Bogotá

Mayor Petro deposed in “coup”

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Democratically elected Bogota Mayor, Gustavo Petro has been removed from office by Colombia`s right wing Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez in what is being called a coup against democracy.

Just two years into his mandate, Petro has been kicked out for illegalities in his controversial decision last year to move the capital`s garbage collection from private to public ownership.

Questions are now being asked about the reach of Ordoñez`s power and whether a legal functionary should have the facility to depose elected politicians.

Meanwhile Petro has called on supporters to lead a peaceful revolution against what he labels “fascist” forces at the heart of Colombia`s political class.

There is concern too about the possible impact this decision will have on the peace talks in Havana with the FARC. Petro, a demobilized M-19 guerrilla, is Colombia`s most high profile former combatant in a position of power. His is Colombia`s best example of how to reintegrate into civilian life. Petro has suggested Ordoñez, a vocal opponent of the FARC negotiations, is in open “war against peace”, and has called on President Santos to step in.

Over-night Petro has moved from divisive mayor to martyr.

Colombia Politics view

Gustavo Petro has been a disastrous mayor; he has misgoverned Colombia`s most important city. He has improvised and failed to deliver the drastic changes and huge investment the capital is in dire need of.  Worse, instead of bringing the city together and governing for all of her 8 million inhabitants, he has polarized and pitted rich against poor and private against public.

This publication has been highly critical of Petro throughout his short time in office. But we recognize that Petro represented change, and had a series of bold proposals which, unfortunately for him, he has been unable or has not had the time to deliver.

As an elected politician Petro was given a mandate to run the city. Yesterday that mandate was taken from him. This is anti-democratic and wrong.

Sovereignty is conferred on politicians by the ballot box, and in all but criminal cases, the judiciary should play second fiddle to the executive.

But those who suggest Ordoñez is simply motivated by ideology would do well to remember he has removed many politicians from office from across the political spectrum.

And Petro`s speech yesterday calling on a revolution and liking Ordoñez`s decision to the bullets that were fired against yesterday`s leaders of the left was also wrong. Now is not the time for public unrest, and Petro`s populist rhetoric is ill-advised and dangerous.

Colombia claims to enjoy the longest running democracy in Latin America. Today that democracy looks to be on rocky ground. Colombians must not take their system for granted.

Picture, El Tiempo

Santos militarizes Colombia to shut down protests

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Colombia`s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has sent 50,000 troops to patrol the streets in a crackdown on violence amid growing protests and hostility to his handling of countrywide rural strikes now into their third week.

Reacting to rioting in Bogota Thursday, in which vandals staged pitched battles against the police in the historic centre and in outlying barrios including Soacha, and Facatativa, Santos took to the airwaves Friday morning to announce the “militarization” of the capital. 8,500 soldiers now marshal Bogota, while the remaining 41,500 guard other hotspots across the country.

Santos claimed the events of Thursday, originally intended as a peaceful march in support of farmers` strikes, had been infiltrated by the FARC through leftist Piedad Cordoba`s Marcha Patriotica movement.

In language reminiscent of hardline former president Alvaro Uribe, Santos promised to stand up to the Marcha Patriotica, and prevent it “from imposing its will on the country “.  The president’s pose seemed more appropriate to an attempted coup de etat than a day of violent protest.

The commander in chief also used the occasion to quit the negotiating table set up with potato farmers in Boyaca; again blaming the FARC for the breakdown in talks.

So what of a solution to the rural crisis? Gestures have so far been made; with a freeze in petrol prices for a month and promises of tax exemptions on products – like fertilizers – vital to the agriculture industry. But with 60% of Colombia`s work force dependent on agro-industry, however, this – and previous – governments have been inexplicably negligent in their search for the reforms to make farmers` work profitable.

As Vice President Angelino Garzon admits, “the rural strike hasn`t lasted just 12 days, but instead has lasted 50 years”.

