BOGOTÁ September 2001

All the City's a Stage

An eccentric mayor with a flair for the dramatic is bringing hope to a notoriously troubled capital
More

One Friday night last March in Bogotá, I walked past a Fernando Botero statue of a gargantuan woman on horseback at the entrance to the Parque Renacimiento—a tiny island of calm, containing a number of reflecting pools, in a grimy working-class district in the southern part of the city. I flashed an official card certifying me as a male with good intentions at a National Policewoman stationed at the gate, and crossed into one of the city zones that had been declared temporarily all-female.

It was March 9, dubbed La Noche de las Mujeres—an occasion on which a city famous for its machismo was turned over to its female inhabitants. Men without a city-issued pass like the one I carried—essentially a signed pact indicating the holder's willingness to learn something from the experience—were asked to stay at home. If they ventured out nonetheless, they were blocked from many of the city's plazas and thoroughfares. A female lieutenant colonel in the National Police was made commander of the city for the night, assisted by a mostly female force of police officers and citizen monitors.

According to pollsters, nearly a quarter of the city's 3.3 million women were out that night—an enormous showing that cut across class lines. In the southern barrios grandmothers and their granddaughters trooped into the Parque Renacimiento to hear a storyteller. In the city's affluent north sophisticated young women, for whom going out with their girlfriends was hardly a revolutionary act, listened to a female band at a tidy little park and coyly threw handfuls of flour at the few males seated self-consciously at an adjacent outdoor café.

La Noche de las Mujeres was the creation of Bogotá's mayor, Antanas Mockus, who has a penchant for freewheeling social experiments to combat the violence and alienation that have corroded Bogotá's social fabric. La Noche was prompted, he told me, by Bogotá's unique combination of social conditions. Men are not only far more likely than women to commit violence but also forty times as likely to be its victims. At the same time, women have improved their status in Colombia—which has one of the highest levels of political participation by women in all of Latin America—through a wholly nonviolent struggle. La Noche would provide an opportunity to see what might be learned from women's forms of social organization and would also serve as an experiment in protecting men from themselves. As it turned out, violence on La Noche was 40 percent lower than on ordinary Friday nights.

The day before La Noche, I visited Mockus in his office at city hall. Seated under a huge portrait of Simón Bolívar signing Colombia's declaration of independence from Spain, he hunched over a scrap of paper and sketched three boxes. The first he labeled "legal power"—something one would expect of a big-city mayor. What marked him as an unusual politician was the other two boxes: "moral power" and "cultural power," which he defines as power derived from one's own standards and power derived from the shared values of the citizenry.

"At first," Mockus told me, "I had the illusion that if I wrote new laws, those words would become reality. But it soon became clear that if you want to change society's habits, law is only one of the means. Most people prefer internal mechanisms for determining for themselves what is right and what is wrong, but perceive other people as needing to be regulated by laws. The question I asked was how to reduce the difference between the laws and cultural and moral means of self-regulation." A governing style that could fairly be summed up as theater-as-politics was the result.

Indeed, Bogotá has been transformed in the past six years by Mockus's combination of street-level politics—he has expanded the city's public parks, launched a modern bus system, and built schools in the city's poorest districts—and symbolic acts. In part because of his imposition of a 1:00 A.M. closing for bars (proclaimed Carrot Hour, from the Colombian slang for someone who is uncool) and his unconventional but effective gun-exchange program (those who turned in weapons received small gifts of appreciation, such as flowers or food, and a certificate commending their act), Bogotá's murder rate has plummeted. Some 4,200 murders were committed in the city in 1993; the figure for last year is 2,200.

Bicyclists pedal along newly designated bike lanes; strangers relate to one another with small acts of civility. In 1996 the city government distributed tens of thousands of plastic cards depicting thumbs. When someone engaged in uncivil behavior, the thumb was to be pointed down; for a genial act it was to be pointed up. The thumb cards have disappeared for the most part, but the habit took hold, and it is not unusual for the real thing to flash upward after the observation of an unexpected act of courtesy or kindness.

