Green is for Go in Colombia

The amazing rise of Antanas Mockus and his Green Party in Colombia belies the stereotype, common even among Latin America specialists, of a country irredeemably plagued by violence and appropriately known for its “faux democracy.” Mockus and the Greens prove that Colombian democracy can be real enough, though admittedly conflicted. The sudden surge of Mockus is not completely surprising. It is, rather, a new chapter in an old struggle between two powerful political currents in Colombia’s societal evolution, where controversial movements of popular mobilization and democratic optimism have repeatedly had to face presidential administrations, now embodied in the Álvaro Uribe administration, one that is no stranger to violence and intimidation. What is at stake is not just how Uribe will go down in history, but whether the harsh realities of the Uribe presidency will allow the White House to reverse itself and back the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (which it seems to want to do) that President Obama opposed while he was a member of the Senate.

Yet, this is something new. Mockus, a popular two-term former mayor of Bogotá, is a mathematician, philosopher, and former rector of the National University in Bogotá. The flamboyant and eccentric child of Lithuanian immigrants once mooned a student assembly to get their attention. As mayor, he donned tights and a cape as “Supercitizen,” and was married in a circus tent while riding an elephant. In war-torn Colombia, he, on the contrary, has pacifist tendencies.

Mockus teamed up with other former progressive mayors of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Eduardo Garzón, who collectively joined the Greens to run in its presidential primary, with an agreement to support the victor. The Green Party’s rise was truly spectacular. Originally hoping to secure 500,000 votes in its primary, the Greens themselves were astounded when 1,822,856 Colombians voted. In the 3-way race for the party’s presidential candidate, the Greens chose Mockus. Columnist Daniel Coronell wrote in the respected Semana magazine that a Green/Mockus government “would not look like anything we’ve seen before.” José Fernando Isaza, rector of Jorge Tadeo Lozano University asserted that, unlike other recent governments (namely, that of current President Álvaro Uribe) a Mockus government would not persecute political opponents.

Elected in 2002 by a citizenry angry over kidnappings by the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla army, and other security concerns, President Uribe slammed the door on almost twenty years of repeated attempts at peace negotiations that were invariably thwarted amidst the mass murder of leftist politicians and rightist hardliners, and those in between. Indeed, since the late 1940s, Colombia has endured recurrent cycles of reform and repression, in which attempts at political and economic change engendered violent backlashes, in the time-honored Colombian way of dealing with such pariah forces of the days. While the chances that Uribe’s aggressive approach would actually resolve Colombia’s 60-year-long political predicament have always been close to zero, it has nevertheless taken eight years for the current faith in hardliner strategy to fade.

After President Uribe was barred by an unexpectedly feisty Colombian Supreme Court from running for a third term, war hawk Juan Manuel Santos, his former Defense Minister, became his anointed heir. Santos is the stand-in for Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, consisting of a hard-line, no compromise nor negotiation approach toward the major guerrilla movements, the ELN and the FARC. The current policy amounts to placing the country on an eternal war footing. It cannot be gainsaid that this strategy is still very popular with a sizable percentage of Colombians, and until early April, Santos seemed to have a lock on victory; yet the various scandals and abuses of the Uribe years were rattling in the closet (especially the government and military connections to the paramilitary movement) and finally took their toll.

The presidential election now suddenly looks like a potential game changer, particularly after the Greens did surprisingly well in the March Congressional elections, winning 5 Senate seats. Soon thereafter, Mockus secured Sergio Fajardo, another popular former mayor (of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city), as his vice presidential running mate. Fajardo is also a mathematician and former academic. Their somewhat vague program emphasizing anti-corruption and civic responsibility, turned out to be a surprise winner. It is pro-growth, and enjoys ample business support, with Mockus insisting that his government would not negotiate with the guerrillas as long as they continue to hold kidnapped hostages. He is clearly an “anti-politician” candidate, and he certainly shot up as the “anti-Uribe” standard bearer. In response to questions about bombing neighboring countries (as Uribe did in 2008 when he attacked FARC camps in Ecuador), Mockus insisted that he would respect the Colombian Constitution and international treaties. His supporters even turned his disclosure of early stage Parkinson’s disease into a strength when they joked that the real shaking is taking place in the Uribe camp, and is driven by fear. By early April, Mockus was surging into second place in polls ranking the various presidential candidates. These polls also pushed aside Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín. By the last week of the month, polls showed Mockus pulling ahead, and indicated that he would likely defeat Santos in a second round. Mockus has even claimed that he could possibly win a majority in the first round of voting on May 30th.

Naturally, Mockus’ critics stress fears over security. This approach began at the top of the executive branch in early April, when a caterwauling President Uribe faulted Mayor Mockus (who was in office when Uribe was elected) for deploying feeble security measures during Uribe’s 2002 inauguration, during which the FARC attempted a primitive mortar attack. Weeks later, Uribe referred to “lame horses” not being up to the job of protecting Colombians, in a not too subtle allusion to Mockus’ Parkinson’s illness. This line was seconded by an Uribe devotee and would-be, if witless, presidential candidate, former Agricultural Minister, Andrés Felipe Arias, who quipped that the FARC “won’t be defeated with mimes and sunflowers.” Sunflowers, of course, are the Green Party symbol, and as Mayor, Mockus used mimes to shame traffic violators into responsible driving.

Mockus, who repeatedly insists that he would not negotiate with guerrillas until they release their kidnapped hostages, and pledges that he will preserve the “advances in security” achieved under Uribe’s administrations, points out that Uribe might recall that the latter had earlier praised his security work as Mayor, and even decorated him for it (of which there is plenty of inconvenient video to preserve the point).

Forces of the progressive left believe that they are ready for a resurgence, even by a win. They have demonstrated that they comprehend the role of the new media, as in last year’s Obama campaign. Mockus and Fajardo are very popular on Facebook and Twitter, and can count on much of the urban and youth vote; they are making 10,000 new “friends” a day, rocketing from 200 a couple of months ago to 450,000 as of April 29. The Mockus wave represents a new hope for Latin American left of center politics, and, closer to home, a significant rejection of the Uribe years, as well as promises to break with the policies of the recent past. Still, this may not be an easy victory. Mockus must win support in the countryside and on the Atlantic coast, where decades of paramilitary cleansing of the population, as well as continued threats to left-leaning voters and candidates, will make that trial difficult to tread.

As its core, the Green message stresses the ageless theme of the redemption of morality in politics. This resonates with the most famous presidential campaign in Colombian history, that of the martyred Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who championed social and “distributive” justice, and ran in 1946 for the “moral and democratic restoration of the republic.” Though he split the Liberal vote and lost the election, historians widely agree that Gaitán, if he had been spared, would have been elected president in 1950. Gaitán’s assassination in 1948 is generally viewed as one of the key detonators of the “Violencia” period that lasted until the mid 1960s, and in some ways, continues until today. Therefore, apprehensive Colombians are well aware that plucky candidates like Mockus have a tendency to get killed before they can be elected.

The victory of a united left and center under Mockus–now a strong possibility–is refreshing, exciting, and potentially terrifying, given the likelihood of violent reaction, as all of Colombia’s woeful traditional problems and dangers still remain.

W. JOHN GREEN, one of this country’s most distinguished specialists on Colombia, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which originally published this article. He is the author of Gaitanismo, Left, Liberalism and Popular Mobilization in Colombia (Gainesville: University of Florida Press. 2003)