Since the time of La Violencia when Conservatives and Liberals brutally exterminated each other, the rich and fertile Colombian countryside has been more the nation´s battlefield than its larder. Infrastructure, education, and in some cases even the most basic of needs have gone ignored as Bogota has turned a blind eye to those who put food on her table.

And the protests, do they continue? On Friday night Colombians repeated the “cacerolazo” of the previous days, but this time from the safety of their own homes. Yes, farmers too maintain their strikes, but Santos has managed – for the time being at least – to put a lid on what threatened to explode into a citizens` revolt.

But longer term it will not be as easy to ignore the contempt Colombians have for a political class that appears not only out of touch with the nation, but uninterested in it.

Few disagree with journalist Maria Jimena Duzman´s claim that Colombia`s political parties have failed in their duty to represent the citizens, instead focusing on their own interests.

A country cannot be successfully run this way. President Santos might be able to put a break on protests, but he cannot stop them from emerging again, next month or the month after or the month after that.

In Santos` first year students forced his government to drop elements of a controversial education reform. In his second, a social media campaign humiliated his justice reform bill, and now, three years into his mandate he faces civil unrest.

Santos and the entire political class must wake up and smell the coffee Colombia`s farmers are bankrupting themselves to make.

If Santos wants to be re-elected, he must promise major reform of Colombia`s discredited political class. Do that and he might just win. Fail to do so and he risks being swept off by the turning tide.

Bogota Mayor Petro on ropes as impeachment vote nears

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Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro faces the fight of his life to avoid being removed from office in November.

Colombia’s top legal official, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez  this week opened proceedings against Petro for illegal and irresponsible use of taxpayers’ resources in the ill fated nationalization of Bogota’s garbage collection last December.

At the same time, the unpopular mayor will face a public vote to kick him out after the registry confirmed receipt of nearly 400,000 signatures asking for a referendum to put an end to the former guerrilla’s administration.

Petro is appealing the registry’s decision, claiming many of the signatures are false. Should he lose this battle though, he will have to hope polling figures which over 70 per cent of Bogotanos support his impeachment are wrong. Petro has failed to over turn polls which show overwhelming opposition in almost all policy areas.

To secure Petro’s denouement, campaigners for the referendum, led by Miguel Gomez, grandson of Conservative caudillo former president Laureano Gomez, must mobilize over a million voters. Bogota has over 5 million registered voters; on paper success appears more than a distinct possibility.

The capital’s voters are notoriously unenthused by elections, however, and Gomez, if he his to win, must do so without the support of the major political parties who have refused to throw their weight behind the campaign. Without the party “machinery” it is hard to see that over a fifth of Bogotanos will head to the polls on a Sunday (when elections are called), traditionally a family day, when many head out of the city. Nevertheless, the opposition to the Petro government is fierce, and the mayor is conscious of the humiliation he would face if he were to become the first to be disposed of in this way. Not even the allegedly hideously corrupt Samuel Moreno suffered this fate.

Colombia Politics view

Petro’s defence has predictably argued this is a campaign perpetrated by ring wingers appalled at the sight of a former guerrilla in power. He points to Gomez’s heritage, and to the involvement of Conservative ideologue Ordóñez in the process.

But the majority of Petro’s detractors are not motivated by ideology or hatred for the left. Bogotanos have grown weary of their mayor’s aggressive and confrontational style of governing and many appear to agree with a recent advert that argued, “Petro has a speech for every situation but never a solution”.

Bogota is one of Latin America’s most important cities. For Colombia it is the economic engine, the political and cultural heart of the nation. But Petro stands accused of failing to address the major problems the city faces. His transport policies have arguably led to greater chaos, and his decision to hand garbage collection to the publicly run Bogota water company was disastrously executed. This, coupled with the resignation – at a rate of almost one a month – of top officials in his administration give the appearance of a government struggling not to sink in its own quick sand of incompetence.