The humble sidewalk is an early example of Mockus's attentiveness to the interplay between municipal governance and civic responsibility and pride. Until the mid-1990s visitors to Bogotá would have noticed the lack of sidewalks. Cars would park right up against storefronts, and walking down the street involved a perilous zigzag through an obstacle course of bumpers and swinging car doors. Five years ago Mockus initiated a sidewalk-construction program. Now people stroll down the sidewalks, and at intersections they cross in an orderly fashion on the neatly painted white stripes known as zebras. Taxi drivers who attended new city-sponsored classes in driver etiquette (the classes taught, among other things, the principle of yielding to pedestrians) were awarded windshield stickers proclaiming them "gentlemen of the zebras."

Such measures carry both practical and symbolic punch. "The lack of a sense of citizenship in Bogotá was reflected in our lack of sidewalks," Salomón Kalmanovitz, an economist and a director of Colombia's National Bank, told me. "There is a dignity that comes from not walking on the dirt or being forced to walk on the street. Building those sidewalks was an acknowledgment that eighty-five percent of the people in Bogotá do not own cars. You are telling drivers that they are no better than the pedestrians, which people from the car-owning class are not accustomed to hearing."

Similarly, in 1996, rather than hire more traffic cops, Mockus hired dozens of mimes, who stood at major intersections and, with slyly comic, extravagant gestures, admonished drivers who ran red lights, veered in front of pedestrians, or committed other violations. The city experienced an immediate decline in traffic accidents—proof of his theory that power can be wielded with a sense of humor. In the face of Bogotáns' deep distrust of traditional authority, Mockus told me, "sometimes you need a little cognitive dissonance."

Mockus, who is forty-nine and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, spent eighteen years as a professor of mathematics and philosophy and then rector at Colombia's National University—a background that helps to account for his pedagogical approach to governing. "Antanas sees the city as a huge classroom," Alicia Eugenia Silva, his deputy mayor, says. Mockus was elected mayor in 1995. He resigned two years later and ran, unsuccessfully, for Vice President; he regained his office in a resounding victory last October.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

The Visionary Party
The party's official Web site (in Spanish). Includes an outline of the party platform, news, events listings, brief biographies of party members, and more.

In a country long dominated by the Liberal and Conservative Parties, Mockus is an independent, a founding member of the Visionario Party. Although his social policies tend toward the left, a legacy of his years in Bogotá's radical university culture, his economic policies are largely neo-conservative: for example, during his first term he engineered a number of privatizations and municipal cutbacks.

In spite of his successes, Mockus faces formidable challenges. Twenty percent of the city's residents are unemployed, and more than half live in poverty or near poverty. Last year alone some 150,000 people flocked to Bogotá to escape the civil war in the countryside; slums sprawl ever upward into the hills around the city. At the same time, FOR RENT and FOR SALE signs abound in the better neighborhoods, as upper- and middle-class residents, tired of paying the "war taxes" extorted from business owners by the guerrillas, leave the country, often for the United States.

Not surprisingly, Mockus has his critics. One of the most vocal is María Emma Mejía, a member of the Liberal Party who served as Foreign Minister under President Ernesto Samper and who ran against Mockus last October. "Mockus's whole approach is to shock people out of their reality," Mejía says. "But reality in Colombia now is enough to shock people out of their reality. We have real problems in Bogotá, and his symbols do nothing to address them."

Mockus, of course, is quick to counter this assessment. "We live in a world of symbols," he says. He showed me his wedding ring, explaining that it is a sort of talisman for his administration. The ring is a gold Möbius strip—a continuous one-sided band in the shape of a twisting circle. The Möbius strip—large-scale models of which served as backdrops during many of his campaign appearances—is a symbol, Mockus says, of the fact that "we share conflicts in the country, but we are all deeply linked." He continued, "Whenever I get involved in strong conflicts, I look at my finger and try to remember that in the end we are all on the same side."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Mark Schapiro is a senior correspondent with the Center for Investigative Reporting and a long-time investigative journalist.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In