Introducing Antanas Mockus
by Charles Lemos, Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 05:01:46 AM EDT
Antanas Mockus, at the moment the front runner to win the presidency in Colombia, is not your typical politician. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, he is not a man who chose a political career but rather instead someone who catapulted to national attention as a result of a now famous, some would say infamous, incident. In 1993 when in front of an unruly mob of students who would not allow any of the scheduled guests to speak, as the then rector of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the largest university in the country, he stepped to front of the podium turned his back on the whistling students, dropped his pants and mooned them.
The students were stunned into silence and Mockus' unlikely ascent had begun. In explaining why he chose to moon the audience, Mockus has noted that he was connecting "two extremes, extreme contempt and extreme submission." The mooning incident, the leading story in Colombia that day, would cost Mockus his post running the state-run institution but it would earn him a place in Colombian lore while gaining him many admirers for having stood up to an anarchist mob.
Timing, they say, is everything in politics. In the mid 1990s, Colombia was a desperate place immersed in ever-spiraling violence but change was on the horizon with a set of political reforms that had begun to open up the Colombian political arena. In the late 1980s, Colombian electoral law was changed to allow direct elections of governors and mayors and in 1991 a new Constitution further opened up the political process.
It was into this political opening that Antanas Mockus was drafted into a run for mayor of Bogotá, then a city of over six million people that was considered the worst city in Latin America with the second highest homicide rate in the world after Medellín, an overstretched infrastructure and one of the largest disparaties between rich and poor anywhere on the planet. Perhaps such was the despair that the political novice Antanas Mockus - the full name is Aurelijus Rutenis Antanas Mockus Šivickas - was elected mayor of Bogotá in his first run for office in late 1994 becoming the first independent mayor in the city's history.
What unfolded over the next three years ranks as one of the most innovative mayorships anywhere and launched the transformation of Bogotá from one of the world's worst cities into one of its best. A mathematician and a philosopher by training, Mockus' viewed Bogotá's problems primarily as one of culture. Change the culture and you change the city.
In his first administration, his goal was to create a new citizen culture by teaching bogotanos how to act in public. To improve Bogotá's gridlocked traffic problems, he gave citizens flash cards with a thumbs up or thumbs down. Good driving behaivour was rewarded with a thumbs up and while bad behaivour earned a thumbs down. He then dismissed the notoriously corrupt traffic police and replaced them with street mimes that instead of fining traffic offenders mocked them on the grounds that people respond better to being embarrassed than to monetary fines. Some 10 percent of the traffic police accepted to be retrained as mimes. The mimes focused not only on drivers but also on pedestrians instructing them to cross at the intersections and signal. In his first term, pedestrian fatalities dropped almost 70 percent.
Then there was his dressing up in a superhero's outfit emblazoned with big red C for citizen walking the streets cleaning up graffiti and putting trash in its place. With the city in the midst of a drought, he cut a commercial showering and turning off the taps while he soaped — the result was that water consumption fell 40 percent. He launched an innovated and voluntary pay an extra ten percent in taxes programme whereby those who made the extra contribution could target a specific spending priority. In his first term over 60,000 bogotanos signed up and a third of those who did came from Bogotá's poorer neighborhoods. By the end of his first term, he had placed Bogotá's financing on a solid footing winning accolades in the international financial press. A decade after he first took office, Bogotá had tripled its tax receipts.
But it is in the area of reducing unnecessary deaths where Antanas Mockus achieved his greatest successes. It is his deepest conviction that every life is sacred, noting that all the power in the world cannot reverse one death. To tackle driving fatalities on weekends, he introduced la ley zanahoria, or the carrot law. In Colombian colloquialisms, a zanahoria is a tee-totaler, some who neither drinks or smokes. The law forced Bogotá's nightspots to close at 1 AM. While the law was not initially popular, it was hard to argue with the results. Weekend traffic fatalities fell from 16 to just four. He began other programs to tackle all forms of violence. The net result was that the homicide rate declined from 80 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 24 per 100,000 by 2004.
Mockus did not finish his first three year term as mayor, resigning five months early in order to mount a bid for the presidency in the 1998 cycle. Still largely unknown outside Bogotá, he failed to garner much support and ended up as the vice presidential nominee for Noemí Sanín, a former Foreign Minister and now the current Conservative nominee in this cycle, in an independent bid. He would return to mayorship of Bogotá in 2001 following the administration of Enrique Peñalosa, another progressive mayor who simply transformed the city's infrastructure building the world's most advance bus rapid transit system and redefined the notion of what constitutes public space. Mockus's second administration would build on Peñalosa's dream city. Combined the two mayors added 1,100 parks, built over 38 miles of dedicated bike paths, built five world class libraries while bringing electricity, running water and sewage systems to every dwelling in a city that now neared the 8 million mark.
