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Colombia's Next President: A Renovation for the South American Left?

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Mired in populist demagoguery and environmentally-unfriendly resource extraction, the South American left is in dire need of ideological renovation. But, where is the likely inspiration to come from? You could not pick a more unlikely candidate than Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the region. And yet, if recent polls are correct, the Green Party could be cruising toward electoral victory in the troubled Andean nation and is currently poised to capture the presidency.

When you consider Colombian politics it's easy to over generalize. To be sure, rightist President Álvaro Uribe has relentlessly pursued the U.S.-funded drug war and counterinsurgency against the FARC. Yet, if you concentrated purely on the national level you'd miss important political developments occurring under the radar. Indeed, in recent years there's been a quiet revolution of sorts as key mayors have pushed for a progressive agenda within cities.

One of those figures is Antanas Mockus, who served two terms as Bogotá's mayor and is now leading the Green Party ticket. After trailing in the polls, Mockus has unexpectedly shot up in popularity. In advance of Colombia's first presidential runoff to be held on May 30th, one survey has Mockus at 38% with 29% for his closest electoral opponent, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of the governing Social Party of National Unity, more commonly known as Party of the U. Mockus' key base of support lies within Colombian cities, and he has been able to garner the crucial political assistance of another former Bogotá mayor, Enrique Peñalosa. (For more on this unlikely but fascinating partnership, read on further in this article.)

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round, Colombia holds a second round on June 20th. To be sure, Santos will be difficult to beat as he has an oiled political machine backing him up. However, in the event of a second round, other progressive candidates would be eliminated and Mockus could mop up their support, clobbering Santos in the process.

In terms of its potential political and geopolitical importance for the wider region, a Mockus victory cannot be understated and would turn conventional politics in Colombia on its head. At $242 billion, Colombia is South America's fourth largest economy, so what happens there matters. Yet, few have heard of Colombia's Green Party and Mockus is not very internationally known. Who is he and where does he come from?

A City in Dire Need of Help

To really understand Mockus' rise on the national stage, you need to go back in time to Bogotá some twenty years ago. As a former U.S. expatriate who lived in Colombia during the early 1990s, I have my own personal perspective on the matter. At the time, I was writing for an English-language paper, Colombian Post, in Bogotá. The newspaper's office was located in the more affluent northern district of Chapinero, far away from the chaotic and dangerous southern downtown. I lived in La Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood with cobbled streets just adjacent to downtown.

Though quaint to be sure, La Candelaria was pretty dangerous. At night, you had to be careful not to walk the streets beyond a certain hour. And even during the day, daily life could be harrowing. Bedraggled street urchins and drug addicts known as gamines roamed the area. Orphaned kids without anywhere to go, the gamines were a public menace to be avoided. I did my best to steer clear of them but once had an ominous encounter early in the morning.

Getting off the bus near my home, a gamin approached me and asked for money. The boy was covered in a blanket, his hair matted. I started to hand over all the coins in my pockets, but the gamin, apparently still unsatisfied, demanded more money and started to reach for something inside his blanket. I feared the kid might be high on bazuco, a kind of cheapened cocaine, and that he was taking a knife out. Not knowing what to do, I prayed for my safety. Fortunately, a couple of people emerged on to the street just at that exact moment and started to shout at the gamin, who fled.

In downtown, merchants grew fed up with these gamines and one would hear stories about so-called "social cleansing," a euphemism for physical extermination. Hired guns would round the orphans up, who would never be heard of again. If the merchants thought their problems would be put to rest with social cleansing, however, they were mistaken. Indeed, average street crime was a constant fact of life in downtown. I myself was pick-pocketed and would never set forth in the calle del cartucho, literally Cartridge Street, a dangerous area which lay just a stone's throw from Bogotá's main cathedral, presidential palace and national Congress.

Recently, I saw an intriguing documentary on the Sundance Channel called Bogotá Change. The program deals with urban problems in Bogotá in the early and mid-1990s and really took me back to that time. For anyone who wants to get a sense of urban politics in Colombia and the quiet revolution that has propelled figures like Mockus to prominence, it is essential viewing.

The Rise of Antanas Mockus

The film begins with scenes of decrepit urban decay. A narrator intones, "Bogotá: in the early 1990s the city was known as the worst city on the planet, where drug cartels held sway and people had lost faith in government." There's some horrific contemporary news footage showing people peering over a dead body on the street and waiting for an ambulance to arrive. The witnesses cry angrily that if the killing had taken place in an affluent neighborhood, the police would have arrived more promptly.

