Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro is in London to receive an award for his administration’s environmental policies, a recognition that is in stark contrast to how he is perceived in Colombia’s capital.
When Bogota awakes, the thin high altitude air enables an uninterrupted urban panorama punctuated only with pine covered mountains. This paradisiacal image, however, vanishes once the daily commute begins and gives way to traffic-heavy thoroughfares, packed buses and an unpleasant smog hangs low permeating the city.
Keen to reverse this trend is Petro who is pushing ahead with progressive and socially inclusive policies, not least a tangible environmental and urban regeneration plan all under his mantra of “Bogota Humana.”
It is this strategy of “Bogota Humana” and the work of previous administrations that has brought Gustavo Petro to London where he shared a stage with London’s Boris Johnson. In an almost incongruous turn of events, given the unrest in the city in recent weeks, Bogota has seen off competition from the likes of Buenos Aires, Paris and Singapore to win the prestigious Siemens and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group for work and policies employed and regarding future plans for Urban Transportation.
This triumph will hopefully enable Bogota to remove herself from the list of cities most contaminated by sulfur dioxide as ranked by the Latin American Green City Index.
This seems at first glance to be a far cry from the troublesome scenarios in the pocked and defaced streets of Bogota, but the Mayor has likened the disturbances in his city as similar to those in Paris in 2005 and London in 2012 where “a new disaffected generation” is finding a voice.
As a former leftist guerrilla attached to the M-19 group which demobilized in 1990, Petro’s policies reflect his past, creating in his words, “strong political tensions.”
Never one to shirk controversy, the mayor seems to court it and in July he decided to transplant his office from the stately environs of the Palacio Lievano overlooking the opulent neoclassical Plaza de Bolivar in downtown Bogota to the working class district of Ciudad Bolivar. He said: “the poor layers that make up the city’s fabric have traditionally surrounded the mayor with enthusiastic support.” This has created a mayoralty downtown with precious little cohesion.
The battle lines, if they had not been previously drawn, were now firmly established as his one clear aim is to combat the elitism and segregation that are in his words: “trying to homogenize and eliminate the differences in the city.”
His aggressive position has left him with a vocal opposition, not least the former President Alvaro Uribe who he denounced for the “parapolitics” scandal which implicated an alliance between paramilitary organizations and politicians.
As a former guerrilla with experience in the struggle for political participation, Petro is in a privileged position regarding the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba.
The long running Colombian conflict has pitted various leftist groups – with the FARC being the largest and oldest – against the state for roughly 50 years in what began as an armed struggle over land.
Bogota’s mayor must be seen as representing a success story for transitional justice arguably holding the country’s most powerful position behind only that of the President Juan Manuel Santos. A message to all guerrillas present at the negotiating table.
Outspoken on the subject, Petro supports a unilateral ceasefire between the guerrillas and the government but is quick to recognize that both sides are fragmented. “There are countless difficulties and complexities in organizing a truce in the Colombian situation since this is a borderless and widespread conflict.” And then of course there’s the issue of the guerrillas themselves: “The FARC is a derivation of a movement that muddles a social agrarian agenda with Stalinism therefore we cannot consider the FARC to be a democratic entity.”
The mayor admits that he has been consulted by both the Santos administration and the FARC regarding the dialogues. A trip to Havana to participate does not seem far off.
“I am waiting for the right moment to go, not to create a media show, but to help the situation.”
The mayor recognizes that any dialogue does indeed represent a strengthening of democracy in Colombia. He speaks of a violent and bloody culture of silence and assassinations stemming back only 15 years. And while political assassinations may be largely consigned to the past and Colombia has improved – he has the figures to prove this – peace in itself has been largely absent from the streets of Bogota in the last fortnight.
Huge protests originating in the countryside held by striking farmers in opposition to various free trade agreements they see as hindering their livelihoods gathered momentum and mass support in the city. Thousands took to the streets of Bogota culminating in riots on August 29. Much of the city, in particular some outlying districts and the colonial heart were left in tatters after vandalism and wanton violence erupted between some protesters and the riot police.
Subsequent government statements of a deliberate and malicious infiltration of the protest marches by members of the FARC guerrillas have been given short shrift by Petro and his allies.
Speaking of the president’s tardy reaction to the protests, Petro said: “They were confused, the protests were a direct strike at the paradigm of this government of elites. There was huge support for the strike, as here, everyone’s grandparents were farmers.”
Despite the negativity engulfing Colombia and the air of cynicism expressed in the Colombian press towards the peace dialogues with the FARC, Petro remains upbeat: “it is up to the President to act boldly and help the countryside; this in itself will be opening the doors to an eventual peace in Colombia.”
For now, the controversial Petro may be better received overseas than in the city he oversees. The mayor gives off the impression of reveling in a fight and adds: “the spirit of the M-19 guerrilla was likened by an Argentine journalist as being the heavy metal equivalent of all of the guerrilla groups in Colombia.”
This is perhaps due to the unrelenting and uncompromising style employed in Colombian politics by Petro.
Article first featured at Colombia Reports.
Richard McColl is a British journalist based in Medellin, with previous experience working in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.