Eccentric Candidate Makes Waves In Colombia
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Colombia is Washington's closest ally in South America, and it's holding a presidential election this Sunday. If the opinion polls are right, the U.S. may soon be dealing with a Colombian leader who is unusual, to put it mildly. He is the son of Lithuanian immigrants, a mathematician and intellectual who became famous for mooning an auditorium full of raucous university students.
NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Bogota.
JUAN FORERO: Antanas Mockus still gets asked about it, how he bared his backside. Sitting in the backseat of a car, speeding to his latest campaign event, he recalled how he was a university rector in 1993, and the students just wouldn't let him speak.
Mr. ANTANAS MOCKUS (Presidential Candidate, Colombia): When they did not, a very strong emotion, very complex emotion, generated the drive.
FORERO: So, Mockus explained, he dropped his pants. But Mockus, also a philosopher, found meaning in what he did.
Mr. MOCKUS: When I was mooning the students, I felt two extreme feelings.
FORERO: One was that he was under the students' spell. The other is that he strongly rejected their rowdy behavior. It worked. The auditorium immediately grew silent.
Mockus then lost his job, but he became a phenomenon. That led to two colorful terms as mayor of Bogota. He occasionally wore a Spandex suit and became Super Citizen. That was to badger residents of this famously chaotic capital to respect private property and each other.
Mockus helped turn Bogota around, reducing homicides by half, attacking corruption, improving horrendous traffic.
At campaign rallies, Mockus can be a showman. He'll open up by jumping up and down on stage, revving up the crowd like a rock star. He campaigns with two former Bogota mayors and his running mate, Sergio Fajardo, once mayor of Medellin.
The idea is to project technocratic competence and to separate himself from Colombia's current president, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe is popular here for cornering Marxist rebels, a feat carried out with billions in U.S. aid. But Uribe's administration has also been marked by scandal.
Carlos Arias(ph), a businessman, attended a recent Mockus rally and liked what he saw.
Mr. CARLOS ARIAS (Businessman): (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: Arias says Mockus brings new ideas, renovation, change. Weeks ago, polls show that Uribe's presumptive heir former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, would win big, and then Mockus skyrocketed, thanks in part to a youth movement spreading the word on Facebook. Now, the outcome is anybody's guess, that despite the fact that Mockus is a little bit strange, as he himself put it.
He wears an Amish-style beard, quotes Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Mockus is also hard to pin down ideologically. He recalled that as mayor, he privatized utilities, trimmed bureaucracy, strengthened the police. He also raised taxes and increased social spending.
Mr. MOCKUS: It's like taking the best idea of the Republicans and the best ideas of the Democrats and making a sort of adapted mixture.
(Soundbite of cheer)
FORERO: A theater full of women give Mockus a big welcome on a recent night. He then sat on stage next to a giant pencil to stress how he'll focus on improving education. Mockus then led them in a chant: United, we're stronger.
(Soundbite of cheer)
FORERO: But Mockus directed them to keep it quiet. That way, he said, they wouldn't scare away passersby and instead attract attention and support.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.
(Soundbite of music)
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