The vote to get rid of the mayor will, however, be difficult to win unless Petro takes another misguided policy decision in the coming weeks. When asked, most want Petro out of office, or at least do not support his government. But will this passive dislike turn into votes?

The undesirable reality is that while the campaign is on-going, Petro’s government is grinding to a halt as it diverts resources to a rearguard action. The general in his trapped in his labyrinth.

The last thing Bogota needs is continued inertia and an absent government. If Petro has to go, may he do so quickly and quietly. The city is too important to be reduced to an unpopularity contest.

Colombia: On the path to social transformation?

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Guest piece by Christian Ortiz in response to a Colombia Politics editorial critical of Bogotá Mayor, Gustavo Petro

Over the past decade, we have become accustomed to hearing daring stories of struggle for political, social, and economic reform throughout Latin America. Recently, the renowned Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón stated in recognition that, “The world’s future is being constructed in Latin America.”

In contrast, Colombia has always been viewed as a Conservative stronghold, and a staunch U.S. ally, for which it became known by its neighbors as the “Cain of the Americas.” Nonetheless, over the past year, Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá has become the scenario of an audacious progressive spring.

Elected city Mayor back in November of 2011, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter of the 19th of April Movement (M-19) and Founder of the independent political Progressive Movement (Progresistas), has set out to demonstrate that Colombia too can jump on the social justice bandwagon that we have seen travel throughout Latin America in recent years. Is Colombia on the path to a democratic social transformation?  Could Colombia be the next country to become part of the Latin American Pink Tide?

Even though Petro recently completed his first year in office, he has been able to bring about substantial change for the city. His administration has made a historic dent in homicide rates, reducing it from a whopping 22.1cases per 100,000 habitants in 2011, to 14.4 in 2013, their lowest in over 34 years. Along with homicide rates, suicide rates have fallen by 12.6%, while bank, house and other commercial robberies have also dropped by almost 30%. Furthermore, the locality of Antonio Nariño, located in the south of Bogotá has gone 200 days without one single homicide in their community. According to the local mayor of that community, Giovanni Monroy Pardo, this milestone wouldn’t have been possible without Petro’s citywide ban on carrying weapons. For Jairo Libreros, a well known security expert analyst, and skeptic of Petro’s administration, “policies like these allow firearms to have less and less influence in times of conflict resolution.”

Petro’s administration, also known as Bogotá Humana, has additionally set out to bring an end to widespread animal violence, by banning all bull fights from the capital city. At the historic bullfighting ring located in the heart of Bogotá, Plaza Santamaría, blood baths and animal cruelty are a thing of the past. Now, an arena full of life, art and culture, this plaza has hosted more than 30,000 people for more family friendly venues such as free ice skating, an opera festival and a massive youth chess tournament. Bogotá’s progressive government has also initiated efforts to eliminate torturous animal-drawn vehicles from transiting its streets. By kick starting an alternative vehicle substitution program, Petro hopes to take in around 3,000 horses, and in exchange, offer the former buggy drivers incentives to acquire small modern motorized cargo vehicles. So far, some 450 horses have been turned in to authorities, where they’ve received medical treatment, a temporary home, and a renewed hope to be lined up with a new family through an animal adoption agency.

But for the 53 year old mayor who originates from a small coastal town called Ciénaga de Oro, it’s the fight against social inequality and discrimination that occupies the very top of his agenda. Already, Petro has created the first ever Sub Secretary for LGBT affairs, along with doubling the district’s education budget. Petro then boldly slashed water bills for Bogotá’s most underserved families’ by granting discounts of up to almost 30%.

