The Peace Dialogues and the Dismissal of Petro in Colombia
By: Raúl Zibechi
The decision of the attorney general, Alejandro Ordóñez, to dismiss the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, and disqualify him for occupying public positions for 15 years, is a blow to the peace process that the FARC and the government of Juan Manuel Santos negotiate in Havana. But it is also an example of the kind of democracy that reigns in the South American country, through which the dominant elites attempt to protect their class interests.
Petro was a member of M-19, demobilized more than two decades ago. He is the first mayor of Colombia’s principal city that exercises the position from the left. In his electoral campaign he promised to defend the public, the environment and to fight the mafias. Although he is not a radical but rather a lukewarm social democrat, after assuming the office of mayor in January 2012 he attempted to reform the city’s garbage collection, in the hands of private businesses linked to the paramilitaries.
What unleashed the crisis and his subsequent dismissal was the December 18, 2012 decision to transfer garbage collection to the Aguas de Bogotá public company. The company executives boycotted the transfer and for some days and the city was flooded with garbage, because of which city hall was forced to contract dump trucks to clean it up. He also proposed formalizing 14, 500 workers that carried out the informal collection of garbage.
According to all analysis, the implementation of that just decision was something pressured, but no one has accused Petro of corruption or mismanagement of public funds. The reasons the attorney general brandished on Monday, December 9 for proceeding with the dismissal are three: having signed agreements for garbage collection with a company without sufficient experience; having wounded the principals of free enterprise and competition by imposing limitations on companies so that they don’t provide service; authorizing the use of trucks to clean up the city.
The relation between the accusations and the sanctions is absolutely disproportionate. Those harmed by Petro’s decision are two contractor managers: William Vélez, of the Grupo Ethuss, and Alberto Ríos, linked to Grupo Nule. Vélez is one of the big contractors of public works for the State (cleaning and urban buses and Bogatá airport) and is “the most representative of a new business class that was strengthened in the Uribe era on account of large contracts with the State, and that now becomes part of the new Colombian cacaos” (Semana, November 21 2009).
Vélez is a personal friend of ex President Álvaro Uribe, financed his re-election campaign and is considered linked to attempts of the paramilitaries to legalize their fortunes through “two kin ds of businesses: those that permit them to launder money because they could overcharge sales, and the state monopolies in regions where they had influence” (La Silla Vacía, August 2, 2009).
Grupo Nule, called the “Carousel of Contracting,” is also linked to the city’s large public works and was a central character in the country’s biggest corruption case, under the mandate of Mayor Samuel Moreno in 2010, in the irregular awarding of public works (Caracol Radio, February 25, 2011). Despite being investigated and detained preventively, the prosecutor suspended and disabled Moreno for 12 months, showing a strange difference with the treatment given Petro, who was only accused of committing errors.
Attorney General Ordóñez dismissed and disabled former Senator Piedad Córdoba for 18 years for having “collaborated” with the FARC, in the case about the negotiations to free hostages. On the other hand he absolved the “para-politicians” (members of parliament linked to the paramilitaries) after the Supreme Court condemned them, he defended soldiers accused of violating human rights and maintained silence about the “false positives,” the murder of innocent civilians to pass them off as guerrillas that died in combat.
Because of that many Colombians agree with the journalist Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía (The Empty Chair), who considers Petro’s dismissal “one more arbitrary and political act from the attorney general” and questions “the consistency with democracy that the attorney general is able to dismiss popularly elected officials.” The Senate elected Ordóñez attorney general in December 2008 for a period of four years, with 81 votes in favor and only one against, and in 2012 re-elected him until 2017. Petro was one of the senators that voted in favor.
Beyond the attorney general’s personality, an ultra right-winger and a fundamentalist Catholic, the question is the character of Colombian democracy. The day after Petro’s dismissal, the FARC emitted a harsh comunicado: “Yesterday, with just one stroke of the pen, Ordóñez gave those of us risen up in arms a lesson about what democracy means to the oligarchy in Colombia and about the absence of guarantees for an Independent political exercise.”
This is exactly the theme that the government and the guerrilla agreed upon less than a month ago: the guarantees for the exercise of legal opposition. If they dismiss you for attempting to change the model for picking up garbage, what’s going to happen when the usurpers have to return stolen lands?
Reducing the problem to the attorney general to too simplistic. It is democracy that is in question. There was never anything other than “rationed democracy” in Colombia, a concept of the Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella recuperated by Lincoln Secco: a regime where “violence against the poor and opponents is combined with authoritarian actions inside of legality and the scant rights are distributed in droplets to the more moderate sectors of the opposition.”
It’s worth the pain of reflecting on this kind of democracy, which expands throughout the world: a regime where corrupt entrepreneurs command, enriched by the protection of business with the State and where officials can dismiss popular representatives with impunity.
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada
Friday, December 13, 2013