Bogota Mayor Falls Victim to Another Right-Wing Coup in Latin America

12/11/2013 04:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2014

While the press, as well as the U.S. government, will not acknowledge it, the elimination of progressive political leaders by coup d'état is taking place in Latin America with increasing frequency.

The most recent casualty of such measures is Gustavo Petro, the mayor of Bogota (population 6.7 million), who was removed from office this week by the Inspector-General, Alejandro Ordoñez, who alleges that Petro's efforts in 2012 to de-privatize the garbage collection services harmed "the principle of freedom of enterprise." Quite shockingly, Ordoñez also banned Petro, who was expected to run for president in 2018, from holding any public office for the next 15 years.

This move by Ordoñez -- a close political ally of former right-wing President Alvaro Uribe and a vocal opponent of the Colombian peace process -- cannot be seen as anything but an attack on the very heart of the Colombian democratic process. Moreover, this represents a threat, and indeed an intentional one, to the ongoing peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels for two reasons: first, because Petro, a former leftist (M-19) guerilla himself, is a strong supporter of this process; and second, because, as negotiators for the FARC explained, "with a simple signature, Ordoñez gave all us rebels a lesson in what democracy really means to the oligarchy in Colombia and in the lack of any guarantees for the right to take an independent political course."

And, indeed, this is the second time Ordoñez has ended a politician's career with a pen, having banned former Senator Piedad Cordoba, the most outspoken and active supporter of the Colombian peace process, from holding political office for 18 years. In that case, Ordoñez accused Cordoba -- who was authorized to deal with the FARC in order to help with the release of hostages, and she indeed did help with the release of several FARC hostages - of exceeding her role as a mediator with the FARC by allegedly giving it advice.

These anti-democratic measures by sectors of the Colombian government represent the continuance of the long-standing policy of coups, though in somewhat modified form, in Latin America.

Of course, the first such coup in the new millennium was against President Hugo Chavez in April of 2002. While the coup was quickly reversed due to a massive outpouring of support for Chavez by the poor, as famously captured on film in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the precedent was set that the instrument of the coup was still alive and well in Latin America in the 21st Century. And, as has historically been the case, the U.S. has ensured the viability of this tactic by its at least tacit, if not at times active, support for it. In the case of Venezuela, for example, the U.S. had been funding the coup plotters for months leading up to the coup, and then recognized the coup government almost immediately.

Fast forward to June of 2009, when the world witnessed the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya -- a former rancher who began to take affirmative steps to help the poor of Honduras, for example by raising the minimum wage by 60%; to protect the environment; and to address the human rights violations which took place in the 1980's under U.S.-backed military rule. As The New York Times reported at the time, on Sunday, June 28, the Honduran military, which has been heavily backed by the U.S. for years, "stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, early in the morning, disarming the presidential guard, waking Mr. Zelaya and putting him on a plane to Costa Rica." While the U.S. expressed slow and tepid concern with this coup, it stood alone in this Hemisphere in honoring the Presidential elections which took place shortly after the coup and in the absence of Zelaya's return. The results have been disastrous for Honduras which continues to live under the repressive and militaristic policies of the coup leaders who continue to rule that country.

Then, in 2012, there was what the L.A. Times referred to as the "legal" coup which unseated President Fernando Lugo, the former Catholic Bishop who tried to effectuate much needed land reform for the benefit of the landless poor. As the L.A. Times correctly pointed out, President Lugo was removed from office without due process by a Congress dominated by the same Colorado Party which had backed "the 35-year dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner." While the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the coup, the U.S. was, in the words of The L.A. Times, "noticeably silent," and quietly went along with it.

The latest maneuvers in Colombia against democratically-elected politicians most closely resemble the coup in Paraguay, in that they have been bloodless (so far) and cloaked in the pretext of Constitutional justifications. But, in the end, a coup by any other name is still a coup, and, even coups which look largely peaceful on the surface are, in the end, only possible with the backing of the military and police forces which enforce them, if even from the shadows.

When I met with long-time friend Gustavo Petro in his Bogota offices in July, he told me even then that, despite his successful efforts in reducing crime and improving education and health care in Bogota, elements of the Colombian government were trying to destroy his government "to show that peace cannot be achieved in Colombia." At that time, there was an effort by some to gain sufficient signatures to force Petro into a recall election, but those efforts had failed. And, having failed in this attempt, the Colombian government has now acted by fiat to simply remove him from office and indeed from political life.

For the good of democracy and peace in Colombia, and in Latin America as a whole, we must vigorously oppose such coups, in whatever form they are manifested. And, the United States, which always stands for democracy, except when it doesn't which is much of the time, must stand against such coups as well, even when it might not find such a stance politically expedient.