Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bogotá’s progressive mayor fights arbitrary removal from office

BOGOTÁ -- The elected mayor of this Colombian capital, Gustavo Petro, is fighting his destitution by state officials on trumped-up charges of poor administration and “interference with the free market” in the allocation of city government contracts.

The charges specifically target Petro’s decision more than a year ago to move garbage collection from a cabal of private companies to a public firm. An unelected official termed the Procurador ruled in December that Petro should be removed from office and excluded from politics for 15 years – the kind of sentence that had previously been meted out to other elected officials on such grounds as favouring negotiations with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Petro is a former guerrilla of the urban leftist M-19 movement, which dissolved in 1990 and participated in drafting the 1991 Constitution of Colombia. He was a prominent senator for many years, a leading opponent of the far-right Uribe government, and in 2010 presidential candidate of the centre-left Polo Democrático Alternativo, a coalition that includes the non-FARC Communists, trade unionists and social democrats. Subsequently elected mayor of Bogotá, he sponsored a number of progressive measures, such as expanding healthcare benefits and defending LGBT rights.

The destitution order in December and since then has prompted many mass rallies in Bogotá’s central square, the Plaza de Bolívar, some of them attracting delegations of peasants, trade unionists and indigenous peoples from throughout Colombia. Petro has become a symbol of resistance to the national government of Juan Manuel Santos, a former Defense Minister under Uribe. His destitution is widely viewed as an attempt by the Uribistas to sabotage the current peace talks in Havana with the FARC, in which a major issue is whether former guerrillas will be allowed to participate in electoral politics in the future.

Petro’s attempts to fight his destitution in the courts have been unsuccessful. He now relies on hopes for victory in a recall referendum initiated some months ago by right-wing opponents, which he had previously opposed. The rightists have managed to postpone the referendum from March 2 to April 6 to enable them to mobilize their opposition to Petro.

The following is a video of Petro’s defiant speech at last night’s mass rally here. He announced that further mobilizations will be held in the lead-up to the April 6 referendum on his destitution, refuting claims in the media (which is almost universally anti-Petro) that he would resign his office in the coming week.

For those who can’t follow the speech in Spanish, here are some photos from the rally:

For a good background article on current developments in Colombia, see “Colombia, a Society Tired of War,” by Raúl Zibechi: (Spanish text at The English text of Zibechi’s article has a few typos (“federal direct investment” should be of course “foreign direct investment”) but is quite readable nevertheless.


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