Largely flying under the media radar in the U.S. is one of the more remarkable political stories of the last thirty years.
The story begins in 1994, when a soft spoken, bearded philosopher and mathematician named Antanas Mockus was the rector of his country's national university. An assembly was held in a large auditorium to confront issues that were tearing apart the university, and it quickly degenerated into a riot -- think our own 2009 summer town halls on steriods.
Mockus moved to the front of the stage, slowly unbuckled his belt, turned around, dropped his pants, and spread his cheeks.
Three days from now, there is a very good possibility that Antanas Mockus will become the first candidate of the Green Party to be elected as the leader of a nation, when, if the polls hold, he will be popularly elected to be the new President of the Republic of Colombia.
Mockus' story includes the astonishing transformation of one of the worst, most corrupt and dangerous cities on the planet into an egalitarian, thriving, modern metropolis, and his plans to transform an entire nation.
Pour yourself a glass of aguardiente, get out the popcorn, and be prepared to be entertained and maybe even inspired.
Mockus leveraged the notoriety he gained following the episode at the Universidad Nacional -- he was forced to resign as rector -- by being overwhelmingly elected as the mayor of Colombia's capital city of Bogotá.
He was beholden to nobody. At the time, he didn't even belong to a political party.
Bogotá in 1994 was a city of slums, poverty, violence and lawlessness, paralyzed by corruption.
Today, Bogotá is a modern, progressive, clean and vibrant city, with excellent mass transportation, libraries in poor neighborhoods, filled with civic pride and at least relative equality of opportunity. This transformation largely happened over just twelve years; Mockus was the mayor for the first and last 4 years, and in between was another reform mayor, Enrique Peñalosa.
To say that Anatanas Mockus is an unorthodox politican would be a huge understatement.
His approach is playful, wacky even, but few can fault his two terms as mayor. To tackle the city's chaotic traffic, he deployed teams of street mime artists to show both drivers and pedestrians how to behave. It was so successful he was able to dispense with the corrupt municipal traffic police and employ more mimes instead.
If I've enticed you to read this far, this would be the perfect place for you to sit back and watch a remarkable, short documentary that tells this story far better than I can do with words. When one of my good Colombian friends told me I should watch this, I reluctantly said, "OK" -- I was busy, and I thought, well, another drab political story.
On youtube, it's in seven parts. "Ugh", I thought. After Part 1, I was intrigued. After Part 2, I was smiling. By the time Part 3 was coming to a close, I was hooked. And at the end, I wanted to know what I could do to support this unique and fascinating man.
The documentary is narrated in English, and everything is translated (Spanish to English and English to Spanish) in subtitles. The only caveat is that the subtitles at times suffer from poor contrast and are a bit hard to read. It's worth the effort.
For space and bandwidth, I'm not going to embed the videos. You may want to ctrl-click to open in a new page and leave this open. Here you go:
By now you have probably figured out that Antanas Mockus is something akin to the Barack Obama of Colombia. He has ignited the imagination and the passion of Colombia's youth, previously disengaged from politics, and this time they are going to vote. He is followed on facebook by a fast growing fan group that now numbers nearly 700,000 people -- while some of his fb followers may not be Colombian, this is still a very impressive number, considering that in in 2005, there were about 45 million Colombians.
Like Obama, Mockus does not have a long heritage in his country. He is the son of Lithuanian immigrants.
There are some differences, though. Mockus is very soft spoken, and not a brilliant orator like Obama. In fact, he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, so his speech is a bit flat.
Perhaps more importantly, he is unabashedly progressive. When confronted with obstacles, his instinct is not to compromise, but to transform and when necessary to mesmerize the obstacle (like he did when he mooned the rioting students in 1994), by changing the terms of the discussion through creativity, humor, setting an example (like when he donned a superhero costume with a cape and started personally cleaning up the city), and gentle but persistent persuasion.
If you want to learn more about this election and gain more insight into the major players, I highly recommend this excellent diary from several days ago by Rich in PA. If you read Spanish, there's tons of interesting and useful information on Mockus' web site.
If Mockus is elected, it will be very exciting to watch what happens in Colombia. South America is clearly beset with huge challenges. Colombia has had to deal for many years with the FARC and endemic corruption and violence. But Colombians are well educated and wonderful people, and much progress has been made. While outgoing President Uribe has many detractors and his record is marred with accusations of paramilitary abuse and corruption, the country is clearly much safer and more stable. And Colombia has huge potential, rich with resources and remarkable beauty.
Mockus' running mate, Sergio Fajardo, is the former mayor of Medellín, who was able to transform Medellín much as Mockus transformed Bogotá. The time may be just right in Colombia for Mockus' team of courageous and visionary reformers. We should pay attention -- we may have a lot to learn.
ht to lotlizard for finding an excellent editorial in the Guardian about Mockus.
... Mockus treated the job (of mayor of Bogotá) as a great experiment in civic responsibility. Mime artists mocked traffic violators, and road deaths halved. One campaign cut water use by 40%, while another led 63,000 people to pay a voluntary 10% tax to improve services. A Night for Women encouraged men to stay at home while 700,000 females enjoyed the city. His first run for the presidency ended in failure; his second looked set to do the same until a remarkable surge in recent months. He is likely to face the defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, in a runoff ballot to replace the retiring president, Álvaro Uribe, who took a tough populist line against terrorism. Mockus could not be more different to him. Victory would be a tribute to his country's recovery from crisis.