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June 2, 2010

Stephen Ferry: Election In Colombia

Fans of the Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party), Antanas Mockus, during an electoral campaign rally in Giron, Santander  departament, Colombia, on May 6, 2010.
Fans of the Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party), Antanas Mockus, during an electoral campaign rally in Giron, Santander  departament, Colombia, on May 6, 2010.
Antanas Mockus, Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde  (Green Party).
Antanas Mockus, Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party).
Bucaramanga/Santander, Colombia: May 6,2010. Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party), Antanas Mockus, mingles with fans during a campaign tour in Bucaramanga.  Mockus, former Bogota's Mayor, was leading the polls for the first round of the May 30 presidential elections.
Bucaramanga/Santander, Colombia: May 6,2010. Colombian presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party), Antanas Mockus, mingles with fans during a campaign tour in Bucaramanga.  Mockus, former Bogota's Mayor, was leading the polls for the first round of the May 30 presidential elections.
Bogota, Colombia May 4, 2010. Founders of the Green Party (l. to r.), Sergio Fajardo and Antanas Mockus, during a 'Women with Mockus' campaign rally.
Bogota, Colombia May 4, 2010. Founders of the Green Party (l. to r.), Sergio Fajardo and Antanas Mockus, during a 'Women with Mockus' campaign rally.

As part of an occasional series, Columbia Ongoing, Stephen Ferry reports on the Colombian Presidential Election:

Antanas Mockus: The Sunflower vs. the Status Quo

As candidate for president of Colombia, Antanas Mockus has made it to the second round of the election cycle. His supporters hid their disappointment that the eccentric former mathematics professor did not do better than 21% of the vote in the May 30 primaries, pointing to the fact that Mockus’s Green Party is only a year old and that the front-runner, Juan Manuel Santos, represents one of the richest families in the land and enjoys the support of the country’s enormous armed forces.

Despite the fact that Santos, who won 46% of the recent vote, will almost certainly win the June 20th run-off, Mockus’s relative success represents the kind of surprise that befits the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Of Lithuanian descent, the former mathematics professor and philosopher first gained national fame when, as rector of the National University, he shined a moon at an auditorium of heckling students. Later, as mayor of Bogota, Mockus gained international recognition for his highly unorthodox, yet effective, methods of governing the capital, at the time one of the most violent and corrupt cities in Latin America.

Mockus cultivated civic consciousness using an eccentric symbolic pedagogy, which included draping the city with enormous banners of carrots; Mockus once held a press conference on the city’s mortality rate at the morgue, surrounded by cadavers; he cut traffic fatalities in half by stenciling stars on the streets everywhere a pedestrian had been run over. Over his two terms as Mayor, the homicide rate in Bogota fell by 56%, making the capital an oasis of security in a violent land, and his administration was lauded for its honesty.

With the sunflower as his campaign symbol (in reference to his looks), and a pencil around his neck, Mockus’s image as a quirky, honest professor has proved refreshing for many war-weary Colombians. His combined ticket with the curly-haired former mayor of Medallion, Sergio Fajardo (himself a Ph.D. in mathematics) inspired “flash mob” rallies organized by youthful fans on Facebook.

So what happened to the lead Mockus enjoyed in the polls only two weeks ago?

A series of totally incomprehensible performances in recent debates, and his nerdy love of arcane statistics, certainly did not help his cause. Whether his rendition of “Happy Birthday” in Lithuanian on a popular talk show helped or hurt him is anyone’s guess. Analysts here argue that the outspoken animosity of Hugo Chavez towards Juan Manuel Santos probably ended up helping the former Defense Minister, by stirring up nationalist resentment at Venezuelan meddling in Colombia’s affairs. For Chàvez, who has accused Santos of sending squads of paramilitaries to Venezuela to assassinate him, Santos is the true meddler.

Fundamentally, Colombia is a country that is still at war, where toughness against FARC guerrillas may be valued more than honesty and creative governance. Hardline president Alvaro Uribe, and his draconian policies of “Democratic Security,” remain popular among the majority of Colombians, despite scandals linking him to vicious right-wing militias. Uribe favors Santos, which seems enough to guarantee him victory, despite a grotesque scandal which broke during Santos’s term as Defense Minister, during which the Colombian military was exposed for the systematic practice of murdering young Colombian men, dressing them as guerrillas, and claiming them as battlefield victories. Think General Westmoreland in the Vietnam War, but using your own civilians to pad the body count.

