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The hijacking of Bogota’s democracy

The left-wing administration of the Colombian capital is being illegally disbanded by a central government determined to restore private sector dominance, reports GLORY SAAVEDRA

The democratically elected left government of the capital city of Colombia, Bogota, is being illegally disbanded — surreptitiously taken over by functionaries of President Juan Manuel Santos’s national government.

This barefaced centralisation, imposed from above within days, is symptomatic of the dictatorial power, which hides behind the flimsy facade 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 neoliberal 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 on March 20 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 in attempts to stop the imposed departure of the popular mayor.

On March 18, 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) assessed the situation to be sufficiently serious to issue precautionary measures for the mayor.

The 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 while 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, 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 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, during just two years in office.

Among many achievements, the mayor had begun to uncover further corruption by private contractors to the region which were draining the public purse, so he decided to return many city services to majority public control.

As a result Attorney General Alejandro Ordonez, a far-right administrator, ordered Petro’s removal in December 2013 and imposed a controversial 15-year ban from political office.

The “crimes” mentioned were those of “deprivatisation” and “administrative errors in the refuse collection scheme over two days” last year.

Even politicians opposed to Petro declared the ban exceeded any sense of justice.

Ordonez is a well-known friend of Colombia’s far-right ex-president and now newly elected senator Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe is being investigated for at least 286 denunciations of corruption and human rights abuses.

But this does not concern Ordonez unduly, as he also has many other powerful private contractor friends in Bogota, such as William Velez and Alberto Ríos, who among other business dealings, control near 98 per cent of refuse collection and recycling in Colombia, and who have been accused of paramilitary links.

These businessmen stood to lose nearly £1 million 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, Velez and Rios are also close associates of Santos’s recently named vice-presidential candidate German Vargas Lleras, who has huge dealings with the private construction sector.

Evidently, 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 per cent 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 demobilised more than 20 years ago, peacefully and democratically elected as successful senator and mayor and 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 guerillas 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, Minister of Employment Rafael Pardo, 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 — the latest records show that opposition politicians and activists are still threatened and murdered on a regular basis.

A general strike planned for this month 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.

Dr Glory Saavedra is at the University of Brighton and was previously visiting fellow at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

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