What country in the world could elect as its next president someone who dropped his pants and mooned a disrespectful audience of students, dressed like Superman to walk the streets of the capital, appeared in a TV commercial showering with his wife, and suffers from a life-threatening disease? There is only one, Colombia.
In 1991, I was one of a few foreigners working in Bogotá. Like most Americans, the only things I knew about the country until then were the writing of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the ignoble labors of Pablo Escobar.
On one of my first trips to Bogotá, as I arrived by taxi to my hotel, the building exploded. This was one of four bombings that night in the city that killed nineteen. I spent that night sleeping on the floor of a friend's house, but moved back the next morning into the unexploded portion of the hotel, because I reckoned the odds of Escobar blowing up the same place twice over two nights were low. I taped my windows with duct tape to control the shards of glass, and slept under my mattress. I stuffed the leftovers from my dinner in a spare pillowcase to help the rescue dogs find me if I was wrong. I was already thinking Colombian: cool headed, contrarian, and a little crazy.
The young leaders of the country were hand picked and installed in President Cesar Gaviria's legendary youthful cabinet called "the kinder." They, together with a talented group of mayors who were assuming leadership of the country's most dangerous cities, including Cali, Bogotá, and Medellin, became the basis of a strong leadership development system that served the nation well for almost two decades. They have gone on to transform Colombia and this week will compete to become the next president of Garcia Marquez' mythical Macondo.
Colombia enjoys vast natural and cultural wealth in emeralds, fertile soil, and perfect weather (330 days of sunshine a year). Musicians, dancers, and poets thrive against the backdrop of byzantine city neighborhoods and small villages dotted with exquisite fincas. Farmhouses are whitewashed, strewn with fresh red flowers, and travelers are welcomed with a hot bowl of ajiaco. But in those days, there were also dangerous roads, bombs going off in the Zona Rosa, daily electricity shortages, and the reprehensible poverty of the children living in the ancient, dank sewer systems of the capital. Some, the abandoned children of prostitutes, became helpless victims of ravenous rats and begged passersby with tiny, fingerless hands.
The President and His Labyrinth
President Alvaro Uribe has done a lot to fix this. The country is safer now than in recent memory; it is growing, people have pride in what they have accomplished. Uribe did this through a mix of policy initiatives, tough negotiations, and heavy-handed military and police tactics.
I traveled with Uribe once to his ranch in Medellin. Along the way, he stopped to have meetings with townspeople, and showed his famous patience. He would give a short speech and then answer the people's questions for up to ten hours. He answered each respectfully and in detail, but with little exuberance. It was the kind of fortitude depicted in The General and His Labyrinth, Garcia Marquez' cheerless biographical novel of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar united all of the Andes on horseback, sick and distraught, moving from town to town. Garcia Marquez suggested Bolivar was fueled by his despondency, as "Despair is the health of the damned."
The region's topography is all one needs to see to understand Colombia. All this was apparent as I flew over the Andes in the president's jet. These are less like cities, and more like city-states. Each is isolated from the others by a mountain, a plain, or a river, and by unique accents, foods, and aspirations.
Where Medellin is thought to be Basque and Jewish, Bucaramanga is mostly of Spanish descent. Where Bogotá is the center of government and inward looking, Medellin is private sector driven, a center of banking and international commerce since the 1920s. Where Cali is famous for its drug wealth, public works, and visionary leaders, Barranquilla was once the most prosperous city in the Andes, a mantle it gave up when the Panama Canal made the city's envied position at the mouth of the Magdalena River obsolete.
Love in the Time of Globalization
Juan Manuel Santos has aspired for decades to be president and lead these varied constituencies. He is the scion of one of the most influential families, and was the defense minister who managed the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt from the FARC guerillas. Colombia, in the early nineties, was attempting to open its economy. Strong industry associations proposed a kind of gradualism. The government, led by Santos, the indefatigable development minister, Luis Alberto Moreno (now the President of the IADB), and the resolute finance minister Rudy Hommes, was intent on opening the economy and embracing the principles of globalization.
