Petro’s purgatory

By bogotapost December 14, 2015

Scott Figler assesses the outgoing mayor’s legacy

When it comes to mayor Gustavo Petro, it seems like the haters just don’t stop hating. Bogotá’s outgoing mayor has drawn criticism from all angles. The right wing has dismissed his term as a waste of three years that the city can ill afford. The media have mostly vilified him. Even politicians from his own party have distanced themselves from him. His approval ratings upon leaving office are lower than his predecessor Samuel Moreno, who is now in jail.

Why is he so despised? It is probably fair to say that right off the bat Petro was dealt a losing hand. Many had it in for him when he was elected because he came from Samuel Moreno’s party, he was a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement, he defeated urban planning legend Enrique Peñalosa, and would govern after winning only 32% of the vote. He was abhorred by many, especially the city’s political and economic elite, and the business-friendly city council. He had his work cut out for him, having to govern with so little support.

Despite these obstacles, Petro managed some early victories. He banned bullfighting in the Plaza de Santamaría. He also enforced the prohibition of zorras, or horses that carried recycling materials through the streets, a practice that few were sad to see end. His administration opened up shelters for over 180,000 abandoned cats and 500,000 abandoned dogs. With these policies he was successful in bringing animal rights to the forefront of public debate, something no mayor had done before.

He also introduced a number of social policies. One of his most successful projects was the mobile drug treatment centres, which are meant to treat addicts in a way that is respectful and curbs their use, rather than forcing them to the shadows of society. This program has provided treatment to nearly 3,000 people. He also significantly widened the city’s education budget and gave thousands of kids access to schools under the Cupos Estudiantiles program.

Yet people who have worked with his administration generally characterise it as lacking in negotiation skills and technical expertise. So while smaller-scale social projects were the flagship of his Bogotá Humana program, he seemed to struggle with larger, complex projects that required handshaking, deal making, and know-how.

The good and bad of his leadership style were on full display in the garbage collection fiasco of 2012, the first big controversy of his tenure, and one that caused him to be temporarily removed from office. Petro honourably wanted to end Bogotá’s monopoly on garbage collection by handing the service over to the municipality. But the plan backfired when he put the city’s water company in charge. It was a disaster from the start as Acuaducto failed to take over the contract on the correct day, leaving trash piling up across the city. The city then scrambled to import nearly 300 outdated dump trucks from the United States when they realised just how shorthanded they were. To this day Acueducto continues to manage trash collection, although analysts have estimated a 30% rise in the cost of the service due to the inefficiencies introduced by Petro.

Similarly, the Basura Cero recycling initiative was good on paper but disappointing in reality. People look on every day in confusion to see their white trash bags thrown into the same truck as the black ones. In these cases what Petro’s critics point to isn’t the idea or the implementation but rather the arrogance and inexperience he showed during the process, for example by failing to consult the city of Medellín, where water and garbage have been administered by the same company for years.

His second big political battle was for the new zoning plan, or POT (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial). It was another David vs. Goliath fight against wealthy landowners that nearly cost him his political career. The document looked good on paper as it outlined proposals for more parks, more urban renewal, low income housing in rich neighbourhoods, protecting the city’s wetlands, and curbing growth in the suburbs. Who can argue with that?

The entire construction industry, apparently. Builders were furious with this plan, as it obligated them to adhere to costly and arbitrary architectural norms, as well as paying for parks and sidewalks. Even green advocates criticised the plan as naïve, as it didn’t seem to grasp the fact that Bogotá, unlike sprawling North American cities, is already extremely dense and could stand to benefit from growth in the suburbs. In the end Petro’s POT plan was rejected by the council, and then passed by decree by Petro himself, which is at the heart of procurador Ordóñez’s latest investigation.

As for transportation and mobility, even Petro’s advocates will admit that his record has been subpar. In 2012 Petro forced Transmilenio to drop the cost of their off-peak fares. While again his intentions were good, this decision created even more congestion in the system and threw a once financially robust organisation into a free-falling budget deficit that the city now has to subsidise.

The blue SITP buses, meanwhile, continue to run mostly empty. And the buyback of the dirty old busetas that were supposed to be converted to blue buses was never finished. The busetas that remain in circulation have a white stripe painted over that says “SITP Provisional”, although they aren’t any cleaner, nor have they been incorporated into the new farecard system.

And as recent news shows, the fate of Bogotá’s long-desired metro remains uncertain.

In the end the history books probably won’t be kind to Gustavo Petro. Some of this is due to forces greater than him, but a lot of it was his fault. Yes, he picked fights with political and economic elites that for too long have enjoyed an uneven playing field in the city. And he does deserve some credit for that. But he lacked the management skills, persuasion, and humility to follow through and gain consensus.

One must also concede that there is also an “engineering bias” in Bogotá politics that puts a premium on big construction and infrastructure projects while undervaluing initiatives like social programs and budget cleaning. But to some extent, Petro needed to recognise that this bias exists because these are the city’s most urgent issues.

Yes, there were obstacles, hostility, and people looking to undermine his every move. But in the end what counts are results. Not to say that there were no results in Petro’s regime. But for a city of 9 million inhabitants that is adding 200,000 more per year, a mayor in this city cannot afford to think anything other than big.

Yet with all its faults, one thing that cannot be denied about Petro’s administration is that, unlike the mayor before him, he did not wind up in jail. As sad as it is to say, the importance of this cannot be understated.

By Scott Filger