For many worried Mockus supporters, a Santos victory means only one thing: More violence.

–Stephen Ferry

PHOTOGRAPHS by STEPHEN FERRY / REDUX PICTURES

captions– Top: GIRON/SANTANDER, COLOMBIA: May 6, 2010.  Lucho Garzon (L), and Antanas Mockus (R) presidential candidate of the Partido Verde (Green Party), gesture during an electoral campaign rally. Colombia held the first round of its presidential elections on May 30th.

Bottom: Antanas Mockus at campaign rally at El Theatron club in Bogota, May 8, 2010.

About the Photographer

Stephen Ferry

Stephen Ferry has traveled to dozens of countries, concentrating on issues of human rights, social and political unrest, and environmental destruction. He has documented the civil war in Colombia, while carrying out assignments for such publications as GEO, Colors, Wired, TIME, Newsweek, US News, The New York Times, and National Geographic. Stephen is the recipient of numerous awards, including two World Press Awards and several first place awards in the NPPA Picture of the Year contest. Stephen’s work on the Quechua silver miners of Potosi, Bolivia was published as a book in 1999, with the title “I Am Rich Potosi: The Mountain that Eats men”. His multimedia project, VIOLENTOLOGY: A MANUAL OF THE COLOMBIAN CONFLICT, was published in 2012. Stephen lives in Bogotá, Columbia. See more of Stephen's work for BagNews here.

  • stan maron

    Great journalism and I’ll try to keep up with what’s happening. I didn’t know Mockus from focus but I’m always glad to see the Greens in the struggle.
    stan

  • Sally Forth

    great photos and great coverage! fingers crossed.

    • Max

      I think Stephen’s last photo of a slumped-shouldered, obsequious Mockus takes on a new meaning in light of the Green Party candidate’s spiraling electoral crash. The image no longer represents a judicious academic who will govern with honesty rather than the iron fist; instead, its a spineless, lost in the headlights politician who can’t live up to the momentum of his supporters — the Green Wave. As the elections approached, Mockus seemed to become increasingly tactless and erratic, alienating voters left and right. He pronounced that he would raise taxes, that doctors deserved a salary of about $500 USD per month, and closed the door on Colombia’s left-wing constituents by insinuating their party was infiltrated by the FARC. It’s not that these policies or statements are necessarily off base, they just make for unsavory soundbites.

      On Sunday night, after a devastating outcome in the first round of elections, Mockus didn’t make a confident speech outlining the path for victory in the second round; he relied on his increasingly fruitless eccentric performances and sung to the crowd. No one was impressed.

      It’s going to require a better candidate to unseat the Colombian right, entrenched by clientelistic handouts, armed backing, public support for their success against the FARC, and a Colombian electorate that doesn’t seem to mind governments that wire tap and carry out clandestine smear campaigns against the Supreme Court, journalists, and political opposition, oversee an army that murders innocent civilians and dresses them up as guerrillas casualties, and has a good portion of its Congress members under investigation for collaborating with paramilitary death squads.

    • Karl Guevara

      It’s sad to say, but Max’s analysis is straight to the point. Mockus did not know how to take things, and many Colombians don’t mind a corrupt government. Here at the coast, votes are sold to Santos for 30-60.000 pesos, that’s 15-30 dollars.

      That said, a very good article and great photos. Stephen Ferry is a master.

  • Jon Anderson

    Excellent article Stephen. Concise and to the point, it really explains things in a nutshell. Too bad Mockus wont win, but he is sure to remain a valuable political presence. What was the significance of the carrot banners?

    • http://www.stephenferry.com Stephen Ferry

      Jon, thank you for your comments.

      Carrot in Spanish, as you know, is “zanahoria.” In Colombian slang, a zanahoria is someone who doesn’t drink or party to excess, a play on the word “sano,” meaning healthy.

      Under Mockus as mayor, bars and clubs in Bogotá had to close at 1 am, which Mockus named the “hora zanahoria,” or carrot hour. To gain publid acceptance of the policy he draped the city with huge carrot banners. He also made good use of statistics which showed the efficacy of the measure on the city’s homicide rate.

      Cheers, Stephen

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