NYT Bungles Coverage of Bogotá Coup Attempt
by Owen Silverman Andrews, SOA Watch
Willy Neuman and the New York Times are at it again, mischaracterizing the surge of the new left in Latin America. It should come as no surprise that the NYT's Latin America coverage is slanted even more heavily pro-business than other reportage: Mexico's Carlos Slim, the world's richest man and second largest owner of NYT Corporation stock, has extensive business interests throughout the hemisphere that he does not want disturbed by a wave of solution-oriented change makers coming to power from Bolivia to Bogotá. Whether their latest bungle is due more to the Slim connection or the traditional neoliberal bent of the NYT's editorial board matters less than setting the record straight on the amazing tale of government overreach and popular resistance currently taking place in Colombia's capital city.
When Neuman wrote a piece on December 9, "Bogota Mayor Ousted After Claims of Bungling", he could not have been more premature in his title or less in line with reality in what followed. After a year of popular reforms that broke free of the traditional left-right binary by formalizing Bogota's informal economy-- advancing the interests of workers, animals, the environment, and citizens in the process-- Mayor Gustavo Petro faced an ultimatum from Colombia's Inspector General, Alejandro Ordoñez: leave office immediately, barred from holding political office for the next 15 years. Petro, elected in 2011 as Mayor of Bogotá's 8 million residents and enjoying national support after coming in third in Colombia's 2010 presidential elections, flatly refused. How could an appointed beauracrat remove an "alcalde mayor" (mayors in Colombia are powerful figures, perhaps moreso than governors in the U.S.), without the constitutional basis to do so? That the standoff was far from over was evident as the NYT went to print on the 9th, making Neuman's title more of a wishful prediction than a reality on the ground.
The Times article went on to provide a one-sided account of Ordoñez's accusation and slandered Petro by linking him to his corrupt predecesor (in fact he won the mayoralty on an anti-corruption platform). By reporting only the Inspector General's account of the Mayor's waste management collection reform-- which broke the hold of corrupt private companies that provided poor service and survived off of graft, brought "trash pickers" into the formal economy and put their overworked horses out to pasture, and introduced recyling for the first time-- the NYT told less than half the story. Since there was no public health impact related to a service glitch in the reform (negligble compared to the Obamacare rollout flop), Ordoñez was really going after Petro for "violating constitutional principles of commercial competition and freedom". In other words, the right of Bogotanos to democracy was under fire because their Mayor had challenged the right of parisitic corporations to turn a buck.
The outpouring of popular support for Petro in Bogota, across Colombia, and around the globe was barely mentioned in Neuman's article. Since the NYT has remained mum on Petro's nightly discourses on non-violent resistance to the crowds that pack the Plaza Bolivar, Times readers would be unaware of this new twist unless they turned to alternative media. Likewise, they would be unaware that the Inspector General (repsresentative of Colombia's increasingly marginalized hard right) was taking aim not only at Petro and democracy in Bogotá when he issued his decree, but at the fragile peace process now under way in Cuba between the national government and the FARC rebels. For why would the FARC leadership hang up their arms and join the electoral process, if Petro, a former M-19 resistance figther who has made that same transistion, quite sucessfully, governs at the whim of an appointed bureaucrat with neo-Nazi sympathies and book burning procilivities?
What is at stake in Bogota is not merely political intrigue. What is at stake is peace. Colombians, war weary, cynical, and resilient, have lived through five decades of war during which the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses have been perpetrated by the U.S. trained and equiped Armed Forces or right-wing militias with ties to more than a third of the National Assemblymembers. Now, at the very moment when Colombians have begun the essential work of building their own peace and realizing their historical memory, the hard right led by ex-President Uribe is attempting to sabotage the process. But what is increasingly clear in the images of Colombians streaming out of the Plaza Bolivar-- long-haired or suited; waving banners of political parties, regional soccer clubs, and folk art; of all the hues of Colombia's racial milieu; youth and elders; and the Indigenous Guard which has filtered into the capital from all corners of the country to protect democracy alongside the Municipal Police-- is that Colombians refuse to be resubmerged in a politics of fear and will realize democracy in the streets if it is denied them at the ballot box.
On December 13th, Mayor Petro addressed one of the largest mobilizations in Colombian history. Reading from the National Constitution, he made it plain that only the President of the Republic, Juan Carlos Santos, not the Inspector General, may remove an alcalde mayor from office, and then only with judicial censure. As Santos, responsible for the slaughter of civilians know as "falso positivos" during his stint as Defense Minister, tries to move out of his predecessor's shadow and toward the political center, Petro has laid the future of Colombian democracy and any hope for peace with justice at his feet. As Colombians vote nightly with their feet, it is clear that the nation's future will be decided as much in the Plaza Bolivar as in the Presidential Palace. How Santos reacts remains to be seen, but if Bogotanos have suceeded in building a democratic peace under extreme duress, their brightest days must surely be ahead of them.
¡No pasará! This will not pass, repeated the demonstrators in the Plaza Bolivar on Friday night. More than two thousand miles away in Washington, DC, a small group took up the chant outside the Colombian Embassy, capping a week of solidarity actions with a cacerolazo, the banging pots and pans. "Petro no se va", they yelled, "Petro will not leave", outside the Ambassador's Residence. The Ambassador promptly walked away from the window and shut off the lights. Whether the Ambassador's boss, President Santos, will throw the switch on democracy and peace is an open question, but he will not do so in the dark. The whole world is watching.
Petro, amigo, el pueblo está contigo. Petro, friend, the people are with you.