by Charles Lemos, Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 04:40:12 AM EDT
Colombia heads to the polls on Sunday to elect a Congress and representatives to the Andean Parliament as well as to select two top-tier Presidential candidates in a primary. With some four million plus Colombians living outside Colombia, the 1991 Constitution allows for Colombians of the Colombian diaspora to elect their own representatives to Congress.
As such, I will be voting and I've made my decision as to where to throw my support. Colombian elections are noisy, raucous, and above all colorful affairs. Historically, one would dress up to vote in the color of one's party but with the decline of the two longstanding traditional parties that fashionista voting may be a thing of the past.
Choosing which primary to participate in has been a more vexing question for me, however, especially after the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that President Alvaro Uribe could not run for a third term. Uribe's forced retirement does cloud the Colombian political panorama. Two parties will hold open primaries: the Conservative party (the world's third oldest party still in existence) and the recently formed Partido Verde, a progressive Green party established in October 2009. My quandary is first of all which of the two primaries to participate in and then which candidate to support. The decision impacts how the first round general election scheduled for May 30th may play out.
The Green Party is led by three former progressive mayors of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa. I'm partial to Enrique Peñalosa, in part because I share his penchant for building sustainable cities and his disdain of cities built around automobiles.
While each of the three mayors had an instrumental role in transforming Bogotá out of wretchedness into a modern, innovative, and more democratic city, Peñalosa, in my view, was the most impactful in that during his three years (1999-2001) as mayor he led a transportation revolution so complete that he single-handedly transformed Bogotá from a traffic-clogged mess into one of the most transit and bike friendly cities in the world. The Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System, which he copied from Jaime Lerner's Curitiba, remains the world's most efficient and greenest urban transportation system which has, in turn, become a model for BRT systems from Brisbane to Lagos.
The main knock on Peñalosa is that he is "autocratic". Though I prefer the adjective "forceful", the reality is that Peñalosa's visionary projects were rammed through ruffling feathers and disturbing the comfortable sensibilities of various gatekeepers (political mafias is the Colombian term) in Bogotá. Though his projects have proved wildly successful and now much adored, his style of leadership proved caustic and he has failed to win another election since. The other problem for the technocratic Peñalosa is that he lacks a power base outside Bogotá.
Moreover, Antanas Mockus is likely the winner of the Green primary and as such a vote for Peñalosa, perhaps a sentimental one, is likely a wasted one. I have no problem with Antanas Mockus who is in my estimation one of the most revolutionary and visionary politicians anywhere in the world today. As we in the United States have discovered to our dismay, enacting change isn't easy nor straightforward. As Mayor, Mockus brought change in the most unusual of ways in a country where change has long been elusive. Change is ultimately about changing values and changing behaivour and that's what Mockus set out to do.
Mockus, whose parents were Lithuanian immigrants, is not a traditional politician but an academic who has fashion together one of Latin America's largest civic movements. He's the former Rector of the National University, the country's largest and state-financed. He came to national attention in the early 1990s when in front of disruptive assembly of students, he got up and mooned the audience. They shut up, he got elected mayor.
As mayor, Mockus proved most unorthodox, endearing but most of all impactful in getting Santa Ferreños to think twice before aggrieving their city. Famous initiatives included hiring mimes to make fun of traffic violators, because he believed Colombians were more shamed by being ridiculed than by being levied a fine which they tend not to pay anyway. Within months, the mimes helped increase the proportion of pedestrians obeying traffic signals from 26 percent to 75 percent. Traffic fatalities declined by over 50 percent. He sponsored a "Women's Night Out" to dramaticize female safety on the streets of Bogotá. Three quarters of a million women participated in the first night out and the number has increased since then. Under his tutelage, Bogotá's homicide rate fell 70 percent. His water conservation campaign, which featured an ad of him showering, reduced water use by a third even as the city added nearly a million inhabitants over the course of a decade.
All notable achievements but the one that impresses me most was his fiscal policy. He tackled corruption relentlessly and instituted a programme whereby citizens could pay an extra 10 percent in taxes and determine where to spend that money. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes in the first year alone with two-thirds of the contributors coming from the lowest economic strata. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the civic attitude of Bogotanos during Mockus' second stint as mayor is that as of 2002 the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990. Change indeed.
Luis Eduardo Garzón, nicknamed Lucho, hails from the Colombian left. He was once a member of the Colombian Communist Party and a former union leader but has come to accept the "pragmatic socialism" model that combines the building of a social safety net atop a free-market capitalist system. Under his leadership, Bogotá invested heavily in its public education, health and housing system transforming the city into Latin America's most progressive city. His Bogotá sin hambre ("Bogotá without hunger") program has been hailed as a model by the United Nations.
Here's a web ad for the Partido Verde, the copy of Hicimos ciudad, haremos país translates as "we built a city, we'll build a country" that highlights the accomplishments of these three progressive mayors now seeking the presidency.