From there, the film takes up the compelling story of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa, two politicians who sought to turn the city around. In 1994, Peñalosa was an ambitious up and coming figure in Colombia's Liberal Party. Charming and affable, he looked to be the likely favorite to win the mayoral race. Though linked with one of the country's traditional and corrupt political parties, Peñalosa was a straight arrow and advocated an ambitious and radical urban redesign agenda for the city. Taking his case to the masses, Peñalosa handed out leaflets on the street, something which had heretofore not been practiced by the country's elite politicians.

Peñalosa had the right ideas, but his mannerisms and accent were of Bogotá's elite. In another year, he might have prevailed, but the city's residents were looking for someone radically new. They got their candidate in Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and former rector of the National University. Eccentric and unpredictable, Mockus rode an elephant at his wedding as a young man. In terms of personality and demeanor, you could not find anyone more different from Peñalosa. An intense and cerebral man, Mockus was of Lithuanian descent and sported an Amish-style beard.

In the early 1990s, the campus of the National University was in chaos. Every day, Mockus was confronted by unruly anarchists and FARC rebels. Invited to speak before students, Mockus was booed. But the rector, pushed to the limits of his endurance and patience, had vowed beforehand that he would not be humiliated. In a moment that would live in infamy, Mockus took off his pants, turned his back to the students and mooned them.

Mockus' stunt was caught on videotape and broadcast on the evening news. Needless to say, it wasn't long before he was forced to resign amidst the scandal. But ironically, Bogotá's rebirth as a city may be dated to that precise moment. Fed up with their lackluster political leadership, city residents flocked to Mockus and the former rector became a kind of overnight superstar for standing up for himself. More than anyone, Mockus came to embody the public's yearning for honesty and integrity.

Now out of a job, Mockus decided to run against Peñalosa as an independent and the true outsider. He conducted a bizarre and iconoclastic campaign befitting the times. Mockus' organization was literally run out of his mother's humble apartment. But the Señora, a stern Lithuanian sculptor with poor Spanish skills, disapproved of her son's political ambitions and would literally chase chagrined reporters out of the house. Meanwhile, Mockus carried out wild stunts such as dressing up in spandex as Super Citizen. Picking up garbage and putting it in the pail, he sought to instruct his fellow city dwellers on how to take care of Bogotá.

The campaign between Peñalosa and Mockus was something of a free-for-all. In one scene in Bogotá Change, the candidates are seen debating on the campus of the National University where they are, once again, confronted by an unruly crowd. One student, wearing a mask, gets up on stage and hurls a dirty bag at Peñalosa filled perhaps with excrement. The surreal debate descends into anarchy and Mockus gets into a scuffle with the crowd.

Bogotá Rises from the Ashes

Fed up with disorder and such pointless spectacles, the public rallied behind Mockus: in the end the independent candidate wound up winning the election with the largest majority in Bogotá history. Taking office in January, 1995 Mockus led a so-called "invasion of academics" who followed him into city government.

Mockus, who had a background in philosophy, sought to carry out a psychological revolution in Bogotá, a city of 7.5 million. The newly installed mayor believed that people acted violently because the wider culture failed to condemn such behavior. He postulated that street violence was a response to domestic violence, which was sadly all too common within the city.

To change the underlying morality, Mockus would have to instruct and educate. As it turned out, no one was more suited to tackle such an ambitious job. A man of high integrity and honesty, Mockus himself had been sexually abused as a boy but was determined not to let the memory get the better of him or to poison his soul.

In an effort to reverse aggression and violence in the city, he carried out a massive educational initiative. City government worked with prostitutes, the homeless and prison inmates. Policemen were obliged to attend training in conflict resolution. Children were encouraged to report domestic violence.

At one point during Bogotá Change, Mockus tears up as he recounts how he lost one of his best friends who was killed during a violent car theft. Replacing a Renault is a chore, Mockus exclaims, but nothing when compared to loss of human life. Intent on getting the homicide rate under control and reducing late night fights, Mockus pushed for the so-called "Carrot Law" which obliged bars to close at 1am. (A "carrot" is slang for a healthy person who doesn't smoke or drink.)

It wasn't long before the law yielded positive results: journalists entering hospitals were greeted by doctors who reported lower violent mortality rates around the city. Beaming before the cameras, an elated Mockus posed alongside a gigantic stuffed carrot. "People love each other more now," he exclaimed.