In 2004, Mockus would hand over the mayorship to Luis Eduardo Garzón, a former Communist and union leader. Garzón, better known as Lucho, was the third in the series of progressive mayor not tied to any major political party. His emphasis was on expanding the social safety net with programs such as Bogotá sin hambre ("Bogotá without hunger") and Bogotá sin indiferencia ("Bogotá without indifference") coupled with a focus on education and improving public health. Today 98.5 percent of school aged children attend school in Bogotá.
Forming the Colombian Green Party
In late 2009, these three former mayors of Bogotá came together along with Jorge Eduardo Londoño, a former governor of the department of Boyacá, and launched a new political party by merging two smaller parties to create a new entity, el Partido Verde de Colombia, or the Colombia Green Party. The party is linked to the Global Greens movement of ecologically centered parties.
In approaching the 2010 Colombian presidential contest, three former mayors who came to known as "the three tenors" chose to run a most unusual race. They opted to hold a primary to select a presidential candidate but rather than campaign separately, the three men campaigned collectively even though they were running against each other. The idea was to show Colombians a different way doing politics by focusing more on values and culture and to espouse a team-based to solving Colombia's problems. The unity pitch worked tapping into the growing discontent with the polarization that had taken place under Alvaro Uribe.
The Greens went into their primary on March 13th planning on getting 500,000 Colombians to participate but hoping for perhaps 700,000. Instead they surpassed all expectations with over 1.6 million Colombians voting in the Green's primary with Antanas Mockus winning nearly half the votes.
Mockus + Fajardo = The Green Dream Team
In the immediate aftermath of the primary which was held on the same day as Colombia's legislative elections, Mockus and the Greens reached out to Sergio Fajardo, the former independent mayor of Medellín, who had been mounting his own independent run for the presidency as the head of a non-partisan civic movement. However, Fajardo's list for the Senate and House failed to win a single seat and his candidacy faltered. But Mockus then selected Fajardo as his running mate adding a geographical balance to the ticket and gaining an immediate bump in the polls. Polling just nine percent right after the primary, the selection of Fajardo nearly doubled Mockus' polling numbers at 17 percent as the Green Dream Team began to capture the Colombian political center. In the weeks since the selection, the polling has only continued to climb.
Mockus' proposals center on creating respect for the law and the Colombian Constitution. Uribe's security policies, known as seguridad democrática, have largely proved popular but there have been excesses and breakdowns in the law. There is a fatigue among Colombians that has provided an opening for honest untraditional politicians like Mockus and Fajardo in the wake of a series of scandals that have tainted the Uribe administration.
The worst of these was the false positives scandal in which the army lured at least 1,200 and perhaps as many as 2,000 young men from poor neighborhoods with promises of jobs only to kill them passing them off as guerrillas in order to augment combat body counts with the hopes of collecting a bounty for each dead guerrilla. Though the scandal led to the resignation of a Colombian Army General and the dismissal of 30 officers, no one has yet been convicted for any of these extrajudicial killings. At the time that these murders were taking place, Juan Manuel Santos was the Minister of Defense. For many Colombians, including myself, it is simply not permissible that such crimes go unpunished. Having defended the human rights record of the Uribe Administration for six years, I find myself unable to defend the indefensible any longer. When Mockus tells me that every life is sacred, I believe him. This accounts for a large part of his appeal. It's a campaign centered on moral values with one of the slogan's being "por un país decente or "for a decent country" but decente is a play on words - it also means moral, as in having human decency.
Then there is the never-ending corruption. Both of Uribe's two 20-something sons have become multi-millionaires during their father's administration courtesy of sweetheart land and business deals aimed at currying favor with their father. Another scandal saw agricultural subsidies to go some of Uribe's closest political allies and friends even though many of them did not actually farm any land. Yet another scandal is now still developing in which the state security agency illegally wiretapped members of the Supreme Court, other judges, journalists and human rights activists. It is not yet clear who ordered the illegal wiretaps.
In this sense, Mockus is seen as the anti-Uribe. He will continue to hold the line against the FARC guerrillas, because they are outside the law, but Mockus will restore respect for the constitutional order.
Two polls out late this week showed slightly different results though both confirmed Mockus' rise. A Gallup poll conducted for El Espectador, Colombia's largest independent newspaper, showed the race between Antanas Mockus and the pro-Uribe Juan Manuel Santos in a dead heat in the first round. But another poll by CM&, a Colombian news organization, gave Mockus gave Mockus a five point lead 39 percent to 35 percent. Both polls, however, showed Mockus winning comfortably in a second round run-off that is scheduled for June 20th. The first round vote is now just 30 days away.
If you understand Spanish, here's Antanas Mockus on why he wants to be President of Colombia: