One of the longest living myths in Latin America is that Colombia is one of its most stable democracies. Of course, formally, the country has not suffered a military dictatorship in the last fifty some years and all the internal clockwork of a republican system seems to work harmoniously: a constitution packed with rights and guarantees; regular, open elections; a neat and clean division of powers; and the list goes on.
Yet this apparent institutional sturdiness conceals a civil war that has been ongoing for more than sixty years. This war has almost bled rural Colombia to death and has made urban areas a bizarre collage of wealth and poverty. It is a tale of two countries: on one side Colombia has now surpassed Argentina as the third biggest economy in Latin America, heavy foreign investment is lured daily to the country, factories rise, banks flourish. On the other side, Colombia has the world’s fourth worst GINI index with only Haiti worse off in its hemisphere. It is a country split at its base, Arcadia and dystopia colliding in every corner of life.
The explanations for these abysmal contradictions vary, but it is no coincidence that institutional stability is connected with the fact that Colombia has been a strategic post for continuous US intervention in the region. The Condor never flew so high and voraciously, and a hermetic and reduced elite has ruled the country mercilessly since colonial times.
It is in this complex frame that a peace process between the Colombian government and the Farc (the longest living insurgency in the world) is now taking place in Havana. A process to heal a deep wound at the heart of a community in agony, to reconcile centuries of injustice, to bring about a chance of true social transformation.
The path to peace is a treacherous one. In the early eighties Farc, along with other minor left-wing movements, demobilized and formed a political party called UP (Unión Patriótica). The electoral success of UP prompted the powerful to cook up a gun powder cake that exploded tragically. The UP was brutally and almost entirely exterminated. Although stats vary, more than 3000 active members of the group where murdered between 1985 and 1994, including two presidential candidates and 13 members of Congress.1http://www.desaparecidos.org/colombia/fmcepeda/genocidio-up/cepeda.html
Few of the culprits have been brought to justice. A mix between traditional and powerful landowners and members of the political elite joined forces to create extermination armies (paramilitares) — one more unfulfilled promise of conventional politics in Colombia. This is why the peace process of Havana treads a thin red line, while the far right is now reorganized strategically after the eight-year government of Alvaro Uribe who, among other things, legalized these paramilitary groups.
The left in Colombia has always been and continues to be subject to bullets, chainsaws and the violence of law itself. What can the left do when it comes into power? One very plausible answer is to push law to its limits, make it accountable for its basic principles; in other words, materialize it beyond its formal and hollow content. If institutions (rights, procedures, principles) function as a simulation of democracy that mask the atrocities of a bloated and irresponsible use of private property, as is the case in Colombia, and if law survives because it is perceived as legitimate while concealing its function of accumulation and dispossession, what happens when law is taken seriously?
This is what Gustavo Petro was doing, a demobilized member of the M-19 guerrilla movement and the incumbent Mayor of Bogota. He was taking law at face value and pushing its envelope to fulfill its most radical promises. The response by the far right: a ‘lawful’ political killing.
The story of Petro’s vanquishing is an intricate, multifaceted legal process that few are able to master (as every legal process is, isn’t that precisely their reason for being?). However, the bottom-line is this: as Mayor of Bogota, he took the trash collection and processing business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise, away from the hands of a close-knit, private and monopolizing conglomerate (which lined the pockets of, among others, former president Uribe’s sons) and put it in the hands of the poor, the informal recyclers, the wretched of the city. This saved roughly 100 million dollars a year for the city.
It was the Procurador General (a sort of general attorney with a wide range of legal tentacles to impose administrative penalties) who, arguing that Petro had infringed administrative Acts, removed Petro from office while banning him from politics for 15 years. As I write this, I learn from the Colombian press that the judiciary has upheld, once again, the Procurador General ’s decision, and Petro is now one step closer to being officially, politically dead.
The Procurador General’s profile is quite relevant. Alejandro Ordoñez is a Lefebvrist, people who consider Ratzinger and Wojtyla raving left-wing liberals, the same people who rejected the Second Vatican Council, and still say mass in Latin with their backs to the congregation. This character is not a product of anyone’s deranged imagination or an apparition from the Inquisition; he has the last word in transcendental issues in a so-called democracy where state and church are separate.
Ordoñez has become the moral beacon of Colombia’s ultra-powerful right; a thick wall of Colombia’s elite protect him with earth, wind, fire, law and crucifixes; and of course he mobilizes part of a greedy middle class — the class that, always lacking everything, survive on the desire for what will never come to them.
Petro was a real front-runner from the left; he had a real chance of becoming President in 2018; but the Left that embraced peace and lawfulness has again been shattered, one more time.
So, what were Petro’s sins? Taking law seriously. Achieving social justice through legal paths and renouncing war. But, of course when you take law (liberal law) at its face value you shatter its coherence, you burst what lies beneath it as an always incomplete promise, you denounce its obscenity.
Taking law to the limit of its universal boundaries makes you understand that rampant neoliberalism batters the Welfare state, that the Washington Consensus rides on the back of civil liberties, and that the plethora of rights are built to guarantee rich people’s privileges.
Picture Bogota with me, part of the city has the living standards of Switzerland or Norway, the other part, not shown in tourist brochures, has the living standards of the Central African Republic. On one side lush shopping centers jammed with top designer brands, a rich bazaar of international cuisine, wine pouring and music flowing, parades of luxurious cars, luminous green parks with soft sunlight, shiny happy people having fun, all the time. The other city is a combination of drug wars, displacement, famine, and survival; always excluded and forgotten by the elite that rules in a grim walled paradise. This reality began to change drastically in Petro’s tenure as Mayor.
Petro made real what was forbidden to become real, justice. Among other accomplishments, we can list the following:
- He shifted air and water from a commodity to a right, as simple as that. In three years, 681,801 homes were supplied with running and clean water under his administration, while improving the quality of air in the city to levels not recorded in this century.
- In 2013, for the first time in recorded history no children under five died of malnutrition in the city. His system of school kitchens achieved the highest standards of nutritional quality in Latin America. While the integral attention to infants went from 59,090 in 2011 to 117,689 in 2013.
- Through innovative social programs that include empowerment of the poorest communities, inequality in the distribution of wealth is now way below national standards, which is impressive if you consider that Bogota accounts for 24.8% of Colombia’s GDP.
- The rates of homicides is the lowest in 30 years.
- In education his achievements are colossal and unprecedented. Aggressive investment in public schools threatens even to close the gap between public and private education, something unheard of in Colombia. This, as you might imagine, is one of Petro’s capital sins.
Revolution through law, as it should be… right? Wrong. Not for the Colombian establishment.
What is to be done? Colombia’s government must realize that Petro’s destitution is not proof of a just rule of law but proof that neutrality is the new form of fanaticism. It is solely the Government’s responsibility to prevent another wave of catastrophic violence. The message to the Colombian establishment is: do not annihilate what may be the last chance of peace in this country, quite simply: take law seriously.
Ricardo Sanín is a professor of legal and political theory and teaches in several institutions across Latin America.