Whereas costs for transportation are going up everywhere else in the world, Petro, by decree, lowered the cost for public transportation users in the city. Petro argues that by lowering the cost of living for most of Bogota’s underserved communities, they will have more flexibility to allocate funds to bettering their living conditions, thus tightening the gap between the most rich and poor. Back in 2002, the GINI index for Bogotá was at 0.58, making it one of the most unequal cities in the world. Last year that ratio found itself at 0.49, meaning it fell ten points over the past decade. During Petro’s first year alone, the city’s GINI index has dropped three points. According to the Mayor, Bogotá has been able to reduce its inequality “not because the wealthy have become less wealthy, but because the poor have increased their own wealth” (Petro, 2013).

But like any other struggle for social justice, Bogotá Humana has met a fierce resistance. Petro has not only set out to transform the capital city of Colombia, but he has also set out to rebuild a city recently hit by a tornado of corruption that led to the ousting and incarceration of his predecessor. Petro’s unorthodox and progressive style of leadership has earned himself a very staunch and powerful conservative opposition in the city council, private sector, and different State institutions. His opponents, including much of the private media seem unified to smother Petro’s image, and Bogotá’s progressive spring along with it. Conservative opposition groups recently collected 600,000 plus signatures in efforts to revoke Petro’s democratic mandate as Mayor. If national authorities approve the signatures, Bogotá would undergo a referendum vote to decide Petro’s future at the Liévano Palace. Only time will tell how this story ends.

Bogotá under Petro is beginning to revive itself, because of the achievements mentioned above, and for the many more that were left out of this article. For now, let it be known that one of the most significant, daring, and poetic attempts to democratically transform society is at stake in the city, turned battleground, of Bogotá. With Presidential elections just around the corner, the success, or failure of Petro’s Progressive movement may very well determine the future path of Colombia.

Christian Ortiz, is a graduate student of International Affairs at Universidad Externado de Colombia

Photo: Agustin Fagua

Colombia´s May Day protests end in violence

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May Day protests in Bogotá ended in violence on Wednesday with police firing tear gas, stun grenades and using water cannon tanks to disperse crowds in the Plaza de Bolivar and along Carrera Septima.

According to police, 65 people were arrested and three have been formally charged. The Unified Command Post of the Mayor announced that the march took place without mishap. However, others such as the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, an NGO based in Bogotá, have claimed that there were arbitrary arrests and harassment of peaceful protesters and journalists covering the event. The Ministry of Health has announced that 12 people, three of them policemen, were admitted with minor injuries.

As is usual on International Labor Day, there was a strong turnout from organized labor groups. Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia’s largest labor federation, was present in significant numbers as were unions including Unión Sindical Obrera, which represents mine workers, SINTHOL, which represents hotel and tourism workers, and SINDICUNICOL, which represents university employees.

CUT has claimed that roughly a hundred thousand people turned out to march in Bogotá and around one million people nation-wide.

marchesThere was also a contingent from workers at the General Motors plant located in the outskirts of Bogota. The plant has been the target of labor campaigns over the past few years from international advocacy organizations such as Witness for Peace. In May 2011, 68 current and former employees formed ASOTRECOL (the Association of Current and Former Injured Employees of GM Colmotores) in response to labor abuses firings for work related injuries which has been involved in controversial campaigns involving hunger strikes.

petro marchOther groups present included those representing students, victims of human rights violations and campaigners against racial prejudice. There were also representatives from the political parties Polo Democrátic Alternativo (PDA), a left-wing electoral alliance and the only large party with representation to oppose the Santos administration, the Movimiento Progresistas, led by mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro and other dissenters as a break-away from the PDA, and the Colombian Communist Party which was recently expelled from the PDA coalition. The obvious tensions between them was visible as they marched and congregated separately. Movimiento Progresistas held posters with the name of its high-profile leader, Mayor Petro, the second most important politician in Colombia after the president.

Former Senator Piedad Cordoba made an appearance and spoke with media and well-wishers. She said, “people are rising up in face of the pressure from the neo-colonialist, imperialist, savage capitalism which is expressed by the neoliberal model.” She compared the political activism taking place in Colombia at the moment to the Occupy movement in the United States, and the Indignants movements in Spain and Greece.

cordobaDespite slightly improved safety for trade unions in recent years, Colombia is still the world’s most dangerous country to be a union activist. Around 2,000 unionists have been killed since 1991, many of them committed by paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Unionists face other problems such as death threats, arrests, dismissals for organizing and more subtle attacks such as contract labor schemes where they are denied labor rights such as collective bargaining.

