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The shadowy hijacking of Bogota’s democracy

The Santos regime finally (and illegally) removed one of the few honest politicians in Colombia—the democratically elected, socialist Mayor Gustavo Petro—from office last Thursday, after only two years of a full four-year term of office.

Glory Saavedra
26 March 2014
Bogota Mayor, Gustavo Petro

Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro. Demotix/Guille Legaria. All rights reserved.The democratically elected left government of the capital city of Colombia, Bogota, is this week being illegally disbanded - surreptitiously taken over by functionaries of President Juan Manuel Santos’ national government. This barefaced centralisation, imposed from above within days, is symptomatic of the dictatorial power which hides behind the flimsy façade of Colombia’s so-called “democracy”.

Power over this economically significant region is being stolen back, from the recently democratically elected district administration, into the hands of neo-liberal central government ministers and their business cronies. All this, under the powerless gaze of the majority of citizens.

This, of course, was what the Santos regime has wanted all along after finally (and illegally) removing the democratically elected, socialist mayor, Gustavo Petro, from office last Thursday, March 20, 2014 after only two years of a full four-year term of office.

 Thousands of Colombians, in Bogota and throughout the country, had been tirelessly and peacefully demonstrating on the streets since December 2013 in attempts to stop the imposed departure of the popular Mayor. On March 18, 2014, after three months of continuous legal wrangling, false accusations and media-manipulation by Petro’s enemies, (plus the usual death threats from paramilitary armies), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) judged the situation to be sufficiently serious to issue precautionary measures for the Mayor.

Harassment by the far-right includes the relentless bugging, hacking and threatening of the staff at the only independent public national media TV broadcaster - Canal Capital - run by the Bogota district under the direction of Hollman Morris, a journalist internationally known for the quality of his human rights reporting.

The IACHR measures, on behalf of the Mayor, were intended to protect his human rights, and those of the majority of the electorate who voted for him, and were to be part of a binding directive instructing the Colombian government (as one of the signatories to the Inter-American San Jose human rights’ convention of 1969) to temporarily pause its attempts to remove the Mayor, whilst the Commission studied all the evidence.

However events over the last few days have shown President Santos and his ruling elite to be totally shameless. Within hours of the IACHR’s precautionary measures being issued, President Santos hurriedly removed Petro from office. Santos now stands accused of ignoring international human rights agreements and the Colombian Constitution, and, further, of being rather flexible with his honesty: the President had vowed not to ignore human rights agreements, with respect to Gustavo Petro’s case, in interviews over the last few months. The Bogota government is now in constitutional limbo.

Petro has never been judicially tried with any crime and has dramatically improved social indicators in the Bogota district, in just two years in office. Amongst many achievements, the Mayor had begun to uncover further corruption by private contractors to the region which were draining the public purse and he had thus decided to return many city services to majority public control.

These were reasons enough for Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez, a far-right administrator, to order Gustavo Petro’s removal, in December 2013, and to impose a controversial ban, from political office, of 15 years. The ‘crimes’ mentioned were those of “de-privatisation” and “administrative errors in the refuse collection scheme over two days” last year. Even politicians opposed to Petro declared that the ban exceeded any sense of justice.

Alejandro Ordoñez, is a well known friend of Alvaro Uribe Velez, far-right ex-president and now newly elected senator, with an infamous attribute: he is being investigated on allegations of at least 286 denunciations for corruption & human rights abuses. 

But this does not concern Ordoñez unduly, as he can also count many other powerful friends among the private contractors in Bogota, such as William Vélez and Alberto Ríos, who alongside other business dealings, control near 98% of refuse collection and recycling in Colombia, and who have been accused of paramilitary links. These businessmen stood to lose nearly £1m in profits from contracts in the Bogota District, had Gustavo Petro’s new public/private partnership scheme, for refuse collection and recycling, been allowed to proceed unhindered.

Interestingly, Vélez and Ríos are also close associates of Juan Manuel Santos’ recently named vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming 25 May 2014 presidential elections: German Vargas Lleras – who has huge dealings with the private construction sector. Evidently, Gustavo Petro has been treading on too many sensitive toes in this pungent and tangled web of right-wing politicians, suspect businesses and paramilitary armies. His Bogota Humana policies (Policies for a Humane Bogota) were a great source of worry to the well-to-do minority, in this highly polarised country. They had to get rid of him. At any cost.

Never mind the fact that the Mayor had won democratic elections in Bogota in 2011, and was only halfway through his term of office. Never mind that he was topping 68% popularity. Never mind that he is one of the few honest politicians in Colombia. Never mind that he is one of the founders of the 1991 Constitutional agreements.

Never mind that he was an ex-guerrilla who having been demobilised more than 20 years ago, was peacefully and democratically elected a successful senator and subsequently Mayor, or that he was astonishingly successful in uncovering myriad links between politicians, narco-paramilitaries and corruption over that same period.

Never mind that the much-trumpeted Santos “peace process” depends on the FARC guerrillas demobilising and that this situation will shake their confidence in the possibility of political opposition as a viable alternative to violence.

This has all been ignored, in the name of business, and corruption, as usual. A hand-picked interim Mayor (Rafael Pardo, Minister of Employment) has been installed, perhaps indefinitely.

It is clear that any democratic political alternative to the neoliberal formula, which comes to power in Colombia, is not going to be allowed to survive for long. Neither politically nor literally: as the latest records show that opposition politicians and activists are still threatened and murdered on a regular basis.

A general strike planned for this April is an indication of the increasing levels of general discontent and outrage at the Colombian ruling elites’ unsavoury immorality.

And democracy? The Santos regime does not even appear to understand the meaning of the word.

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