The recent election of a former guerrilla as Bogotá’s mayor gives the impression that Colombia, or at least Bogotá, has become a more pluralistic democratic place. Gustavo Petro, 51, won last Sunday with a 32 percent vote. His acceptance speech, in which he promised his four-month-old Progressives party would become the main opposition force, led to conclusions that he will use the mayoral post as a launching board to a presidential run.
It is encouraging that he won through votes and not guns. However, his reputation with guns precedes him and that is why we begin our Petro watch. Watching him like we are hawks.
First – Petro was a member of the M-19 urban guerrilla movement. Born near the Caribbean coast, he joined the M-19 at the age of 17, lured in by a professor. Surprised with a stash of illegal arms he plotted to use against civilians, he was imprisoned for two years. Meanwhile, his M-19 comrades stormed the Palace of Justice and butchered magistrates, judges, and other court staff members. They were reportedly paid off by Pablo Escobar who ordered the M-19 to burn all his extradition papers.
Clearly, back then, Petro kept company with those not interested in a rule of law. He has, however, more recently shown an understanding of why the necessity for the law: As a Senator in 2006, he denounced former President Uribe’s allies who allegedly took money and helped plot assassinations by paramilitary groups. For his effort, dozens of lawmakers and Uribe’s former spy chief have been jailed.
Second – Petro was once part of the Polo Democratico party. The last mayor, Samuel Moreno, also belonged to the Polo Democratico. Moreno is now in jail for allegedly taking kickbacks in public transportation contracts. Further, under Moreno, the number of murders in Bogotá has risen steadily since 2007 to 1,743 last year. Traffic congestions, pot holes, and chaos have taken over Bogotá, once hailed as a world metropolis.
Three – Petro has promised to improve hospitals and schools in poorer areas, as well as give free water to the poor. However, so far, he has rattled investors: The phone company Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Bogota SA, ETB, fell 21 percent since Petro launched his campaign on May 31. The fear stems from Petro’s plans to expand government control over the economy, starting with ETB.
Clearly, Petro is a smart man. He will need to find ways to work with the business community.
When Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was elected president, Petro was a special guest at his inauguration. They have reportedly not spoken for some years and Petro has uttered strong anti-Chavez words.
It may be, quite simply, that we must give Petro a chance. That would be the democratic step forward.
See some reactions to Petro’s victory here.