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Colombia: lawfare against progressive Petro

Democracy is under threat following a series of disruptive actions that Gustavo Petro's government has attributed to attempts by state institutions to undermine its progressive agenda or even remove it from office, writes NICK MACWILLIAM

IN a statement issued on February 3, Colombia’s governing Historic Pact coalition called on the Attorney General’s Office to “end the persecution of the elected government and respect institutionality.”
 
Concerns have increased over the Attorney General’s impartiality, as well as that of the Inspector General’s Office, over their connections to the hard-right opposition sectors and their targeting of government ministers and supporters.
 
Both Attorney General Francisco Barbosa and Inspector General Margarita Cabello were appointed by the former government of Ivan Duque and have acted as thorns in the side of the progressive movement since prior to President Gustavo Petro’s election in June 2022.
 
“We demand that the outgoing Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, [Vice-Attorney General] Martha Mancera and Inspector General Margarita Cabello stop the politically biased attacks on our government,” said the Historic Pact. “The constant threats, lies and attacks perpetrated by the bodies of control represent a threat to the country’s stability and an affront to democracy.”
 
On January 22, as part of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, authorities raided the Bogota offices of the FECODE teacher trade union federation over its support for Petro’s electoral campaign.
 
Despite the union having demonstrated that it legally donated to the Colombia Humana political movement, the Attorney General alleges it made undeclared financial contributions to the Petro campaign. “A progressive president, the first in a century, cannot be overthrown here because a workers’ union contributed legally to a left-wing party,” Petro tweeted.
 
Two days later, the Inspector General’s Office suspended Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva over tenuous claims of irregularities in a bidding process for providing passports. Leyva has played an important role in advancing the Total Peace policy of promoting dialogue with armed groups, as well as the reopening of diplomatic relations with neighbouring Venezuela.
 
On February 5, Petro referred to an “institutional rupture” orchestrated by the outgoing Barbosa to remove him from office. Days earlier, FECODE and the government issued a call for social organisations, trade unions and the pro-peace movement to mobilise against the anti-democratic manoeuvres. Rallies are scheduled for February 8.
 
The warnings come as Attorney General Francisco Barbosa’s term in office draws to a close, with government supporters concerned that his office seeks to use its legal authority to attack the Petro administration.
 
Barbosa has consistently opposed the current government’s policies, generating major friction with Petro. Many government supporters believe that Barbosa was appointed to shield former president Alvaro Uribe, Duque’s political mentor, from investigation over alleged attempts to manipulate imprisoned paramilitaries with whom Uribe has long been suspected of collaborating.
 
Last August, Petro put forward three women candidates to succeed Barbosa as Attorney General. However, six months later, the Supreme Court still has not determined which of the three will become Barbosa’s successor.
 
This could open the way for current Vice-Attorney General Martha Macera to fill the role on an interim basis, an outcome that would be welcomed by Petro’s opponents but would dismay government supporters who believe the Office has a political agenda under its current leadership.
 
On February 8, the Supreme Court will hold another round of votes for the new Attorney General. If none of the candidates gains a majority, Macera would be a likely interim appointment.
 
Petro and the Historic Pact have compared the current situation to “lawfare” campaigns conducted against progressive governments and politicians in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and, most recently, Guatemala.

For several months, rumours of a “soft coup” plot against the government have gained traction. These seem unlikely to go away until there is clarity over who will be the next occupant of the Attorney General’s Office.

Nick MacWilliam is trade unions and programmes officer for Justice for Colombia — www.justiceforcolombia.org.

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