One night, Santos asked to meet me in the VIP lounge of the national airport, and grilled me late into night over arcane details of the flower industry: costs of electricity, fertilizer, and transportation. He was ambitious, attentive to detail, smart, and unafraid to call to task the old ways of thinking. Some thought him a traitor to his privileged class, which he wore as a badge of honor. He was trying to help the whole country. But what distinguishes him is how long he has wanted to be president.
Santos is the real life equivalent of Florentino Ariza, the protagonist in Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, who upon a chance meeting with the beauteous Fermina Daza in their twenties, falls in love and decides to wait for her until she falls in love with him. Ariza has many trysts, but claims to have never made love until he finally consummates the relationship with her at the end of their lives, and they finally "make love like grandparents."
Santos' life-long unrequited love for his country, his many "trysts" as Ministers of Trade, Finance, and Defense--and his consistent aspiration to the nation's highest office have prepared him to be president.
If elected, Santos would follow the policies and philosophies of the current president. He would be tough on Latin America's oldest insurgency and the intractable leadership of Venezuela, and focus on open trade and rule of law. He led in the polls until April, and now looks to be in a close race with Antanas Mockus.
One Hundred Years of Platitudes
Mockus has been gaining in the polls for weeks now, and may win the presidency, perhaps even in the first round on May 30th. He avoids the temptation to define his candidacy in traditional Colombian political platitudes. He brings postmodern inventions to Colombia: social media strategies, a focus on building forthrightness and interpersonal trust, all values consistent with innovation, civic mindedness and prosperity.
He dressed like "Super Citizen" to bring attention to these values. He hired 400 mimes to follow and call attention to jay walkers, showered with his wife on TV to call attention to water waste (water usage declined by almost half), and admitted his Parkinson's disease, which improved his standings in the polls because people trusted him more.
Mockus is the outsider. He is the magician, Melquiades, whom Garcia Marquez described in the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as the accented "gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands." He brought the magnet, telescope, and a magnifying glass to Macondo.
Mockus once invited me into his office when he was mayor of Bogotá and asked me to help him hacksaw the barrel of a rifle in half so he could use the neutered firearm at a gun control event. I gave up after the barrel heated up and burned my fingers (turns out, I'm the one with sparrow hands); he persevered until the barrel plummeted to the floor.
While Santos describes himself as pro-Uribe, Mockus is artfully positioned as post-Uribe. Though Uribe will go down in history as the best president since the dark days of La Violencia in 1948 (Gaviria is second best for opening the economy, killing Escobar, and developing a generation of leaders), the people do not want more of the same intensity. If Mockus is elected, it will be because Uribe was president, the way that Obama could only be elected after someone totally different than he.
If Mockus wins this time, Santos may take solace that he could gain the presidency after him. The nation has a record of rewarding persistence, and Santos will govern successfully; ever the technocrat, he will be in his mid-sixties and finally have his opportunity to govern as gently as a grandparent.
Colombia will be fine whoever wins. The country is characterized by fiscal prudence, a vibrant culture, and a sound relationship with the U.S.A. Colombians are well represented throughout the world in the multilaterals, business, entertainment, and the academy.
I have thought many times that comparisons between Colombia and Macondo are overwrought and exhausted. But if we find the truth in art long before we see it in empirical sciences or quasi-empirical domains like politics or economics, then, perhaps the case can be made that Garcia Marquez saw things that we did not, not just when he wrote, but in the rhythms and patterns of history. He startles us with the way he attributed human spirit to inanimate objects, and with the ghost stories he learned through the warm breath of his costeña grandmother.
Critics of Garcia Marquez have said that he was not that imaginative after all; he simply looked around, listened, and wrote it down. My frequent trips to Cartagena, to the lush hazardous forests around Santa Marta, and my pilgrimage to his hometown, Aracataca, support that.
But, for those of us who are blessed to work in Colombia, we also develop the capacity to weave the fantastic into the mundane. After several years there, when another bomb exploded a block away from me in the Zona Rosa, I simply raised my wine glass until the plates and saucers stopped quivering, and then gently returned it to the table.
Michael Fairbanks worked for the leaders of Colombia during "the Apertura," the opening of their economy. He wrote about the experience in "Plowing the Sea" by Harvard Business School Press. (www.sevenfund.org)