Peter Bolton is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá.

A better, more modern Bogota

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If Bogota is to improve and grow we citizens need more power to get involved and shape our city. I wanted to tell the story of my local community to show how, if we remain disenfranchised, Bogota will not develop in a way that benefits us all. They say all politics is local, but in Bogota we have very little voice.

The block where I live used to be part of a very nice residential neighborhood, very calm and quiet. But with time, the neighborhood has changed, many families have left, many people have died and many houses were sold or rented up for commercial use.

All of a sudden, someone decided to build a chicken restaurant, like those so popular around the city right there at the end of the block, attracting more traffic than the streets were built for. The neighbors didn’t like it, especially because the building permit said the place would be a kindergarten. Maybe during the construction the owners changed their mind and decided to put up a chicken restaurant and then the authorities didn’t check or didn’t care. Maybe the fact that the restaurant built a playground for children, led the city curator to believe it would be all right to approve the construction. Who knows.

So, anyway, we didn’t like it, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

There used to be only one church, Catholic, right in front of a very nice park and all the parishioners used to go in those days when Colombia was overwhelmingly Catholic and so was the city.

Now, as diverse as the use of the land has become, there are a diversity of churches, how wonderful. The problem came with one of those churches which attract hoards of people who simply come and park their cars in our blocks, making it literally impossible to come in or out of our houses. The same eager pilgrims have contributed generously to the up keeping and proliferation of their faith in such a way that they’ve been able to buy entire houses, demolished them and built ample temples, but not contemplating parking. The curator doesn’t care, I guess he doesn’t live around here and it is not his job to consider the traffic issues such constructions would generate.

So, back with the parking issue; we began getting angry, calling the authorities who hardly ever came. Then, we sent letters to other authorities in hopes they would answer our claims;  we also became angry and hostile to the crowds because we felt invaded, abused and we simply lost our peace of mind, so I must admit we were not nice. I remember counting 16 minutes to reach my house just from the corner of the block after a hard day of work.

One fine day, some No-Parking signs were posted, and we were pleased because people stopped parking for a while. The men, who used to be our guards for a monthly fee, became the guards of the pilgrims and started to turn into our enemies because we affected the income they derived from the tips of the tens and tens of cars that would make of our streets their parking lots.

But, because the police never came to insure the signs were obeyed, the signs simply turned into jokes: we, the residents, didn’t have the right to park in front of our own homes, abiding the law and afraid of being fined, but the pilgrims slowly decided to come back encouraged by the guards.

Today, as I left the house to go to mass, I saw with disdain, hopelessness and anger, how my house entrance was being blocked again. I went to church, ask God to forgive me for having had ugly thoughts about the owners of those cars and asked the Holy Spirit to enlighten our path to an institutional solution, a civilized way of resolving the issue.

A bit later, as I was finishing breakfast, a tow truck came and towed away the two cars in front of the house. In awe, we came out and clapped, and were relieved to see that the owners of the rest of the cars had come quickly to avoid being towed.

For a moment then, we felt that we lived in a city where the citizens are heard, where the authorities cared. But it was just for a moment because after a few hours, the streets were cramped again.

It’s just sad that we are not organized like other countries where you get privileges for being a resident. When you get your license plate, you pay a relatively insignificant fee that gives you access to a sticker that says you have the priority for parking there, in front of your house.

It’s sad to see that there are bays all along Carrera 15th, but they are only for the handicapped. How the police know that a person is or not handicapped, beats me because street vendors sell handicapped signs in any corner, without any restriction. So, how many people who are handicapped use those bays, no one can tell. But if you go to the bank to get money, or happen to run an errand, you can’t park there. I miss the signs in cities abroad, where they regulate the hours of parking, or where there are meters that allow street parking for a relatively low fee.

