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Colombia: The Real Danger of Petro’s Dismissal

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Dec 10, 2013, 11:38 am

EspañolYesterday, the attorney general of Colombia dismissed the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro. Although Petro’s management included the adoption of statist policies, this decision is a bad sign for the country in two ways.

First, this is another example of the arms of the state lacking known scope and power definitions. It is not entirely clear why the attorney, a role meant for regulation and not headed by any elected officials, can remove democratically elected representatives. In addition, the reasons for the dismissal given by the attorney demonstrate that even the rules about what leaders can or cannot do are not entirely transparent. Gustavo Petro was a lousy mayor, but in principle, that is for the people to decide.

When looked at it in this way, this decision is another example of power that has accumulated in a single state body. Consequently, there is the dangerous precedent that the leaders, rather than the people, set the standards to be met by elected officials.

Second, the dismissal has led to an even greater polarization of Colombian society. Vocal opponents of the local administration were overjoyed with the decision, but supporters considered this a threat to democracy.

On the day of the announcement, thousands of people gathered in the Plaza de Bolívar to demonstrate against the attorney and in defense of the mayor. This dismissal led to a consolidation in the collective imagination — a new martyr for the Colombian left.

This dismissal hasn’t resulted in a discussion of the proper roles for state organizations. Instead, it has become a political football, played in a senseless game between the left and right. In Colombia, a country whose left-right conflict is far from resolved, it could turn into a justification for more armed violence.

During the dismissal process, in a very skilled and irresponsible manner, the mayor tied the investigation to his guerrilla past and sowed the idea that his dismissal would impede the possibility of peace and the expression of the left’s vision for the country. Although this is not true, what is true is that many believe this narrative. And this belief led to the notion that his removal represented a persecution of the Colombian left and its visions for a model city or a model country.

The only thing that can bring a state with few limits into existence is the creation of superficial martyrs. A society that believes statism is the only path to well-being is repeating the mistakes of many countries worldwide. However, given the inflamed sentiments here in Bogotá, if there are new elections, the citizens will elect a candidate whose statist ideas are even more radical than those demonstrated by Gustavo Petro. On the other hand, if majority outrage achieves its goal, reversing the decision, this disastrous character could even be a Colombian presidential candidate, and have a chance to win.

Rejecting the decision of the attorney is not tantamount to defending Gustavo Petro. Nor is it an admission of support for the left’s model government or model city. It does not even indicate support for reclaiming a notion of direct democracy. On the other hand, rejecting the decision can mean recognizing that Colombia is a country transitioning to the idea that the state is not a supreme being or mystical entity. Rather, the flourishing of the area depends on the success of all its individual inhabitants.

However, this process is slow and has many enemies. Unfortunately, with the decision last Monday, these enemies will be strengthened and, what is worse, general citizens may be on their side.

The consolidation of a liberal society is no easy task, so fragile, and what little progress has been made is vulnerable to being lost. This fragility turns into a bigger problem when its defense — in this case the attorney general — does not come from the power of ideas, but from the same body that has to be limited: the state.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.