Sunday, January 1, 2012

Petro's Political Pedigree

New Mayor Gustavo Petro is the
product of a complex political history.
Today, Gustavo Petro was inaugurated as mayor of Bogotá. He'll now preside in the just-expanded City Hall on the west side of Plaza Bolivar.

Petro was a leader of the M-19 guerrillas, who in 1985 attacked the Justice Palace building, on the right. He's now mayor of Bogota, presiding in City Hall, on the left. In front of the buildings are the tents from today's inauguration. 
But Petro's political past has also involved the Justice Palace on the plaza's north side, and Congress on its south side. His unlikely and remarkable story illustrates both the contradictions and interconnectedness of Colombian politics.

Petro was born in 1960, the son of a schoolteacher, and grew up in the town of Zipaquira, north of Bogotá. Petro early became a leftist, thru the reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and friendships with union members.

Tomb of military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla,
whose losing candidacy inspired the  M-19
guerrilla movement.
When Petro was ten, one-time military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, now recycled as a populist, nationalist candidate, ran for president and lost by a sliver to a conservative. Petro had been overthrown in 1957 for good reason - he had massacred protesters and shut down the nespapers, amongst other crimes. Nevertheless, Rojas Pinilla became the darling of the left, his supporters cried fraud and founded the Movimiento 19 de Abril, or M-19 guerrilla movement.

Almost as soon as he graduated from high school at age 16, Petro joined the M-19 guerrillas and eventually become one of its leaders.

The M-19 started out with dramatic gestures, such as the theft of revolutionary leader Simon Bolívar's sword from one of his statues. "Bolivar's sword returns to battle," the M-19 announced.

The tomb of assassinated M-19
presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro,
perhaps Petro's political inspiration.
Note Bolivar's sword on the tomb.
But the M-19's acts were not always so idealistic. In 1976 they kidnapped and murdered union leader Jose Mercado and discarded his corpse in the street. They also took over the Embassy of the Dominican Republic during a diplomatic party. That attack ended bloodlessly, with the guerrillas carrying out something of a victory parade to the airport, from where they left for Cuba. In 1985, the group invaded the Justice Palace on Plaza Bolivar, took the Supreme Court justices hostage and demanded that Pres. Belisario Betancur submit to a guerrilla trial. Instead, the government counter-attacked, the building was destroyed and 11 of the 12 supreme court justices died, amongst some 100 deaths in total.

Jose Mercado,
union leader kidnapped
and murdered by the M-19 guerrillas.
Close to three decades later, the wounds remain open from what is known as 'The Holocaust of the Justice Palace.' Families still search for relatives who disappeared during the attack and counterattack and the general who commanded the counterattack is in prison for human rights violations.

1985: The Justice Palace in flames
after the M-19 attack. 
The rebuilt Justice Palace today. 
A few years after the attack the M-19 demobilized and turned into a political party. Today, several ex-M-19 leaders are in Congress, one is a governor, and Petro is mayor of the nation's capital city. Petro, of course, claims that he knew nothing about the Justice Palace attack.

After their demobilization, M-19 chose Carlos Pizarro as its presidential candidate. In 1990, Pizarro was assassinated - one of four candidates assassinated during that campaign. Surprisingly, the M-19 did not return to violence and participated in the 1991 convention which rewrote Colombia's constitution.

A plaque on City Hall memorializing the 1985 attack. 
Petro served in Zipaquira's City Council and later in Congress. As a congressman, Petro has been seen as idealistic, independent and non-corrupt. He has, for example, strongly criticized the FARC guerrillas and Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez, despite the leftist revolutionary pretenses of both.

Petro won the election to a great degree because Bogotanos saw him as clean and independent. That made a sharp contrast to his predecessor Samuel Moreno Rojes, who is now in prison on corruption charges. Which brings up yet another irony: Moreno Rojas happens to be the grandson of dictator Rojas Pinilla, whose failed candidacy started Petro on the road to where he is today.

Perhaps the greatest significance of Petro's victory is its signal to the armed guerrilla groups which continue battling to overthrow the Colombian government. Mayor Petro is proof positive that the ballot can be a much more effective changemaker than the bullet. Are you listening, FARC?

A plaque near Plaza Bolivar paying tribute to the people who disappeared during the Justice Palace tragedy. 

An image full of contradictions: the grey plaque on Seventh Ave. memorializes protesting students massacred by dictator Rojas Pinilla in 1954. Beside it is a campaign poster for Petro, whose political career has its roots in Rojas Pinilla's failed presidential campaign. The building is covered with graffiti left by recent student protesters.

Scrawled on a wall along Seventh Ave., apparently by student
protesters: 'Against the Santos dictatorship, the M-19 gets ready.'
But Santos is no dictator,
and the M-19s leaders are in government. 
Petro's first statements as mayor sound positive: he repeated his intention to charge car drivers a congestion fee, which will subsidize public transportation. He also promised to tax the rich - a necessary move try to reduce the city's huge wealth gap. And he also plans to create new public universities. That's good, not only because it'll the city's youth more hope and opportuity, but also because it could reduce the crime rate by putting young people on a constructive track.

He also intends to give the poor a monthly stipend of water for free. The intention is good, but the method is mistaken: giving things away for free just promotes waste. A much better policy would be to provide subsidized water-saving devices like low-flow shower heads and toilets. That would save people money as well as conserving water.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Michael Deibert said...

A most interesting post, Mike. Thanks for writing it.

Miguel said...

Thanks Michael.