De Rojas a Mockus

Seeing the picture above of children attending a rally in Cucutá for Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate for President in Colombia, brought back memories of my own first foray into a political campaign rally. The year was 1970 and Colombia was then as now gripped in an intense political campaign though to be frank what was at stake was beyond me at the time. But my grandfather, then aged 96, thought it of the utmost importance that all his grandchildren be taken to a campaign stop for General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. There my grandfather simply pointed to the stage and said "That's what a dictator sounds like. Remember it well."

And remember it well I have, for all my life I have been skeptical of populists and their empty promises. My grandfather had good reason to distrust General Rojas Pinilla. In 1953, Rojas led the first successful military coup in Colombian history overthrowing the Conservative Laureano Gómez. Being Liberals, we were no fans of Gómez whose rule had degenerated into a period of intense bloodletting. Those years in Colombia are simply known as "La Violencia", the violence. La Violencia, an undeclared civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, claimed 300,000 lives. Among those killed was my grandfather's older brother José Lemos.

But Rojas proved little different than Gómez seeking to perpetuate himself in power declaring himself President for Life. In 1957, the second and last military coup in Colombian history overthrew him and sent him packing into exile. By 1970, Rojas had reinvented himself as a populist and sought the presidency via the ballot box. The April 19, 1970 election was certainly a pivotal one in Colombia. There are those who believe that the election was stolen from Rojas and the M-19 guerrilla movement took its name from the date. The established order held the day, however, and Colombia narrowly elected the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero President.

For members of my family including my grandfather, voting for Pastrana was the first time they had ever voted for a Conservative. Even then one of my aunts refused to vote saying that she wouldn't dip her finger in ink for a Conservative. The 1970 election was the last of four elections in which the Liberals and Conservatives had agreed to rotate power between them. The period from 1958 to 1974 were the National Front years, a period of confidence-building meant to overcome the breakdown in trust that the violence of the 1940s and 1950s had engendered. 

That all now seems like ancient history. In the years since the end of the National Front, Colombia has elected eight men to the Presidency, five of them Liberals, two Conservatives and Alvaro Uribe, who hailed from the Liberal party but was elected as an independent and who later formed his own party bridging the Liberal-Conservative divide around a national security agenda. 

What's clear in this election is how much Colombia's traditional two party system has collapsed. The Conservative party, a party founded in 1830, is running Noemí Sanín, a former Foreign Minister, as its candidate. She's polling now 9 percent. The Liberal party, founded in 1848, is running Rafael Pardo, another former Foreign Minister. He's polling 3 percent. And though I think highly of Rafael Pardo, who is a true Social Democrat, a friend and a former colleague, the idea of voting for him was never even under consideration. But it is noteworthy how two long established parties have simply lost their way and are perhaps now destined for extinction. 

Until mid-March, I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal party. I now belong to the Green party and wholeheartedly believe in it. Until a year ago or so ago, I might have happily voted for Juan Manuel Santos believing that the continuation of Uribe's security policies were paramount but over the past 18 months the steady drip of scandals beyond belief eroded my confidence in Uribe's security model. I went from thinking Santos a competent technocrat into seeing him as a ruthless assassin for whom the ends justify the means. And I suspect given the enthusiasm I am witnessing with the polling to support it that many if not most Colombians think I do that now is the time for a complete and radical departure even if it's not really radical what Antanas Mockus is proposing. At the core of his message is really a call to honesty and living inside the law.

Honesty isn't really a radical notion but in a world where politicians lie as a matter of course, Antanas Mockus stands out. And when I look at that picture above and I see those young kids with hope in their eyes recalling my own fear from that day long ago when I went to my first campaign rally, I think that we as country in Colombia are on the cusp of a profound transformation. Mockus' message resonates because it is so simple. Life is sacred. Public funds are sacred. To change the country, we must clearly delineate what is acceptable and what is not. It's about values, seemingly lost but in truth only misplaced for such values are indeed eternal. 

Critics of the Mockus campaign say we lack a comprehensive program of government. That's not really accurate because the proposals are there and moreover Mockus is running as the head of a team that includes Sergio Fajardo, the former independent mayor of Medellín, Enrique Peñalosa and Lucho Garzón, two former mayors of Bogotá. But the critical point that I'd like to make is that what the Greens are offering is a vision based on a code of ethics. The point is that without that cultural transformation, no programs however well intention are apt to succeed. Policies matter, no doubt, mindsets matter just as much if not more.

Under Uribe, the ends have justified the means. In the outpouring of support for Mockus, Colombians are saying that they do not. It is a rejection of el todo vale, the anything goes style of politics. But it be wrong to see Mockus as the anti-Uribe because he is not. He is really post-Uribe and he is most certainly not a populist like Rojas or like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, two men who will say anything or do anything to perpetuate themselves in power. This is ultimately a middle class revolution based on values long dormant yet always there. If there is a lesson for the United States and the world from what's happening in Colombia, it is that values matter.

In comparing the Obama phenomenon with the Mockus phenomenon, there's certainly a fair bit of overlap. Both campaigns centered on a rejection of politics as usual but the problem for Obama is that once elected he settled into a regiment of politics of usual turning off his base. And while the President has flashes of brilliance, mostly recently in Ann Arbor with his commencement speech at the University of Michigan, the President seems to have forgotten one of his core messages from the 2008 campaign. Michelle Obama best captured that message in a speech she gave on the eve of the California primary at UCLA back in February 2008. She noted:

Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.

And yet he has allowed to go back to our lives as usual. And unless Obama changes course, he will have failed to transform our politics because he failed to challenge us to transform ourselves. We cannot change Washington, unless we change ourselves. Citizenship is not a quadrennial exercise, it is a daily experience. 

Tags: Colombia, Colombia 2010, Antanas Mockus, Green Party Movements (all tags)

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