Kevin Howlett

Gustavo Petro’s absent government: Is anyone in charge of Bogota?

posted by Kevin Howlett
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Gustavo Petro

Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro lost yet another key member of his team yesterday as the head of the Transmilenio, the city’s public transport system, joined the long list of officials to desert the mayor just seven months into his four year term.

Rumors are circulating that the Progressives, Petro’s political party, are making succession plans, actively seeking an alternative to their faltering leader.

As Petro recovers at home following a second operation in as many months on a serious brain injury, and as the mayor’s closest allies one by one jump ship, the nation is beginning to wonder whether anyone is governing Bogotá.

Gustavo Petro is a politician better suited to opposition than to government. The polemical left-winger made his name as a combative congressman leading the charge against the Uribe government who he accused of rank corruption. The ex M-19 guerrilla became the voice of the disenchanted, the indignant (before this was a movement), and secured a significant following, propelling him to fourth position in the presidential elections of 2010.

In 2011, Petro formed his own party and launched a campaign to win the mayoralty of Bogota, ahead of the establishment candidate Enrique Peñalosa. In January, Petro was sworn in, taking on his first job as a governor. His anti-government attack-dog politics were supposed to make way for a more mature and statesman-like style.

No sooner had Petro taken up office, however, and the questions about his ability to take control of the capital were heard not only in the media but also on the streets of the sprawling city. The truth is Petro has not made the shift from opposition – he continues to rage against the machine he is suppose to drive.

The criticism of Petro is not only evident among voters, who overwhelmingly disprove of his administration, nor is it restricted to the thousands of column inches that on a daily basis pour scorn on his ability to lead; the real blow that strikes against the mayor’s credibility comes from within his government (the members of which are showing an alarming rate of attrition).

When Petro came to power he gave jobs to his closest allies. But even these true believers of the Petro philosophy appear unable to live with the man now he is in power. Navarro has left, as has Noriega and García-Peña. Alongside this, several secretaries have been replaced and officials lower down the food-chain have been moved, chucked-out or have simply walked away.

Some of this can be put down to the usual ebb and flow of government, but the almost constant stream of bad news coming out of the Lievano Palace is eroding a confidence in his capabilities that was weak from day-one.

Petro has also had bad luck. He is currently incapacitated with a cerebral condition that has threatened his life. In the course of a few weeks Petro has had twice to leave the stage while medics tend to his condition. Unfair as it might be and as uncharitable as it appears, Petro’s absence has left a power vacuum – made all the worse by the fact that his right hand men have been resigning on an almost monthly basis.

The announcement yesterday of the resignation – for the second time in the mayor’s painfully young period in office — of the head of the Transmilenio is disastrous news. Bogota’s number one problem is its woefully inadequate public transport network and the resulting lack of mobility across the city. Major innovation and major investment is required to deliver a fit-for-purpose system. Unfortunately for Petro, he is seen by many as unable to provide a strategic vision for the future; he vacillates on supporting key infrastructure such as the metro, and fails to set out a clear and defined commitment to anything. Without a man in charge of executing the plan should it ever arrive, Bogota’s commuters wonder if rather than when they will see the promised change.

Right across the board Petro is accused of displaying a reckless absenteeism, an inability to develop a plan for the future. The government relies on policy improvisation not on structured planning. Bogotanos plaintively wonder when Petro will start to govern. Even his own party appears to be losing faith. Councillor Angelica Lozano, elected on the Progressives’ platform, yesterday tweeted “No to improvisation, respect Bogota.”

The independent on-line publication, La Silla Vacía has reported on rumors that the Progressives are working on a strategy to sustain the Petro government until a year from now when they will consider replacing him. The concern is that Petro won’t even last that long – whether through ill-health, through public discontent or through the legal processes state officials are running against him.

As my website argued last year during the mayoral elections, Bogota is a city that needs strong leadership from a man with real vision and a determination to repair the damage caused by the neglect of previous administrations. Instead of this, however, we are left with the impression that the city is drifting, that it is either ungovernable or ungoverned. Colombia’s capital was once considered the Athens of Latin America, she deserves better than a leader who appears willing only to manage her decline.

Author Kevin Howlett is a political commentator and owner of political weblog Colombia Politics.

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Kevin Howlett is a political commentator and owner of political weblog Colombia Politics.

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