No Man is a Prophet in his Own Land: The Gustavo Petro Interview

When Bogota, Colombia’s Andean capital city 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 Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo 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”.

Interviewing Bogota's Mayor Gustavo Petro

Interviewing Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo Petro

I am sitting in the Mayor’s waiting room divided only by a glass screen and I can see him attending to his young daughter Antonella and two of the town hall’s dogs Bacata and Rayo. Behind me the blinds overlooking the Palacio de Nariño presidential palace and the Plaza de Bolivar are drawn for security reasons. The view is incredible but my eye is drawn to a cracked section of glass. Presumably this occurred in the riots of a few days ago when downtown Bogota became a battleground between militant protestors and the riot police.

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.

Bogota's award winning transmilenio system

Bogota’s award winning transmilenio system

This triumph will hopefully enable Bogota to remove herself from the list of cities most contaminated by sulphur dioxide as ranked by the Latin American Green City Index.

But just as Bogota seems to be getting something right – according to adjudicators from the World Bank, Seimens and other architects – the city receives are harsh reminder in the form of an Economist Intelligence Unit study ranking the Colombian capital as the worst city in which to live in Latin America. On the one hand Bogota has been lauded for her Transmilenio bus system that should, 14 years after its conception, start to be run on hybrid electric motors and the new fleet of electric taxis which were introduced to her streets last Monday.

The troublesome scenarios that took place along the pocked and defaced streets of Bogota are the images that the Economist’s study will portray as their study is ranked on security, work opportunities and infrastructure amongst other data. The Mayor moved quickly in our interview to deny this as a one off and 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.

Demonstrations in Bogota

Demonstrations in Bogota

Bogota politician and former Mayoral hopeful David Luna said of the Economist’s findings: “This is not the first time that Bogota has been shown up, what it tells us is that we are in a very bad way.”

As a former leftist guerrilla attached to the M19 group which demobilized in 1990, Mayor Petro’s policies reflect his past, creating in his words, “strong political tensions”. His academic style is seen in the Colombian press as a “deliberate petulance” something he makes no excuses for.

He angles his coffee mug towards me perhaps subconsciously, on one side the telltale rainbow shows me that there’s some sort of message about supporting the LGBT community. I am not here to interview about this but it’s worth noting that the LGBT division in his office is overwhelmingly well funded and staffed. His policy on this Bogota minority group was previously unthinkable.

Gustavo Petro and Simon Bolivar

Gustavo Petro and Simon Bolivar

Never one to shirk controversy, Gustavo Petro 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 possibly created a significant lack of cohesion between departments under that mayor’s watch, but, the message was received in the halls of power, the southern part of Bogota for so long associated with crime, delinquency and poverty would be put at the fore of his policy.

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 “parapolitica” scandal which implicated an alliance between paramilitary organizations and politicians resulting in payoffs, disappearances and a dark collusion and blurring of the frontiers between legal and clandestine politics. As you can imagine, this made Gustavo Petro the most threatened politician in Colombia.

Poverty on the streets of Bogota

Poverty on the streets of Bogota

He sits back, digesting and fielding every question. Is the red keffiyeh draped around his neck a hat tip to fashion or some sort of political statement?

As a former guerrilla with experience in the struggle for political participation Mayor Petro is in a privileged position regarding the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian Government and the Farc guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) 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. Of course the waters have muddied further since the 1960s and leftist groups have come and gone leaving only the Farc and the smaller Eln (National Liberation Army). On the right are the bastard offspring of the paramilitary groups such as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) and AUC (United Auto Defense Group of Colombia) which have splintered into groups loosely associated to Bacrims – Newly Emerged Criminal Bands – and have made major steps towards controlling the trans shipments of narcotics and extortions in Colombia.

In what seemed more akin to a political game than a reality, the majority of the AUC disbanded and demobilized under President Alvaro Uribe. While the demobilization of the M19 to which Gustavo Petro belonged was slightly more successful, there was still the inevitable wave of assassinations and terror campaigns.

Mayor Petro 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, Gustavo 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 border-less 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 government of President Santos 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. Unfortunately, despite government efforts to the contrary the strikes look set to continue with education and health workers joining the farmers, lorry drivers and miners.

The Bogota Humana bicycles

The Bogota Humana bicycles

Huge protests originating in the countryside held by striking farmers in opposition to various Free Trade Agreements they see as hindering to 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 protestors 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 Mayor 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.”

Riot police have been out in force recently in Bogota

Riot police have been out in force recently in Bogota

For now the controversial mayor Gustavo Petro may be better received overseas than in the city in which he was elected. Mayor Petro gives off the impression of reveling in a fight and adds: “the spirit of the M19 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 Mayor Petro. For now, the Bogota mayor embattled at home will enjoy his time in London, view the regeneration of the East End and Docklands and try to find a way of convincing a cynical Bogotano electorate, long plagued by corrupt and inefficient self-serving politicians, that he is the man to oversee such progressive advances.

No man is a prophet in his own land.

This article first appeared in part in Colombia Reports.

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