Millions of Colombians are set to the ballot box on March 9 to vote for the country's Senate and Chamber of Representatives.
Presidential elections themselves are not until May, but Congress elections are no less important as the left wing parties fight for space in one of Latin America’s most, if not the most, conservative-led countries.
Colombia's last so-called centre-left presidents were the Liberals' Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) and Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994). Gavira ushered in neoliberalism and free trade agreements while Samper’s political associates were embroiled in corruption charges.
Since Samper, a wave of right and even ultra-right forces under president Alvaro Uribe has dominated almost everything in the political arena.
The one lone voice in the political wilderness of the left, with any real power, was the mayor of capital city of Bogota — Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, a socialist ex-guerrilla from the M-19 movement.
Despite the fact Petro was voted by the electorate to hold that position until 2015, the right have seen fit, under the direction of the Inspector General of the Nation Alejandro Ordoñez to forcefully remove him from his post. Ordoñez is an ultra-conservative who is head of the public ministry.
At the moment, it is a temporary measure. But Ordoñez is hell-bent on abusing his power and influences to destroy Petro’s political career on a more permanent basis.
What was Petro’s crime? Poor waste management, which led to a “waste crisis” after Petro nationalised the municipal waste collection. Petro acted due to his belief that the private companies were running a lucrative business at the expense of the people.
Furthermore, as they were paid by the tonne at the Dona Juana landfill site, they had no incentive to recycle or do anything but chuck refuse in a hole.
Petro’s Basura Cero (Zero Garbage) policy was designed to give the rubbish collection back to the people. It aimed to efficiently separate recyclable items and give women and the old, so often neglected in Colombia’s workforce, a job.
After it was clear that their contract had finished, the private companies refused to collect the rubbish in the interim period and sent all the rubbish trucks to maintenance.
The waste piled up. As a result, Ordoñez suspended Petro on the December 9 from all public sector duties.
Yet Petro was not suspended for any penal crime and in no way does the issue trigger Ordoñez’s right to request investigations and administrative sanctions against any civil servant “believed to act against the 1991 Constitution and the interests of the people”.
Ordoñez also brought up various legal challenges, known as tutelas, to have Petro permanently removed from his post and to sanction him with a 15-year ban from public office.
Dan Kovalik, writing in Huffington Post’s sister website World Post on December 11, called it a “right-wing coup.”
Kovalik's statement gains credibility when the moves against Petro are compared to Ordoñez’s actions in 2010. Then, elitist Mayor Samuel Moreno, who used the left wing to form a ticket to the election (but can hardly be called left wing) was involved in a mass corruption scandal whereby he stole billions of pesos from the city of Bogota.
Ordoñez saw fit to hand down just a one-year ban. The money has yet to be recuperated.
Ordoñez also passed a 12 year ban on left-wing Mayor Alfonso Salazar in Medellin (Colombia’s second city) for fulfilling more roles than permitted. This is despite Salazar's successes as mayor in cutting homicides by 10%, permitting greater freedom of movement in a dangerous city and giving the people he represented greater access to public services.
Many political commentators and independent left-leaning newspapers, such as La Silla Vacia and Latin America’s largest English-speaking newspaper Colombian Reports, have hinted that such dismissals and sanctions are politically motivated.
Ordoñez is the not the first inspector-general in the nation’s history to use his power to remove public officials. His predecessor, the “centre-left” Edgardo Maya Villazon (2001-2008), removed an average of 131 officials per year. Ordoñez has removed an average of 99.
This means that two men have, in just 13 years, removed 1542 democratically elected officials (left and right wing).
However, it is Ordoñez who is seen as the most drastic in his removals, often using left-wing ties as a divine right to wield the axe.
Former senator Piedad Cordoba provides the strongest case. A supporter and personal friend of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, she was given an 18-year ban from holding a public office after after being accused of being a “sympathiser” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group. The basis of the accusation was her role in winning the safe return of FARC-held hostages.
On Petro's case and others, President Juan Santos seemingly has nothing to say. The right-wing media is silencing the left.
This bulling tactic has created an atmosphere of fear. It has left many public officials unable or unwilling to speak out against the ultra-conservative forces governing this country.
No wonder Petro, living proof that an ex-guerilla can put down the gun and pick up a pen, tweeted in February that “the last defense left for Bogota Humana [Bogota city’s government project] is that the people itself rise up”.
Petro’s party Alianza Verde is responding with senate candidate Claudia Lopez's campaign, running on the slogan that “the abuse of power is dangerous”.
Lopez, also a well-known and respected investigative journalist, has arguably placed herself in grave danger in fighting Ordoñez’s “reign of terror”. It may not be presidential elections until May, but March is critical to anyone who stands on the side of civil liberty.