On March 19, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos upheld the ouster of Bogotá’s embattled leftist mayor Gustavo Petro, concluding—at least for the moment—a three-month legal and political battle that began when Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez dismissed Petro last December.
Santos issued his decree in defiance of a ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) just one day earlier. Finding that Ordóñez’s order violated the political rights of Petro, as well as those who elected him, the IACHR urged Santos to stay Petro’s removal pending its further review of the case.
With these new developments, the Petro saga has evolved from a punitive right-wing ideologue’s attempt to unseat a leftist politician to a major attack on democratic rights protected by international law, with significant implications for the upcoming presidential election. At its core, in Bogotá, it is also the story of how entrenched business sectors and their conservative political allies have resisted the political struggle, championed by Petro, for a sustainable and inclusive city.
Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement who helped to negotiate the 1990 peace process and the 1991 Constitution, has had a high-profile and controversial career as a leftist politician. As a crusading senator, he exposed links between paramilitary groups and right-wing elected allies of former president Alvaro Uribe, sending dozens to prison in the 2006 “parapolitics” scandal.
After finishing fourth in the 2010 presidential race, Petro was elected Mayor of Bogotá in 2011—the second most powerful political position in Colombia. He is widely recognized as a national leftist leader with future presidential aspirations.
Ordóñez, an ultra-conservative ally of Uribe, has been a vocal critic of many national issues championed by Petro, including abortion, same-sex marriage, and the FARC peace process. Since taking office in 2009, Ordóñez has deposed or sanctioned more than 800 elected officials, including 560 mayors, 38 governors, and 22 congresspeople.
Ordóñez’s dismissal of Petro, halfway through his term, was based on alleged irregularities in the transfer of Bogotá’s multi-million dollar garbage removal business from an oligarchy of private contractors to direct city management. During the bungled transition, trash collection was frozen for three days, leaving tons of uncollected garbage on the street when compacting trucks imported from the U.S. failed to arrive on time or function properly. Charging Petro with violating the “constitutional principles of free enterprise and competition,” as well as endangering the health and safety of City residents, Ordóñez barred him from political office for the next 15 years.
Labeling the action a right-wing coup, Petro and his supporters mounted massive demonstrations and a series of legal appeals, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Still, the punitive dismissal and electoral ban, which even Petro’s detractors viewed as disproportionate to the offense, catapulted Petro’s status from controversial mayor to political martyr. Polls showed that 73% of Bogotá’s citizens disagreed with Ordóñez’s ruling.
Santos’s decision to uphold Petro’s dismissal and reject the IACHR’s request is widely viewed as a politically motivated strategy to shore up his right-wing flank against more conservative opponents, in the run-up to May’s presidential election (in which Santos is seeking a second term). Invoking nationalist sentiments, Santos argued that the IACHR’s precautionary mandate is “complementary and alternative” to Colombian law, applicable only when the domestic legal system fails or malfunctions. According to Colombia’s constitution, the Inspector General has broad discretion to dismiss any elected official by administrative fiat. In contrast, IACHR legal conventions (to which Colombia, as a member of the OAS, subscribes) permit the removal of elected representatives only after they have been convicted of a crime, in a court of competent jurisdiction, with due process protection—none of which has occurred in the Petro case.
Some believe that Santos’s calculated political risk will backfire by alienating left voters he will need in a potential run-off election. It may also negatively impact ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC, upon which Santos has staked his political reputation, by sending a message to leftist rebels that their political participation will be undermined wherever possible. Internationally, Santos’s defiance of the IACHR belies his attempt to present Colombia as a modern democracy.
Regardless of its effect on the election, Petro’s dismissal will have a significant impact among the poor social classes of Bogotá, who have been the major beneficiaries of his visionary urban policies and who have remained his staunchest supporters. At a presentation to Harvard Graduate School of Design students last year entitled “The Political Struggle for a Sustainable and Inclusive City,” Petro described his efforts to address the daunting problems of socioeconomic inequality, spatial segregation, climate change, and environmental degradation in Bogotá, one of Latin America’s most unequal and socially contested cities.
A hallmark of Petro’s administration is the controversial zoning and land use plan he implemented by mayoral decree (without city council approval) in 2012. The plan restricts density and growth in the city’s overbuilt, wealthier neighborhoods and encourages development in lower-income districts, to foster socioeconomic integration. It incentivizes developers to build affordable housing in the city center, with the goal of relocating families from precarious settlements on the urban periphery, which are prone to landslides and flooding.
The plan also protects peripheral areas from deforestation, land grabs, and unregulated development, prohibits mining within the city limits, and converts former mines to public open space. It calls for improved management of water resources in the public (not business) interest, as well as democratized public transportation through a metro rapid transit system and electrified buses.
With respect to garbage removal and waste management services, Petro’s municipalization program has reportedly saved the city $100 million per year. In addition to cost savings, a major goal has been to incorporate some 14,500 informal recyclers into the system.
At Harvard, Petro characterized the process of achieving an inclusive, sustainable city as “Bogotá’s progressive, peaceful revolution.” Not surprisingly, his plans and programs have engendered fierce resistance from powerful sectors such as wealthy landowners, real estate developers, mining companies, and others who have profited from lucrative city business dealings (or lax regulation) in the past. Opponents succeeded in forcing a recall referendum, which would have been held less than three weeks after Santos ratified Petro’s dismissal. Ironically, many believe that Petro, now widely perceived as a victim of political persecution, would have won the recall vote.
While Petro continues to pursue additional judicial remedies in the Colombian courts, he has now been replaced by an interim mayor, and a new mayoral election will likely be held in May (close to the date of the presidential vote). The IACHR (and its sister entity, the Inter-American Human Rights Court) could eventually issue additional orders and sanctions, but these international bodies have little practical ability to enforce their decisions, especially after the fact. Examples of OAS member states flouting IACHR directives abound, although Colombia, historically, has been reasonably compliant—a fact that makes Santos’s defiance in this case all the more politically suspect.
Unless Colombia’s highest courts order Petro reinstated, Santos’s decision upholding his dismissal is likely to prevail. For local democracy, human and political rights, and the struggle against entrenched inequality, it is an unfortunate setback.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s biweekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents).