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How a historic sword tells the story of Colombia’s new president
What does Gustavo Petro’s history as an M-19 rebel mean for his governance?
When Colombian president Gustavo Petro was sworn in this Sunday, he requested that the sword of Simón Bolívar, the hero of South America’s independence wars, be present as he took his vows. Outgoing president Iván Duque refused.
The exchange sparked a political controversy in Colombia. The sword isn’t just a patriotic symbol of Colombian independence: it represents the popular revolution Petro fought for as a member of the armed rebel group, M-19.
His first act as president was to demand the sword of Bolivar be brought to his ceremony before giving his acceptance speech.
“This sword represents everything to us,” he said, “and I want it to never be buried again. I want it to never be wielded again, let it always be sheathed. Let it only be drawn when there is injustice in this country. Let it be of the people: it is the sword of the people”.
Petro grew up in an upper middle class family, largely sheltered from the suffering of Colombia’s lower classes. In 1979, as a 17-year-old economics student, he encountered grinding conditions of poverty in the town where he lived and studied, a few hours north of Bogotá, an experience which he told the New York Times prompted him to join M-19.
M-19 were an urban rebel group who believed that Colombia’s elites controlled the electoral process and true democracy could only be won through armed struggle. Their name is short for “19th of April Movement” after the date of the 1970 presidential elections, in which establishment candidate Misael Pastrana triumphed over the leftist Gustavo Rojas in a poll marred by fraud.
At first, they would steal food and milk and distribute it among the poor in an attempt to curry favor with the masses. But they soon turned to kidnapping, snatching over 400 victims between 1976 and 1978. Most were drug traffickers and their families, who M-19 saw as complicit with the corrupt ruling class.
M-19 captured public imagination on January 17, 1974, when five of their members broke into Bogotá’s Quinta de Bolivar museum to steal one of the swords used by Símon Bolivar in the war for Colombian independence. They left a note reading: “Bolivar has not died. His sword continues his fight. It now falls into our hands, where it is pointed at the hearts of those who exploit Colombia.”
The group operated soup kitchens and social programmes in poor neighborhoods of Cali, Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla - but by 1980 they were also training armed forces in the jungle and carrying out occasional heists, such as the takeover of the embassy of the Dominican Republic.
In 1982, the Medellin Cartel, and Pablo Escobar himself, declared open war against M-19 with the formation of the paramilitary alliance “Death to Kidnappers” (MAS by their Spanish initials).
M-19 and the FARC both signed an amnesty agreement with the government in 1984, forming the political party Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD M-19), but the deal soon broke down. Petro, who organized political actions for AD M-19 in Zapaquirá, was arrested for possession of illegal weapons by the Colombian army as part of a crackdown after then-president Belisario Betancur abandoned the deal in 1985. Although never formally charged, he was jailed for 18 months, and says he was tortured during his confinement.
While Petro was in prison, M-19 became the protagonists in the bloodiest story in their history. On November 6 1985, heavily armed M-19 members invaded the Palace of Justice, demanding that the president be put on trial for abandoning the 1984 peace process. They took hundreds of hostages, including 25 Supreme Court Justices.
Two days later, the army stormed the palace, killing every M-19 member inside, over a dozen Supreme Court Justices, and nearly 100 hostages. The Palace of Justice burned.
What exactly happened during the bloodbath will never be known for sure: human rights groups said that evidence tampering by the military makes an accurate reconstruction of events impossible. However, witnesses say the government took some of the group’s members alive and tortured them.
The group signed a second peace deal in 1990. During the ceremony, the sword of Bolivar was returned to government custody as a symbol of disarmament. The group disarmed, but a pincer-movement of judicial and paramilitary persecution ultimately wiped them out.
Petro began his political career in 1991, when he was elected to congress as a member of AD M-19. He has sworn off violence as a political tool. He made a name for himself as an opponent of the militant policies of then-president Álvaro Uribe, and as a defender of human rights. In 2012 he became mayor of Bogotá under a new political alliance called Humane Colombia. In 2018, he narrowly lost presidential elections, becoming a senator instead.
Meanwhile, M-19 was gradually decimated. Many members were killed during the siege of the Palace of Justice, and others were assassinated by paramilitaries. Just seven weeks after the 1990 peace deal was inked, the group’s leader, Carlos Pizarro, was killed on a flight by an assailant armed with a machine gun hidden in the bathroom. In the early 2000s, they were effectively removed from the scene after 13 senior party leaders were jailed, in violation of the amnesty negotiated in the peace accord.
