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