear challenge to the model established by Colombia’s ruling class. And he has now become the spokesperson for popular demands for change to a democratic system, not the “façade democracy” which has characterized Colombia for many, many years.
And second, the firing of Mayor Petro challenges the commitment to the integration of demobilized guerrillas into the political process in Colombia. Gustavo Petro is a former member of the M-19 guerrillas who demobilized and entered the political arena. After being elected to Colombia’s Congress and serving there for several years, he ran for the office of Mayor of Bogota and was elected when more than 700,000 Bogota residents voted for him. To throw him out of office and disqualify him for future government positions for 15 years, as Mr. Ordonez has sought to do, is to give the lie to the supposed commitment of the government to reintegrate former guerrillas, who have foresworn arms, into the political process. Ordonez’s action puts in jeopardy the peace talks being conducted by the Santos government with the FARC guerrillas in Havana.
President Santos needs to rebuke Procurador Ordonez and give his public support to the Fiscal General’s investigation of Ordonez. He should permit Gustavo Petro to remain in office until and unless a court of law finds him guilty of committing a crime in his exercise of his powers as Mayor. This would be consistent with provisions of the charter of the Inter-American Commission to which Colombia is a signatory. President Santos, meanwhile, needs to pay much closer attention than he has so far as President to the popular movement calling for change, for integration of people of all classes and incomes into the democratic process of choosing through elections who shall govern them. And he needs to move to end the corruption of public contracting and of the practice of virtually giving away to foreign investors and multinational corporations the extraordinary riches of the country, which must be shared democratically.
I believe we need to support the popular focus of Gustavo Petro’s government and celebrate the courage and determination of Mayor Petro in refusing to abandon the office he has used substantially to provide for the public good. He may have erred in voting in favor of Alejandro Ordonez’s initial selection as Procurador, and he has undoubtedly made some mistakes in decisions he has made as Mayor, but we should recognize the great contribution which his focus on providing services for the poor and disadvantaged has made to the search for social peace in Colombia.