“Colombia’s democracy is mortally wounded”; Petro


Let there be no doubt; Gustavo Petro was a disastrous mayor. Bogota has gone backwards under his ideological administration. Today, many Bogotanos will allow themselves a sigh of relief as he finally leaves his post.

But for all his faults, Petro was elected fairly and squarely. His mandate came direct from Bogota’s 8 million souls, and his removal from office is an affront to us all. Read more…

Mayor Petro deposed in “coup”


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

Bogota Mayor Petro on ropes as impeachment vote nears


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.

Democratic dawn in Colombia?

The infamous indignados

Colombia may have one of Latin America´s oldest and longest running democracies but the criticism has always been that hers is a democracy only at the time of an election, that away from the physical act of voting, the society has very little involvement in the running of the country.

2012 is beginning to look like the year this began to change.

Citizen movements are growing more vocal and more active by the day, and what is more important, they are starting to achieve success, forcing the government to change policy and securing the resignation of key political figures.

Last year university students struck a blow to the Santos regime´s efforts to reform the education system. Mass protests, strikes and closures left the president with little alternative but to shelve his roundly crticised legislation. Santos promised that a new bill would be shaped through dialogue with the representatives of the student movement. The government was learning to rely on the input of the electorate.

This victory was followed up earlier this summer by a group of internet indignados who plunged the country into constitutional chaos, forcing the president effectively to veto a law he had taken two years to get through congress.

Following congress´ vote in favour, the Justice Reform bill was supposed to receive the rubber stamp from Santos. But as it made its way to the Casa de Nariño, concerned citizens uncovered a series of last minute amendments that had been attached to the law. These amendments delivered virtual impunity for parliamentarians, and would have allowed those already convicted for `parapolitics` to walk free.

Appalled at this affront to democracy the #SeMueveLaContraReforma hastag was established, a Facebook page quickly constructed and an internet war initiated.  The venom spread throughout the nation and the clamour for heads to roll grew riotous. Within hours the president appeared on television for a rare address promising to stand tall against the rank corruption of ´the few´ in parliament.

The Justice Reform bill was supposed to be an emblematic piece of legislation, a defining act for the Santos administration. Thanks to ordinary Colombians it was prevented from ever becoming law.

The latest episode in this shift of power from the centre to the people comes just months after this ´point-of-departure´ episode. Over recent days an internet campaign to bar the re-election of ultra-conservative Alejandro Ordóñez as Inspector General has once again ignited the fervour of the masses.

Ordóñez is a controversial figure, and there are many who see his views as incompatible with his role as the top legal defender of public interest.

Ordóñez is a man who believes the morning after pill is a form of abortion, that attacks gay rights and, it is accused, mixes his role with proclamations of religious and political belief.

To minority groups in particular his is the unacceptable face of the moralising right. To others however, he is a top lawyer who has, during his four years in power, delivered major blows against the corrupt, taking down leading figures with ties to para-militaries.

The argument that Ordóñez should not stand for re-election is a futile one. He is entitled to do so under the provisions of the constitution.

For now Ordóñez appears to have the support of the major political parties and he is almost certain to win. The game can only change if another candidate were to emerge, but so far this looks unlikely.

With a lack of a credible alternative candidate to Ordóñez, it is difficult to see how the citizens will this time make their voice heard.

Ordóñez could never hold a major public position in the majority of Western European countries. His views would be castigated by the press and the voters, he would be forced from office; the political class would not be able to save him.

Given his relative safety in Colombia, is it too early to predict a democratic dawn here?  Is the move from an elective to a participative democracy still but a dream?

Yes and no. Changes in political systems are processes, often gradual ones that meet with resistance from those in control.

The political élite in Colombia governs from ivory towers, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for ´ordinary folk´ to scale them.

Colombia is changing but the rate of change here is slow, the interests in maintaining the status quo too great.

The power of social networks is often hyped, but in a country where the traditional media and the political class occupy the same corridors of power, the near unadulterated democracy of Twitter and of Facebook has greater force than in more traditionally participative countries.

Politicians are being forced to be more aware of their electorate. This is undeniably a healthy development for the country. Whether Ordóñez deserves to be a victim of this movement is irrelevant.

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Thomas Jefferson

Also published on Redes Colombia

Colombia’s supreme court threatens free speech

Colombia´s Supreme Court of Justice

Colombians worry their free speech is under threat following the move by the Supreme Court to charge journalist Cecilia Orozco Tascón with slander.

Although no charges have been raised against Duzán, Orozco appears likely to face trial as Chief Prosecutor, Alejandro Odoñez confirmed she has a case to answer.

