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A Mercurial Mayor Fights City Hall...And May Commit Political Sacrilege (Int'l Edition)


International -- Spotlight

A MERCURIAL MAYOR FIGHTS CITY HALL...AND MAY COMMIT POLITICAL SACRILEGE (int'l edition)

Dropping his drawers and showing his buttocks to a student assembly may seem like a curious gambit, but it launched Antanas Mockus out of the ivory tower and into an astonishing political debut. After Mockus' 1993 caper, moralists of Colombia's conservative Catholic society drummed him out of the rectory of the National University. But in losing a rector, they got a mayor. Bogota elected the mercurial mathematics and philosophy professor by a wide margin on Sept. 30, 1994.

"I was getting tired after 12 years in the university," says Mockus, 43, in looking back on the incident. "Without that, no, I might not be sitting where I am today."

Where he sits is in Colombia's second-most-powerful elected post. The mayoralty of Bogota has been a launching pad for many a presidential hopeful. But having captured Bogota, there's considerable question what Mockus can do with it. The city, with a population of 6.5 million, is fast becoming a choking Latin megalopolis like So Paulo. It faces daunting problems such as the pirating of water and electricity by millions of shantytown residents. And given his eccentric style and unconventional route to office, Mockus has political worries of his own.

Mockus campaigned as part of a wave of "antipoliticians" who broke the grip of the Liberal and Conservative Parties in most of Colombia's major mayoralties last year. A former Marxist, he now refuses to peg himself anywhere on the political spectrum, which played well in a land where machine pols have earned disdain. Bogota salsa clubs donated their gate fees to his campaign, and taxi drivers buttonholed their fares to sing his praises. He often didn't show up for debates, saying: "There's too much publicity about the campaign already." When he did confront his Liberal contestant, Enrique Pealosa, they joked around, promised each other jobs, or, when they felt the need to prove they were opponents, threw glasses of water in each others' faces.

But having reached office with no party and little organization, Mockus has struggled for political backing since he took office on Jan. 1. The city council effectively hamstrung him by refusing to approve his budget. He retaliated on June 1 by invoking a technicality allowing him to rule by decree if the budget was stalled. Communist council member Aida Abella said he "pulled a Fujimori," comparing him to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who also won office as an independent, then seized dictatorial powers in 1992.

BAD BEHAVIOR. So far, Mockus' "reforms" have raised some skepticism. One of the city's worst plagues is its nightmarish traffic. With typically disarming honesty, Mockus grants that "there's not really a whole lot I can do about it," but what he has done is install some 400 mimes at key street corners. They mock poor driving behavior and applaud pedestrians who refrain from jaywalking.

Critics scoff. "Bogota is the most crime-ridden city in the world because of poverty and lack of opportunity," says leftist councilman Jorge Child. "How are mimes going to deal with that?"

Mockus' $6 billion budget for what he calls "city building" may be torpedoed by an impending economic downturn, warn several Colombian economists. The mayor is planning for just such a contingency by doing what most of his predecessors have considered anathema: bringing in the private sector.

Mockus says he will not privatize such services as electricity and water outright but could allow companies to invest. "The private sector would be invited to participate for a short period of time, just long enough for their capital to revitalize city services," he argues.

To raise funds for other projects, he's pressing the council to pass two measures that could undermine his popularity: a 15% gasoline tax and approving foreign investment. "The privatization of Bogota's telephone company is ever more likely," he says. That's the most likely spot for foreign investment as well. But first, Mockus must descend from his ethereal plane. During a campaign debate, he hazarded a guess at the value of the phone company: $1.2 million. Colleagues peg it at more like $3 billion. Comments councilman Carlos Ossa: "The professor has got to be more practical."EDITED BY HARRY MAURER By Ken Dermota in Bogota


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