Has Bogotá’s Marxist Mayor Seen the Light?

Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro seems to have finally recognized the benefits of the free market. (Bogotá Humana)
Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro seems to have finally recognized the benefits of the free market. (Bogotá Humana)

Gustavo Petro, the current mayor of Bogotá, will leave his term of office on December 31 rather bruised, politically speaking.

Aside from ending his four years in the second most important political post in the country with a dismal approval rating that hovers around 18 percent, Petro also leaves the Progressives, the independent movement he created in 2011, with just a single local Council member. Only four years ago, Petro’s Progressives tied for first place as the largest party in the city government with eight councilmen.

What is worse, the candidate whom Mayor Petro chose as his successor, Clara López of the Alternative Democratic Pole, the mayor’s old party, came in third place with just over 500,000 votes. It was basically the same amount that she received in the capital during last year’s presidential elections. As columnist Luis Guillermo Vélez writes, “this is the grand total of the hard left’s vote in Bogotá, with local government contracts and political machinery included.”

Petro’s and the Progressives’ defeat in the Colombian capital is particularly ignominious since, as La Silla Vacía points out, election winner and now Mayor-elect Enrique Peñalosa based his entire campaign on a hard, anti-Progressive message. “Let’s Take Bogotá Back,” went Peñalosa’s slogan, which practically meant: “let’s kick out the loony left after 12 chaotic years of misrule and return to the glory days of my mayorship.”

As I see it, Petro’s current gloom stems from the fact that he didn’t want to govern Bogotá in the first place; he’s not even a native of the city, and he has never had much of an interest in carrying out the mundane tasks of city government, such as paving roads, regulating informal street vendors, or putting an end to flyposting.

Rather, after a generally successful stint in the Senate opposing former President Álvaro Uribe with winged words, which are his specialty, Petro sought a steppingstone from which to hop into the Colombian presidential palace. The office of mayor of Bogotá seemed to suit that purpose perfectly.

Petro, however, interpreted his election victory in 2011 not as a mandate to govern the city, but rather as a blank check to wage ideological war on his nemeses.

On the one hand, these include private-sector mafias, a real problem which Petro has done well to identify. On the other hand, the mayor continually rails against the oligarchy and “neoliberalism,” the typical straw men of paranoid statists, such as the caudillos in charge of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and other countries in the region, whose rhetoric of resentment Petro has sought to match in extravagant sessions of demagogy on the City Hall balcony.

The scope of Petro’s thoughts, however, extends far beyond Latin America.

“The economist Piketty,” he wrote on Twitter on January 12, “says that the political changes to come in Spain and Greece will change Europe and the world.”

For Petro, global climate change is a bogeyman to match global “neoliberalism”: “[There’s a] march against climate change in London,” he tweeted on September 21, 2014. “We’re responsible, let’s save the planet.”

All of which is very well, one might say, but it’s a pity for Petro that his cosmic concerns offer little consolation to the Bogotá manual worker, student, or housewife who just wants the bus to run on time.

In theory, Petro’s slump — it’s far too early to speak of his demise, and he’s already speaking of his presidential campaign for 2018 — is welcome news for anyone who is in favor of economic freedom. His hostility to free markets and private enterprise is both recurrent and innate; he is, after all, a former communist guerrilla leader. Recently, Petro boasted — yet again, on Twitter that, according to his own poll, only merchants and entrepreneurs disapprove of his government.

In Petro’s delirious, zero-sum view of the world and the economy, arousing the disapproval of wealth-creators is a matter of pride, as if the behemoth of a city government over which he presides could finance itself without entrepreneurs’ taxes. The reason why his prompt departure is only theoretically good news for free marketeers is that his successor, Peñalosa, is a formidable statist in his own fashion.

All of which makes one of Petro’s recent announcements truly shocking in the most encouraging way possible. On October 20, the mayor said that he intends to make a joint-stock company out of Transmilenio, the local Bus Rapid Transit system, which, until now, has been operated to the city’s detriment by a handful of private, politically connected contractors.

“We are looking for 200,000 citizens of Bogotá to buy stocks and become co-owners of Transmilenio and its services,” Petro said, thus formulating what, in my view, is the most important economic news to come out of Colombia in at least two decades.

The statement is remarkable not only because it expresses a fabulously good idea an idea which I, incidentally, presented time and again during the recent campaign. The proposal is also tremendous because it comes from Petro himself, the unchallenged big shot of Colombia’s statist left.

Could it be that, in a Damascus moment, this pied piper of the “anti-neoliberal” interventionists recognized the inherent superiority of the free-market system? Did he suddenly come to think rightly, I may add of the joint-stock company as an infinitely more transparent and more democratic mechanism than the state’s monopoly over public services?

Surely, Petro always had the right instincts against cronyism. In his battle against Bogotá’s private trash collectors, for instance, he identified the problem of bloated contracts correctly, but his solution involving the city’s purely state-owned water services company in residential waste removal was disastrous.

But now, at the very end of his mayorship, he mysteriously seems to have become enlightened by the economic theories of the Austrian school.

It certainly comes late. But at least we libertarians, whenever neo-Marxists accuse us of being wicked privatizers for proposing to make state-owned enterprises go public on the stock market, can reply in a debonair manner: “We’re just being Petroists.”

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