Having put a dent in the culture of violence, Mockus moved on to yet another pressing issue: public transportation and the environment. As a foreigner in Bogotá in the early 1990s, I found getting around the city horrendous. Because there was no metro, one had to rely on the city's buses. Yet, there was no rhyme or reason to the system. Buses would stop haphazardly along the street, picking up or dropping off customers without any assigned stops.

There were only a couple of streets leading north-south, and traffic was extremely congested as a result. The buses themselves were extremely unclean and belched awful diesel fumes into the air. I often felt like I was taking my life into my own hands on roads. On one ride along the outskirts of Bogotá, I vividly recall seeing car wreckage strewn along the side of the highway. A man with a bloodied face emerged, beseeching motorists to stop and help. My bus driver paid no heed, continuing along his way as if he hadn't seen a thing.

Other people I met had grown fed up with the accidents. A young woman acquaintance had lost her young brother in a car crash and the family was scarred by the experience. I too lost a friend, Time magazine correspondent Tom Quinn. An editor at the Colombian Post, Quinn was a happy go lucky expatriate sporting a long grey moustache. In the fall of 1996, after I'd left Bogotá, he and his wife were both hurled off a Bogotá highway in a traffic accident. Quinn died instantly and his wife perished shortly thereafter.

Recognizing the urgency of the problem, Mockus set about trying to reform the transportation system. In an unconventional approach, to put it mildly, Mockus hired mimes who would ridicule motorists who violated driving laws. At first, the press made fun of the mimes but gradually the idea sank in and the public began to obey the new traffic rules.

Impressed by the positive change in quality of life, affluent city dwellers were persuaded to voluntarily donate money to the city's finances. That in turn meant that Bogotá was able to tackle its economic problems at long last. By the end of Mockus' term, the city was transformed from "an angry rabble to a hopeful community," in the words of Bogotá Change. Yet, Mockus was prevented by law from running for a second consecutive term and the city was still completely run down. The path was now clear for Peñalosa to continue where Mockus had left off.

Rise of the Business Execs

This second time around, Peñalosa broke from the Liberal Party and ran as an independent like Mockus. As such, he found the people were more receptive to his ideas. Elected by a narrow margin, Peñalosa took office in 1998 and quickly sought to create a more democratic city through his radical vision of urban redesign. The new mayor replaced Mockus' academics with Colombia's most capable, can-do business execs.

In a gutsy move, Peñalosa sent bulldozers into Cartridge Street which resulted in urban riots. Some bitter residents said they had not been properly informed of the need to relocate. The mayor's popularity took a hit as a result of the unrest, but Peñalosa persevered. Before long, Bogotá became almost unrecognizable with the city transformed into one big construction site.

In Bogotá Change, Peñalosa remarks that he was seeking to create a new kind of citizen hero, not the typical drug-dealing flashy guy on a motorcycle, but a studious boy heading to the library. Indeed, for the mayor, newly constructed libraries represented a holy temple or church in the medieval sense. Electricity, sewage and running water were meanwhile provided to the southern slums, a new housing plan called Metrovivienda was set up for poor residents, and, most importantly perhaps, a clean and efficient bus system called Transmilenio put into place.

Hoping to make a political comeback after Peñalosa's eventful term, Mockus ran again for mayor. Though the former rector disagreed with some of Peñalosa's heavy-handed methods, he agreed with the overall urban philosophy of his predecessor. With Peñalosa's electoral support, Mockus was reelected. "May Bogotá be known as the carrot capitol of Latin America," he remarked during his victory speech.

In his second term, Mockus seemed to rein in his idealism, preferring instead to continue with some of the pragmatic changes pushed under Peñalosa including the Transmilenio bus system. Bit by bit, Mockus became less of a loose cannon: he chose his words more carefully and began to dress formally.

Though they pursued different governing styles, Mockus and Peñalosa complemented one another. Today, Bogotá is a radically different place with 400,000 bicycle users. Car use is down, 1.6 million people travel on the Trasmilenio daily and Bogotá is automobile-free on major streets on Sundays. Traffic fatalities and homicide have been drastically reduced. A whopping 98.5% of kids attend school.

Mockus vs. Santos

The Mockus-Peñalosa partnership has proved enduring as recent political developments have demonstrated. Indeed, the two former mayors helped co-found the Green Party and, in a rejection of traditional politics, agreed to a friendly open primary in which more than 1 million Colombians voted. Though Mockus won the party's nomination, Peñalosa has thrown his support behind his old colleague and could garner a valuable post in any Mockus administration.