Two articles highly critical of the court, written by Orozco, the director of a news television channel Noticias Uno, and Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, were adjudged by the court to have crossed the boundaries of press freedom.

Through a communique issued by the penal committee on Thursday, the country learnt that  court will not allow ‘injurious’ and ‘slanderous’ comment against the institution.

For years politicians have tried unsuccessfully to quiet the journalist’s voice in Colombia. Is the Supreme Court now succeeding where they failed? Is this the beginning of the end for press liberty in Colombia?

A threat to freedom of speech?

Colombia is considered perhaps the most stable democracy in Central or South America. It might be victim to the jealous gaze of narco-terrorists (from the right and the left), but Colombia’s constitution offers a system of checks and balances that has maintained a relatively secure, if not entirely participative, democracy.

Military coups might be a signature of Latin America’s recent history, but in Colombia dictatorial leaders have little currency. Votes are cast and results are respected.Colombians view with pity their Ecuadorean and Venezuelan neighbours who live with the rampant despotism of Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez. Citadels to 21st Century socialism loom threateningly over Colombia’s borders, seeking influence through their ideological and financial support of guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN.

Hugo’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ (in supposed honour of the great South American liberator, Simón Bolívar), copied by Correa, has crushed free-speech, forcing privately run opposition media to close or reduce output, and in their place has installed monolithic state-controlled propaganda machines. So absurdly obsequious is Venezuela to her ‘Commandante’, that Chávez’ Tweets are now sent as text messages to the phones of millions of voters.

Until this week a cozy consensus has existed that Colombia represents a regional counter-balance to this orgy of left-wing loony-ism, a country where liberalism and freedom is respected. The Supreme Court’s communique has seriously challenged this view.

By charging Orozco and by giving Duzán the severe ticking-off that it has, the court is effectively sanctioning the criminalisation of opinionin Colombia.So what does the court take issue with? It argues that the journalists’ opinions ‘call into question the honesty and the transparency of the court and its members’. The good name of the institution must be defended, they assert.

But reading these articles it is impossible to see where the court hopes to prove slander and injury. The accusations the journalists put are that the court has become more subject to ‘clientalism’ and ‘bureaucracy’ that it is ‘subordinated’ it to the ‘parliament and the attorney general’. Essentially, Orozco and Duzán imply the interests of the court lie more in self-preservation, than in safeguarding the constitution. 

The truth is that whether or not the court works hand in glove with those it judges, or whether it has become clientalised are assertions that should be challenged in public, proven wrong through debate, not through legal process.

The supreme court could have taken to the airwavesto try to prove Orozco and Duzán wrong, by hiding behind criminal charges it is displaying what guests on the leading radio programme, Hora 20, have called an unforgivable ‘arrogance’.

During the Uribe years, the Supreme Court played a crucial role in the preservation of the branches of power, eventually overturning the ex-president’s efforts to amend the constitution a second time to permit his third mandate. It won enemies within Uribism, but friends among those who feared the accumulation and over-centralisation of power in the president’s office.

For the country’s columnists the court has since failed to live up to its obligation to the Colombian state.

Ultimately, the legitimacy of the court is derived from its role in preserving democracy.

By sacrificing the nation’s freedom-of-speech, and by hiding behind legal constructs instead of facing the public, the court is appears at once to be creating, undermining and acting above, the law.

If the court is wrong to press these charges, is it still an exaggeration to see them as a threat to free speech? Colombia’s commentariat doesn’t think so. Respected journalists and opinion writers have virtually unanimously attacked the court – Daniel Samper Ospina, director of SOHO suggested the court had ‘put us at the level of Venezuela and Ecuador’ while the political analyst Claudia López called it a ‘shameful’ decision, that threatens the ability of opinion writers to do their job.

So who will win, the courts or public opinion and freedom?

The magistrates on Colombia’s highest legal body have recently endured a torrid time in the court of public opinion. The body has been accused of lobbying for those clauses within the ill-fated Justice Reform bill that  were designed to deliver significant benefits both for the institution and its members.

This bill caused outrage with the public who forced the president to ditch it what they saw as entirely self-serving law for the governing class. As the court further isolates itself from the public it jeopardises the legitimacy that popular consent provides.

Whilst it is true that the Supreme Court in Colombia fought heroically against the ‘parapoliticos’ during the last government, an attack on freedom of speech cannot be tolerated. The abuses of power by Colombia’s neighbours must not begin to find a home here. The role of the Supreme Court as a body that preserves the constitution must be supported. We must talk it down from the ledge from which it appears desperate to plunge.

Also published on Redes Colombia

Colombia Politics digest – top stories

This website is dedicated to providing its readers with analysis and commentary on Colombia’s politics.

