The first Afro-Colombian mayor of Cartagena is too ill to govern and his potential replacements are not similarly popular figures, said a local NGO on Sunday.
Campo Elias Teran became mayor of the popular tourist city of Cartagena on January 1, 2012 riding in on a wave of popular support having made his name on a radio show where he helped people out with their problems. In August he became suddenly ill and has been unable to work since.
“After many years of his radio show people thought he should run for mayor and do something for the people,” Alex Rocha, Director of the Alex Rocha Youth Center, told Colombia Reports. “Since he was already acting as a mediator between the government and the people.”
Alex Rocha was born in a poor part of Cartagena — one of the slums many tourists only see as they fly in — and now runs a youth center teaching English and computer skills to kids from his own neighborhood. Rocha funds it from his own work as a tour guide as well as the occasional donation from tourists.
“But most of the benefits of tourism and industry go to 20% of the population of Cartagena,” he said. “The money doesn’t get distributed.”
In a city where 60% of the inhabitants have Afro-Colombian roots and 600,000 of the one million inhabitants are struggling in poverty, the election of an Afro-Colombian mayor from outside the political establishment seemed to signal a change from politics as usual.
But Teran’s illness in August turned out to be cancer. Unfortunately, by that time he was also under investigation for alleged irregularities in contracts regarding the city’s trash collection.
“People are disappointed at what has happened to Teran,” said Rocha, “and they don’t trust his stand-in [a politician from Cartagena’s traditional ruling class].”
“The politicians go to the poorer areas at election time and buy votes — they give out free bottles of rum or bags of cement and promise to fix the roads,” said the NGO director. “But it never happens.”
The street where Rocha lives has been unpaved since he was born.
“If you go to the mayor’s office they report it as being paved,” he said.
Rocha’s real passion, however, is not politics but education. “What we really need is better environments in the schools so the kids stay there. They have family problems and get into trouble with drugs…The politicians should come here and see the problems.”
Teran was known for caring about what happened in the poor parts of town and perhaps in time he may have done something for the poor of Cartagena. But now his illness is likely to see him replaced in a fresh election. Rocha says that the candidates whose names have been put forward are not known in the same way as Teran.
Daniel Florez Munoz, a lecturer in constitutional law at the Unicolombo university in Cartagena and native of the city, shed a little more light on the candidates.
“All the candidates are linked to the families and groups [in Cartagena] who have always concentrated wealth using state infrastructure for private benefit,” Florez told Colombia Reports.
Cartagena, a carefree paradise to visitors, is largely controlled by a few families with big business interests and known links to violent paramilitary groups, explained the University lecturer. The economic barriers to entry for leaders from outside the political establishment are high.
Teran leveraged his position as a journalist and joined a relatively new political party, but he also, says Florez, took money from the Garcia family. The family is known as one of the city’s “political houses” and one family member is currently behind bars for paramilitarism.
Even so, many among the city’s poor felt for a while that Teran looked like a different kind of politician. If his poor health ends his term as everyone expects, it may be a long time before they see another chance for change.