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The Bogotá Experiment
Jamais Cascio, 20 Mar 04

What happens when you elect a mathematics and philosophy professor mayor? You get mimes on the street. And, it turns out, that's a good thing.

The Harvard University Gazette recently ran a lengthy article about Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, after his visit to the campus. If you're not familiar with Mockus, you should definitely read the piece; as mayor, he actively sought out unconventional approaches to solving Bogotá's enormous social problems, and, to a surprising degree, he actually succeeded. (The Atlantic Monthly had a good article about him in late 2001, which is also worth checking out.)

During his two terms as mayor (from 1995 to 1997, when he dropped out to run for Vice President, and then from 2000 to 2004), Mockus's initiatives focused both on the standard of living and sanctity of life. He used creativity, art, and humor as his tools for getting his messages out. He's infamous for hiring mimes to work street corners, gently mocking and parodying those who break traffic laws. But not all of his approaches were satirical:

"In a society where human life has lost value," he said, "there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens." Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor's inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents.

He also sought ways to improve Bogotá's environment, including a drive to reduce water consumption during a shortage (water use is now 40% less than before the shortage) and the encouragement of car-free days in the city to encourage the use of public transit and bicycles. He also championed efforts to bring drinking water and sewage services into every home in Bogotá; sewer hookups went from 70.8% in 1993 to 94.9% in 2003, and water provision went from 78.7% to 100% in the same period.

Mimes on streetcorners and occasional men-only curfews may not work in every city, but Mockus's success in Bogotá is a good example of the value of trying innovative approaches to solving seemingly intractible problems. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. It's a good thing, then, to try something new, even if it looks a little crazy.

(Thanks, gmoke!)

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A brave man! I hope he goes on, holding destiny in his hands!

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 22 Mar 04

Wouldn't it be weird if the Judicially Selected President of the United States were as HONEST and inspired as Antanas Mockus? Oh but wait, George was selected by the Nine Injustices of the Supreme Court. Wow, this really could be Heaven on Earth. Oh well, too bad we have Corporate Criminals posing as our leaders. Someday in our far future (that is IF we have a future) we may very well give ourselves that gift.

Posted by: Blaise Gauba on 25 Mar 04

After visiting Bogota twice, I am willing to trade Mockus for Bush AT ONCE! We need this great SOUTH American in a time when we have lost our way.

Posted by: William Sapp on 25 Mar 04

Reading about Antonus Mockus made me tingle--this happens when I am profoundly taken by something that is GOOD! How ingenious to be so creative using art, humor to get a message across to lead and inspire people to work together to improve AND save lives; to protect the environment; to guard precious resourses like water, etc. Yes, we need more leaders like that. John Kerry take note!

Posted by: Margaret Mendoza on 27 Mar 04

I, too, am touched and inspired by this South American leader. How refreshing and brave of him to change careers and take on a whole huge new classroom. Bravo! And may John Kerry be just as imaginative and brave.

Posted by: libby carr on 29 Mar 04

I hate to sour the mood, especially since Mockus has indeed done incredibly positive, creative, brilliant things -- worthy of inspiration. But as someone who lived in Bogota for the better part of the last two years, I have to complicate the picture a bit here. What makes him a truly fascinating (in an academic sense) figure, for me, is the marriage between all the progressive things described in these articles and and the disturbing, even proto-fascist stuff the articles leave out. Specifically, he bulldozed entire neighborhoods to "beautify" Bogota, replacing them with "eco-friendly" parks. The biggest of these parks built on the rubble of people's homes he named, kind of chillingly, "Third Millenium." He also promoted aggressive, daily roundups of street vendors (in a country with well over 2 million internal refugees, where the informal sector is the only means of survival for a very substantial portion of the urban population). The vendors' goods were seized and they were tossed in wood-lined paddy-wagons. Sometimes I would see 15 or 20 people crammed into one that had stopped for the cops to go arrest or tackle or beat another vendor and toss him in. It had a sort of midieval feel.

None of this erases the value of many of his creative, progressive initiatives -- but it complicates the articles' rosy picture. In my experience, Bogotanos' perceptions of Mockus differed pretty sharply along class lines.

Phillip Cryan

Posted by: Phillip Cryan on 30 Mar 04


Just a quick note to let you know that your article “The Bogotá Experiment” has been featured in Utne Web Watch. A brief description and link to your article went out in the newsletter on March 25.

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Congratulations and thank you!

Best regards,

Jacob Wheeler
Utne Online Intern

Posted by: Jacob Wheeler on 31 Mar 04

Phillip -- thank you very much for the perspective from someone who's actually there. Your comment is a useful balance to the generally-positive (or, at worst, gently derisive) tone of English-language reports about Mockus. It sounds like the situation there is complex in a way that doesn't break down into easy categories of "left/right" or "progressive/conservative." How did Mockus respond to criticisms?

Jacob -- thank you for the Utne link!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Mar 04

Finaly a man living up to his namesake through his virtuous gift of humour and parady. Truth tis' stranger than fiction, thus in alignment with the divine will one is able to break free from illusion. Power to you my brother!

Posted by: fleche on 31 Mar 04



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