Text Messages | A mayoral change

History shows that mayors of major cities often go on to become presidents. For Colombia, Bogotá’s newest head administrator could spell a fresh era for the Latin American country.

Not everyone has a companion animal as helpful as Dick Whittington’s cat. Old English folklore of the 15th century has it that Whittington sold his cat to a country overrun by rats and made his fortune by using the starting capital thus raised.

Richard Whittington (1354-1423) was indeed a historical figure though, unsurprisingly, his cat is regarded as a fiction. Nonetheless, Whittington became Lord Mayor of London, a post from which all sorts of advancement and mischief may flow. Take, for instance, another former Lord Mayor, Boris Johnson, now foisting his right-wing populism on the United Kingdom and Europe.

Across the English Channel, the late Jacques Chirac used his many terms as mayor of Paris to make a successful presidential run. So too with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once Istanbul mayor, now Turkey’s despot.

It was with such gloomy examples in mind that I waited in Bogotá for the result of the Colombian capital’s mayoral elections. The country held local, mayoral and state elections nationwide on Sunday 27 October, the voting having been preceded by attacks on some candidates and assassinations of others.

The wave of visceral dissatisfaction and protest rage over bad or crooked governance that is almost engulfing South America – Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Argentina are all flashpoints at the moment – gave context to the Colombian polls for governors, mayors, deputies and councillors. Another facet was the transformation of Colombia from the “murder capital of the world” in the 1980s, the heyday of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, to a modernising and incrementally developing country. 

Escobar’s seat of power, Medellin, for instance, is now a dramatically renewed city that is a model of urban planning and is increasingly socially inclusive. Eight-seater cable cars have extended the excellent metro light-rail service to the tin-shanty suburbs that cling to the steep hillsides of the city. Imagine the cable car up Table Mountain serving residents rather than tourists, and you have a sense of the scale of the commitment by the city to its poorest citizens.

A new mayor in town

Back in Bogotá, the mayoral election saw fascinating ideological, environmental and gender issues at play. Three men – Miguel Uribe Turbay, Hollman Morris and Carlos Fernando Galán – faced off against Claudia López.

López is a member of Alianza Verde, the Green Alliance, and has been in politics for a quarter century, since her student days. Now 49, she is known not only in Bogotá but also nationally, having run as Sergio Fajardo’s vice-presidential candidate in last year’s presidential poll.

Her anti-corruption credentials are impeccable. Notably, she was the editor of La Refundación de la Patria (2010), a book proving the links between armed groups, drug trafficking and the Colombian political establishment.

Before the election, The Bogotá Post asked each candidate the same three questions, dealing with what they would like to achieve as mayor, what aspects of the city they most enjoyed sharing with visitors and what single word they would like to be described by. López’s answers are revealing.

The Bogotá Post: If you are elected, what would you most like to achieve during your time as mayor?

López: This cultural environment, this creative culture – the critical thinking – which channels culture in all its forms. We need to care for this human culture and regulate it so that we don’t hurt each other. What I understand as civic culture in the 21st century is the fifth part of the complete package – along with security, mobility (constructing the metro and improving the TransMilenio), free education, and work and health.

The Bogotá Post: What one word would you want people to use when they describe you?

López: In the street, people use the words “vieja verraca valiente” – bold and courageous woman. That’s how people who know me describe me. I hope they will keep calling me that when I am mayor and that I can live up to that description, using that braveness to give security, mobility, trust, education, employment and culture to Bogotá.

López won the election. Bogotá has a mayor from an environmental party who happens also to be gay. The Colombian political classes, already shook up by her 2010 book, are about to be shaken up even more.

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