The sheer volume of political stories made public on a daily basis means that, starting from today, this website will also publish a regular digest of some of the most interesting and curious news.
The aim is to develop a fuller picture of Colombia’s politics. These round-ups will complement the more detailed comment pieces.

Today’s top three stories:

1. Uribe v Chávez
2. Santos v the media
3. Ordoñez v drug use

1. Top story – Uribe v Chávez 

Earlier this week ex-President Uribe revealed he would have launched military raids in neighbouring Venezuela had he had more time in office. During a speech made to a university audience, Uribe claimed he had sufficient evidence that FARC guerrillas were operating across the border, and that these forces were aided and abetted by the government of Hugo Chávez.Chávez responded that Uribe lacked not time but the ‘balls’ to launch an attack. An unsavory exchange of insults ensued, reminding the world of early 2010 when the two men fought at a summit of the Americas. On this occasion Chávez had accused Uribe of ordering his assassination by Colombian paramilitaries.During the final months of the Uribe presidency the tension ratcheted up as his government presented evidence of Chávez’s complicity with FARC and ELN guerrillas to the Organisation of American States, in an attempt to secure international condemnation of Caracas. As he amassed troops on the Colombia Venezuela border, Chávez spoke of his ‘weeping heart’ at the prospect of war.

Within weeks, Uribe handed over the baton to Juan Manuel Santos whom he hoped would continue the combative mano dura approach to the Venezuelan leader. The new president decided, however, to open dialogue and establish diplomatic ties with Chávez, who soon professed to be Santos’ ‘new best friend’. Uribe has never assimilated this, viewing Santos’ change in diplomatic tactics as treacherous.

Uribe’s announcement reminds Colombians what sort of government he hopes to replace Santos with in 2014 (he has committed to launch an ‘anti-Santos’ candidate for these elections). All this also provides us an insight into what might have happened had the Colombian courts allowed Uribe to stand for a third term in office.

Thankfully, the tragic waste of life that a war between the two countries would have produced, has been avoided.

Curiously while Uribe’s words might have ignited his base they have done precious little to help the opposition candidate Capriles in his fight to rest the presidency from Chávez in October. Chávez has used Uribe’s talk of war to insinuate that Capriles is supported and funded by ‘far right’ interests in Colombia. Uribe’s talk may achieve the reverse of the outcome he hopes for. Capriles must hope that Uribe keeps quiet over the coming months.

2. Santos v the media

President Juan Manuel Santos found himself in the eye of a storm this week as he claimed that ‘without the media, there would be no terrorism’.

It is of course a self-evident truth that the media helps to spread the word and actions of terrorists and that consequently it helps to spreading fear. Nevertheless it was a strange move for Santos to make this point in public, and it has left the president who belongs to the most famous newspaper-owning family in Colombia, red-faced indeed.

The nation’s media has jumped on the ‘gaffe’ and accused Santos either of passing the blame for the inability of the government to finish off the FARC – or worse, of ignorantly inciting oppression of free-speech.

Santos’ popularity has been in free-fall partly on the back of a perceived deterioration in the country’s security situation following an up-surge in FARC activity. Critics accuse Santos of erecting a smoke-screen to divert attention from the real and pressing problems the nation faces.

This is harsh as Santos’ comments were not a serious attack on the press. Instead, they should be seen more as an insight into his frustration at being impotent to end Latin America’s longest running internal conflict.

3. Chief Prosecutor/Inspector General Ordoñez v drug use
The ultra-Conservative Alejandro Ordoñez has called for a national referendum on drug legalisation. Ordoñez, a Catholic moralist, is a fierce opponent of attempts to relax drug laws.
His move is a reaction to an emerging political panorama – within Colombia, as well as abroad – that is pondering a serious reconsideration of the tactics of the war on drugs:
  • President Santos has talked of possible decrimilisation, and earlier this year, at the Summit of the Americas secured agreement from Latin American heads of state to investigate proposals for a shift in global drug policy.
  • Bogota Mayor, Gustavo Petro has this month promoted plans for a series of drug consumption centres across the capital, where addicts would be allowed legally to consume banned substances.
Ordoñez understands that the climate is liberalising, and as the debate continues to take hold in the country, the prospect of an eventual move towards a form of legal control on the production and consumption of drugs will move closer.
Were a referendum called now, Colombia would vote no, and the debate would be stopped in its tracks. Ordoñez is attempting to abort the issue.
Naturally, Ordoñez also knows that it is constitutionally impossible to offer a plebiscite on an issue that extends beyond Colombia’s borders, and he therefore knows that the push for a referendum is a political statement rather than a realistic proposal.
There are those who speculate on the connection this has with Ordoñez’s campaign to be re-elected.