Bogota is reaching a crucial juncture. This city, which just a few years ago was seen as a progressive, innovative example for other developing world cities, is today choked by traffic jams and pollution, its mayor in prison on corruption charges and the city’s image declining among its own residents and outsiders.
Bogota voters can use this month’s mayoral election to choose between two futures: One in which the gap in quality of life between the rich minority and poor majority will continue widening; in which traffic jams, pollution and crime will worsen; in which individual interests will take priority over the collective and quality of life for the majority will decline. And a second future in which the interests of the majority receive priority and Bogotanos confront problems with a common civic spirit.
Numerous candidates are campaigning to become Bogota’s next mayor, but only three have a real shot: Ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, ex-Congresswoman Gina Parody and one-time M-19 guerrilla and leftist senator Gustavo Petro. Of the minor candidates, Polo Democratico candidate Aurelio Suarez seems like a good guy, but has little chance because of the scandals embroiling his party. Liberal Party candidate David Luna and Cambio Radical Party candidate Carlos Galán are both fresh, young faces with limited experience (but in Galan’s case a hallowed surname) who may have great futures, but don’t appear to have captured the confidence of many Bogotanos now.
The candidates’ party affiliations don’t provide much guidance on their likely policies: Peñalosa is the Green Party candidate, but his platform doesn’t include much tree hugging, and he’s backed by conservative ex-President Alvaro Uribe. Parody has campaigned on a law-and-order platform and is being advised by Rudolph Giuliani, the conservative ex-Mayor of New York, and yet she’s allied with one-time Green Party presidential candidate Antanas Mockus. The only one of the three leading candidates with a seemingly consistent ideological history is Petro – but that history troubles many. Petro was a leader of the M-19 guerrillas, who in 1985 attacked the Justice Palace, leading to the death of 100 people and leaving the building in flames. (Petro claims he had no involvement or forknowledge of the attack.) Later, Petro joined the Polo Democratico political party which produced the city’s last two mayors, but has fallen into disrepute because of the current corruption scandal.
The campaign has focused primarily on the issues of crime, transit and corruption – all problems which impact Bogotanos’ lives and the city’s spirit. They also happen to be problems which are worsened by a society’s level of economic inequality and the divide between the rich and poor. Many studies have shown that when the social gap between rich and poor widens, people feel less invested in their community and feel treated less fairly. So the poor see no reason not to steal what they believe society will never give them, politicians don’t hesitate to take bribes and the rich isolate themselves and feel no obligation to share their privileges with the rest.
By this measure, Bogota, and Colombia in general, with one of the most unequal wealth distributions on the globe, is doing terribly and is a strong candidate for social breakdown. That could be one of the reasons for Colombia’s unjustiably high homicide rate.
In the face of this problem, Bogota’s last two mayors, from the leftist Polo Democratico party, have done well: they created soup kitchens and built high schools and libraries in poor neighborhoods. But the corruption scandal, crime and traffic problems have sapped Bogotanos’ confidence in the Polo Democratico, giving Suarez, its mayoral candidate, no chance.
Bogota’s economy is growing at a healthy clip. While many cities must envy this, growth also excacerbates problems such as pollution and traffic congestion and can widen the gap between the uneducated poor, who are stuck as construction workers and street vendors, and the wealthy, who live like residents of wealthy nations, take shopping sprees in Miami and party at TGIF and the Hard Rock Cafe. The upper classes’ huge SUVs hog road space, condemning the poor to interminable commutes on their way from the slums to minimum wage jobs in wealthy neighborhoods.
The national government should try to reduce this gap by taxing and redistributing wealth. But mayors can also help bridge it by raising the living standards of the poor.
On this point, Peñalosa, generally considered a conservative, has been a leader. The TransMilenio express bus system which he started carries passengers past those traffic jams, prioritizing public transit over private vehicles. The system is experiencing growing pains, including overcrowding. But that’s also a measure of its success. Peñalosa also reclaimed public spaces, like San Victorino Plaza, and created new parks – areas for rich and poor to enjoy on an equal basis.
To their credit, Bogota’s last two mayors have continued these policies. But some of the current candidates, including Liberal Luna, ex-Mayor Jaime Castro and the Polo Democratico’s Suarez, promise to build their way out of the traffic mess with urban freeways and a subway system. That idea is unrealistic and mostly a gift to the corporations which would land those juicy contracts – and would provide only a short-term solution to the city’s traffic jams, anyway. As City Council candidate Carlos Vicente De Roux, from Petro’s Progresista Party, told El Espectador newspaper, expanding road systems hasn’t worked in other cities, where the flood of new automobiles quickly packs the new space, leaving the city poorer and noisier, more polluted and stressed out. Instead, De Roux argues for a congestion charge to discourage private car use in congested areas. That’s the only practical solution to traffic jams, and Petro has taken the most courageous stand in favor of what would be an unpopular measure.
Of course, the candidates’ resumés also matter. Of the three with a shot at victory, Parody has been a popular senator, but lacks executive experience. Petro was a principled senator who took independent positions and appears uncorrupt – but his only executive experience may be from back in his guerrilla leader days. Peñalosa, on the other hand, has a mayoral term under his belt, which he ended with a record-high popularity rate.
Four years ago, Bogota voters allowed themselves to be suckered by a big smile and bigger promises – which have mostly evaporated in a cloud of scandal. This time, hopefully, voters will do better and put the city on track to a positive future.