Colombia’s Petro-Politics

As the presidential election on the 25th of May draws closer, a controversial court ruling against a former rebel insurgent heightens concerns over peace talks.

Image courtesy of Coronades03, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Coronades03, © 2012, some rights reserved.

On the 4th of March Gustavo Petro lost the appeal against his dismissal as Mayor of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, bringing domestic and international concerns over the country’s divided politics to the fore. Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council upheld a fifteen-year ban on Mr Petro holding political office after his 2012 plans to reform rubbish collection in Bogotá resulted in no collections for three days. Regardless of whether Mr Petro’s actions really did endanger public health and violate free market principles as charged, his punishment is widely seen to be disproportionate, suggesting that deeper rivalries and political forces are at work.

Gustavo Petro is a distinguished left-wing figure with an unusual political past. At the age of seventeen he joined the 19th of April Movement (M-19), the second largest Marxist guerrilla body in Colombia after the infamous Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), and quickly rose to be one of the leaders of the insurgent group. M-19 is infamous for the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice, a bloody conflict between rebel and government forces which some members of the then Betancur government have claimed was coordinated by M-19 and the Medellín Cartel. Although Mr Petro recognised M-19’s role in the siege, he denied M-19’s connections to the drug cartel and has subsequently facilitated its dissolution, encouraging the participation of many former members in recognised political parties.

Because of his connections to left-wing insurgents, Mr Petro continues to be seen as a threat by the established right-wing political order. A major point of contention in the 2012 affair was that Mr Petro was nationalising a private rubbish collection service, while his recent calls for legalising gay marriage have provoked opposition from a conservative elite. One such opponent is the very man who ordered the removal of Mr Petro from office, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez. Although Mr Ordóñez’s post gives him the constitutional right to punish and dismiss government officials, the political implications of his decision have prevented Mr Petro from once again running for the presidency, as he did in 2010 when he lost to current president Juan Manuel Santos.

Yet if the established political order is so determinedly right-wing, how was Mr Petro not only appointed Mayor, but named one of the two “best congressmen” as recently as 2006? Mr Petro originally rose to power through the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a democratically elected party established by Mr Petro and former insurgents that continues to have a strong presence in the Colombian Senate and House of Representatives. But after an internal dispute in 2010 Mr Petro left the PDA and created his own party, Movimiento Progresista (Progressive Movement). His decision to leave the PDA lost him much of the institutional support that ensured his success and has left Mr Petro and his small party in a weak position.

Throughout his political career Mr Petro has made himself powerful enemies, perhaps the most dangerous of whom is former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Mr Uribe is renowned for his uncompromising stance towards left-wing insurgents, in part because his own father was killed by the FARC after being kidnapped in 1983. During his tenure, Mr Petro did little to appease Mr Uribe.  In a debate with Mr Uribe, live on national television, he produced a photo of Mr Uribe’s brother posing with a drug dealer, and documents which connected Mr Uribe to paramilitary massacres. Mr Uribe is of course no longer president, but he still wields considerable political influence. His endorsement of President Santos greatly helped the latter’s campaign and many of the parties who make up Colombia’s current ruling coalition were once loyal to Mr Uribe.

Until now President Santos has proved himself to be less right-wing than his predecessor, mainly through his concerted efforts to further peace talks with the FARC. However, his decision to uphold Mr Petro’s removal from public office suggests that he is being pushed towards an allegiance with the right. The parliamentary elections of last March gave Mr Uribe’s party the second biggest presence in the upper house after Mr Santos’ party, better enabling it to pressure or veto the president’s policies. Mr Santos’ choice of Germán Vargas Lleras as his vice president for this year’s campaign suggests that he is acutely aware of the right’s increasing political influence: Mr Vargas is a member of the centre right Cambio Radical (Radical Change), a party suspected of supporting paramilitary forces that would hinder the progress of peace negotiations with the FARC (

There is another reason for President Santos to declare the ruling against Mr Petro “transparent, effective and appropriate”: the involvement of the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR rejected the Colombian court’s decision and urged the reinstatement of Mr Petro, in what is a welcome verdict for Mr Petro’s supporters but a gross encroachment of Colombian sovereignty for others. It appears that Mr Santos wished to placate the latter group by rejecting the IACHR decision and calling its authority “complementary and alternative” to domestic rulings.

Mr Santos’ statement, coupled with Mr Uribe’s anti-FARC pressure, is bad news for the peace process as it is a rejection of external arbitration. International bodies have generally supported negotiations with the FARC as they see reconciliation as the best way to end a fifty-year conflict between the Colombian government and rebel forces. The peace process has been slow and if the president lessens his efforts to reach an agreement with FARC there may be no further progress. In a talk at St Andrews University last November, leading Colombian human rights jurist Gustavo Gallón argued that international supervision is fundamental to the success of current peace initiatives.

The Petro affair reveals the reluctance of many Colombians to forgive FARC crimes despite a professed desire for peace. Although the democratic system enabled his election and won him significant political support, hostility towards Mr Petro’s history and policies allowed the political right to oust him. For as much as Mr Santos has defied Mr Uribe and the right in the past, his stance toward Mr Petro has demonstrated that he is unable to resist such institutionalised pressures. It is possible that Mr Santos is temporarily playing it safe in an effort to secure the presidency in May. However, the March election has assured pro-Uribe factions considerable power in parliament, threatening to hinder future reconciliation with the FARC and showing that some wounds run too deep to heal.