Mockus is popular amongst affluent Colombians, though he is also gaining popularity amongst lower middle-class voters. He is most popular in big cities, particularly Bogotá, but enjoys lesser support in small towns and among the poorest Colombians. Like Obama, Mockus is popular amongst younger voters and has been very adept at employing new media. Indeed, Mockus' Facebook group boasts 408,000 supporters in contrast to 62,000 for Santos.

Though academics are sometimes seen as square, in Colombia academia is viewed as a necessary pacifying element in the midst of the country's never ending counterinsurgency war against FARC rebels. Unlike Santos, a full-blooded member of the establishment whose family has long played a role in traditional politics and the media, Mockus preserves his outsider mystique.

Political and Environmental Implications

With Mockus poised to take over the presidency, the question now is: what does the sudden emergence of this urban and reformist political cadre mean for Colombia and the wider region? To be sure, a Green Party victory would energize the progressive base, though Mockus is no raging leftist. In fact, Mockus supports law and order, has pledged to continue the fight against drug smuggling, seeks stable relations with the U.S., rules out any peace with the FARC as long as guerrillas continue to carry out kidnappings, and supports privatization of public utilities. Latin Business Chronicle approves of Mockus, remarking that he "is market-friendly and would largely continue President Álvaro Uribe's policies."

On the other hand, a Mockus presidency could inject a well needed environmental dimension into regional politics. As I have discussed in my books, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010) and on my website, South American governments have run up against the wall when it comes to the environment.

Though they claim to promote social justice, more often than not these regimes shunt local residents aside in the name of resource extraction and promotion of commodity exports. The contradictions in terms of rhetoric vs. reality are not lost on indigenous peoples who have been fighting for environmental justice in Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil. A Mockus win, on the other hand, would inspire the region's nascent green parties which have failed to get off the ground politically.

A Mockus victory could also result in more ethical standards in government and a lessening of human rights violations. Colombians have grown fed up with the Uribe administration, which has used the power of the state to conduct illegal wiretaps on political opponents and journalists. Even more seriously, about 90 members of Congress, most belonging to Uribe's party, are being investigated or are already in jail in conjunction with the "parapolitics" scandal linking government figures to paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

Voters, meanwhile, have soured on human rights violations under Uribe. Indeed, candidate Santos' reputation has been damaged by judicial investigations into allegations by human rights groups that the armed forces killed hundreds of civilians who were passed off as rebels downed in combat operations. The scandal took place under Santos' watch while the latter served as Minister of Defense. Though the future presidential candidate was quick to demote top officials, an investigation is still ongoing.

A Regional Thaw?

Mockus, who prides himself on honesty and the rule of law, could do much to rein in these ethical lapses and human rights violations. In addition, he would represent a well needed conciliating force within the region and ratchet down Colombia's reputation as a rogue nation. In 2008, Santos sent the Colombian army across the border into Ecuador in pursuit of the FARC. The raid resulted in the death of the FARC's number two, Raul Reyes, as well as 24 others. The move prompted much criticism from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and for a time there was even talk of outright war.

In a debate, Santos defended his actions and refused to say whether he would again bomb rebel camps outside of Colombia if he were elected. That in turn led Chávez to remark that Santos was a threat "to all of us." Santos, for his, part says that he and Chávez are like "oil and water." Mockus, however, has ruled out rogue cross border raids and states emphatically that he would respect international law as well as the word of international courts.

Perhaps, Mockus could also improve relations with neighboring Venezuela. Since July, 2009, relations have been frozen between Bogotá and Caracas as a result of Colombia's agreement permitting the United States to use at least seven military bases on its territory. The former Bogotá mayor says he wants to bolster "respect and prudence" towards Venezuela and declares that he would use "all diplomatic channels" to improve relations.

The Obama administration, which talks about mending fences with Latin America, has in practice done little to promote warm ties with the likes of Venezuela or other left-leaning countries. But, what if Mockus proved unwilling to go along with Washington's geopolitical game in the wider region and to isolate Venezuela? In this sense, a green upset in Colombia could have unforeseen consequences for the dangerous triangle involving Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

For all these reasons, the presidential race in Colombia is certainly worth watching. Perhaps, in the event that he captures the presidency, Mockus will reshape politics in Colombia and the wider region, just as he did at the local level as Bogotá's first independent mayor.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, just released by Palgrave-Macmillan, and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website at http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/. Click here meanwhile to watch a clip of the Sundance Channel's excellent documentary, Bogotá Change.