Gustavo Petro issues Colombia coup warning amid veterans protest and ‘defenestration’ remark

Colombia’s retired and reserve military are a powerful political force and tend toward conservatism, leaving the president with balancing act in a country that has not seen a coup since 1953

Retired military and police officers protest against the Colombian President's government, in Bogotá, on May 10, 2023.
Retired military and police officers protest against the Colombian President's government, in Bogotá, on May 10, 2023.Carlos Ortega (EFE)

The relationship between Colombian President Gustavo Petro and a large sector of retired Armed Forces officers is at its lowest ebb since his government took office last August. “Why are they conspiring for a coup d’état? Because they are terrified that we will put an end to impunity,” Petro wrote on his Twitter account on Thursday while sharing an interview with retired Colonel John Marulanda on W Radio. During the discussion, the former director of the Association of Retired Officers of the Colombian Military Forces said, in reference to the Peruvian political crisis, that there “the reserves were successful in defenestrating a corrupt president,” in reference to former leftist president Pedro Castillo, who failed in his self-coup attempt last year and whom Petro has defended several times. “Here, we are going to try our best to defenestrate a guy who was a guerrilla fighter,” Marulanda added, setting off alarm bells.

Since Petro won the elections last year, the fear that the military will not accept a four-year government in the hands of a former guerrilla — a political first in the country — has been ever-present. So far, though, the military has kept its counsel. Colombia prides itself on being the most stable democracy in the Americas, along with the United States, and there has not been a coup d’état in decades, since the brief dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla from 1953 to 1957. During the government of former Liberal president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), there was regular talk of saber-rattling, but it never manifested itself as anything other than rhetoric. Petro has managed to maintain a cordial relationship with the Armed Forces during his first 10 months in government, even after appointing the renowned anti-corruption investigator Iván Velásquez as Minister of Defense. But his relationship has been much less fluid with retired members of the military.

Military veterans demonstrate in the Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá, on May 10, 2023.
Military veterans demonstrate in the Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá, on May 10, 2023.Santiago Mesa

Following Marulanda’s statements, although delivered by a non-active officer, and Petro’s warning of a possible coup, Chief of Staff of the Presidency Laura Sarabia also denounced Marulanda and said that the democratic character of the Colombian Armed Forces was beyond reproach. “Disagreeing with the government is very different from inciting a coup d’état. And for someone from the reserve to make such a call is not only aggravating, it is a dishonor to the uniform he once wore. The democratic tradition of our Forces should NEVER be called into question,” she wrote on her Twitter account.

However, according to W Radio, Marulanda later retracted his statement. “I correct what I said. It is not about defenestrating President Gustavo Petro as Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was defenestrated,” he clarified. But the colonel’s mea culpa arrived too late. The fire had already been lit.

Marulanda’s interview came after hundreds of veterans demonstrated in the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá on Wednesday, shouting “Petro out!” and carrying banners that complained of “progressive contempt” for the Armed Forces. These types of demonstrations always raise the question of how much the political positions of the reserve align with the active military. The latter cannot legally participate in political demonstrations, openly support parties or vote, while retired military personnel can. Ever since the government of former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the retired arm of the military has traditionally been one of the greatest allies of Uribe’s conservative wing, the loudest critic of Petro’s administration.

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