No, in Bogota you have to pay expensive parking, you have to pay “valorización” taxes, but you do not have any privileges for your contributions, you do not get to enjoy any of the supposed benefits that the supposed public works will supposedly bring you. No, they go to benefit corrupt politicians and contractors who are now in jail, but have not been asked to return a single penny of what they stole from the citizens who pay taxes in good faith.

It’s a shame, really, because there was a time when Bogota was the best kept secret, we had excellent restaurants at reasonable prices, we had nice houses to go to at the end of the day and we had mayors that cared about educating us to be better citizens.

Those days are gone. Undeniably, the city is more diverse now, there are many cultural events, people are more open, less uptight, and it is due to the influence from abroad. But those foreigners with their yuans, dollars and euros, have also paved the road to abusive prices in restaurants and real estate, and no one seems to say anything, to do anything about it. We, passive citizens of Bogota simply go it along, losing quality of life, paying a very high price for the modernization, for the change of the city, its supposed growth to become a cosmopolitan metropolis.

Wouldn’t it be nice to welcome all, to open up even more, but with a clear vision of what we want to be as a city, as the capital district of Colombia. I hope in the next elections of city authorities, we the citizens, think twice before we decide not to vote, I hope we, the citizens, think clearly on who we decide to vote for and they, the politicians, decide to leave aside selfish pretensions and come up with candidates that are up for the challenge of running a city that has proven it can be a wonderful place to live because it once was, if only for a short while, and just a bit too long ago.

Petro the “Hugo Chávez” of Colombia

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Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro´s disastrous move to nationalize the city´s garbage collection last month is to be examined by the highest courts in the land.

The nation´s second most powerful politician is set to face possible sanction for the move which left Colombia´s capital swimming in uncollected rubbish over the Christmas holiday period.

Petro reacted with fury this morning, labelling the attorney´s announcement an attempted coup d´état, and even a threat to the peace process with the FARC.

Petro, in a series of tweets, called on the “people” to “take to the streets” in a “mass mobilization” to defend his government against the “political interests” of those attempting to “sabotage the peace process” and cause an “institutional coup”.

For Petro the legal investigation into his woeful handling of the new waste collection service is not a simple move to challenge his lack of administrative skills, but instead an outright threat to Bogotá from the “mafia”.

Has Petro lost the plot?

Frankly, the former M-19 guerrilla´s behaviour appears increasingly erratic as he struggles to govern Colombia´s capital city a year into his mandate.

The Economist magazine has labelled Petro “arrogant” while others suggest he is paranoid and hopelessly unprepared for high office. Nestor Morales, of the influential BluRadio, this morning drew the similarity between Petro´s populism and Venezuela President Hugo Chávez´s style of government.

Morales appeared exasperated at the latest twist in what has been an unhappy 12 months in the life of Bogotá´s politics, reacting with indignation at the mayor´s attempt to cast those who criticize him as mafiosos, and opponents of the peace process.

Since coming to power in January 2012, Petro has polarized the city, seeming to seek to pitch rich against poor, private industry against the public, in a series of aggressive policy decisions that borrow from the Bolivarian rhetoric of the Venezuelan leader.

Moves are underway to collect the necessary signatures to remove Petro from office. And although this initiative is not supported by the political class, and (as we stand) has little chance of success, there is a very real prospect that the multiple legal challenges to his authority (currently underway or soon to begin) will land Petro in sufficient hot water to leave him incapacitated, unable to govern.

One thing is clear – whether Petro stays or goes – Bogotá will not survive three more years of this zero-sum battle between the mayor, the city, and the political class.

Few doubt that there are those out to get Petro. But frankly the city is more important than one man. Petro must get on with the job or he must hand over the reigns of power.