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01/02/2014

Colombia's long battle between left and right goes municipal

Petro
A former guerrilla and now mayor of Colombia's largest city, Gustavo Petro is under attack from the right and may face removal from office. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez.)

First, it was Susana Villarán, the moderately leftist mayor of Lima, Peru’s capital and its largest city.

Now it’s Gustavo Petro, the somewhat leftist mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city.

What the two South American politicians have in common is that they both have enemies on the right who have been doing their utmost to force them from office.

Last March, Villarán narrowly survived a recall vote engineered by her predecessor in the mayoralty, a rightist named Luis Castaneda who is so notorious for his laconic ways that people refer to him as The Mute.

Those who favoured Villarán’s ouster claimed to be acting out of indignation at her lack of achievements in the mayoralty. “No ha hecho nada,” they insisted. “She hasn’t done anything.” But that accusation was a fairly transparent cover for a political manoeuvre that was driven by opportunism, ideology, and greed.

Now, nearly a year later, the measures being taken against Villarán’s counterpart in Bogotá seem to be unfolding in a similar light – a case of opportunism and ideological differences, for sure.

After all, Petro was once a guerrilla who later served two years in prison for his rebel activities. Again a free man, he turned to legitimate politics, serving as a federal senator. He makes no attempt to mask his leftist sympathies.

Efforts to remove him are being spearheaded by two stalwarts of the country’s most conservative sectors. They include the county’s federal inspector general, one Alejandro Ordóñez, as well as a member of the country’s federal congress named Miguel Gomez Martinez, who belongs to the country’s ruling conservative coalition.

Last month, Ordóñez issued a ruling that may yet remove the mayor from office on grounds of what would amount to incompetence.

In December 2012, Petro sought to shift responsibility for his city’s garbage collection from a quartet of private companies to the municipal water utility. The transition did not go smoothly, at least not at first, and uncollected garbage piled up for a time.

According to Ordóñez, however, the affair represented an attack upon “the principle of freedom of enterprise" that endangered the environment and the physical wellbeing of Bogotá’s 8 million residents. He ordered that the 53-year-old mayor leave office, a ruling that would also ban Petro from holding public office for 15 years.

Petro is fighting the order.

Meanwhile, he faces yet another threat on a different front – a recall movement being led by Martinez, who has now apparently collected a sufficient number of signatures to force a vote on whether to remove Petro from office through the ballot box.

In an op-ed piece published last week in The New York Times, Petro insisted that “the grounds for my removal are preposterous.” He said the private companies formerly responsible for garbage collection had overcharged the city by “some $300 million” during the previous decade.

He labels Ordóñez an “ultraconservative Catholic” and provides some evidence for that description.

“I acknowledge that my government made mistakes … ” writes Petro, who was elected mayor in 2011. “But Mr. Ordóñez has accused me of no crime.”

And who said municipal politics were boring?

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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