Nonetheless, the legacy of M-19 was strong during the ceremony: Petro was presented with the presidential sash by senator María José Pizarro, daughter of murdered M-19 leader Carlos Pizarro, who wore a portrait of her father on her jacket.
As Petro began his first address as president, downtown Bogotá became a party, the streets filled with dancing and music. He has promised to open new peace negotiations with all armed groups in Colombia.
“You know this is a historic day for Colombia, right?” a middle-aged man sporting an M-19 flag and a military style cap asked Pirate Wire Services. “I have seen false promises of peace for decades. Today I have hope that real peace might finally be achieved.”
Whether Petro can deliver on his peace promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the sword of Bolivar has been placed on display at the entrance to the presidential palace, reminding all visitors of its exceptional history.
The big headlines in Latam!
On Thursday, the Colombian government announced that it was willing to open peace negotiations with ELN and that it had re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela, which were severed by former president Duque in 2019. Gustavo Petro appointed ambassador Armando Benedetti to represent Colombia, and Caracas Félix Plasencia, Maduro's former foreign minister.
Cuba continues to reel from the tragedy of a massive oil refinery fire which broke out on 5 August in the city of Matanzas that has still not been controlled. The incident has left at least one dead, 16 people missing and at least 125 injured. The fire started after lightning struck the site's oil storage tank.
In Chile’s Atacama desert, a massive and growing sinkhole has emerged that authorities have been unable to conclusively explain. The circular crater, 32 meters wide and 64 meters deep, appeared in the middle of a piece of land belonging to a mining company. Although experts have different theories, the most accepted is that mining exploration has impacted groundwater in the area, possibly resulting in underground erosion.
What we’re reading:
The New York Times Colombia team last week published this investigation into working partnerships between the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and oil companies that have resulted in the persecution of environmental activists and local communities in ecologically sensitive areas of Colombia. Their work to develop infrastructure in rural areas has led to alliances with companies with “dirty business practices” according to NYT.
Una de las noticias más relevantes en nuestra región viene de la mano del anunció que hizo el gobierno colombiano ayer desde La Habana, Cuba, sobre el restablecimiento de las relaciones entre Colombia y Venezuela. Las relaciones bilaterales que se rompieron desde el 2019, empiezan a normalizarse con el nombramiento de embajadores en cada país. Por Colombia, Gustavo Petro nombró a Armando Benedetti y desde caracas enviaron a Félix Plasencia, el excanciller de Maduro.
Continuando por el caribe, específicamente en Cuba, el país isleño sigue enfrentando la tragedia por un incendio de graves magnitudes en la ciudad de matanzas y que aún no ha podido ser controlado. El siniestro ha dejado al menos un muerto, 16 personas desaparecidas y al menos 125 heridas en el mayor depósito de combustible de la isla. El fuego inició el viernes después de que un rayo cayera en tanque de almacenamiento del lugar.
Ahora, nos vamos para el sur, hasta Chile en específico, donde desde hace unas semanas los habitantes de la región de Atacama, alertaron sobre la presencia de un socavón gigante que crece a medida de que pasan los días y del que aún no se sabe a ciencia cierta su procedencia. El cráter circular de 32 metros de ancho y 64 de profundidad apareció en la mitad de un terrenos de una empresa minera. Aunque los expertos tienen diferentes teorías, la más aceptada es que como es una zona de alta exploración minera, su impacto en la zona podría haber dado como resultado este enorme hueco en la tierra.
¿Qué estamos leyendo?
En la última semana el equipo corresponsal en Colombia para el New York Times publicó esta investigacióndonde evidencian alianzas de Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD), con empresas de hidrocarburos con el fin de perseguir a la oposición en el país y permitir su funcionamiento en zonas ambientalmente delicadas.
También desde Anfibia nos llega una pieza impresionante de reflexiones sobre los derechos laborales en una época donde la precarización es la regla y no la excepción. En un texto detallado y extenso, los autores se toman el tiempo para ahondar rigurosamente en ideas para contrarrestar esa explotación. Muchas de estas ideas surgieron del Conversatorio Salario Básico Universal en Argentina y son retomadas por los periodistas de cara a un período economico igualmente difícil para este país.