President Spandex?

The man who once mooned an auditorium of students, dressed up as a superhero to teach civics lessons, and cleaned up Bogotá while he was at it just might become Colombia's next president. 

Colombian politician Antanas Mockus has, as Oxford historian Malcolm Deas put it, "a gift for cheering people up." And apparently Colombia is looking for exactly that. Just a few months ago, the odds were slim at best that Mockus, a tough-minded and disciplined former math professor with an unconventional approach to politics, would be elected president of Latin America's third-most populous country. Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister and a close associate of highly popular President Álvaro Uribe, seemed the obvious front-runner.

But then Mockus's campaign exploded, using mostly social media such as Facebook and word of mouth. He has run a fiscally austere campaign, turning down half the state money he was entitled to because he thinks public funds are "sacred" and should be reserved for more worthy projects. All this has generated enormous excitement in a campaign that most expected to be a nonevent. Today, just weeks before the May 30 election, it's hard to find a smart political analyst who would bet against him. Polls point to a tight two-way race between Mockus and Santos, with a high possibility of a second-round face off on June 20 (though given his dazzling surge in support, Mockus might just score an upset in the first round).

Why the dramatic shift? Many Colombians, it appears, are simply tired of the high tensions and sporadic confrontations that have accompanied the Uribe government in recent years. And Mockus represents a change -- without stepping too far from the Uribe administration's "democratic security" policies that many Colombians credit with quieting the country's violence.

A Green Party candidate and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is best known for his eccentricities and a penchant for symbolic gestures -- many of which have garnered him much free publicity over the years. Around the time that I met him in 1991, he was rector of the National University in Bogotá, a role in which he gained notoriety for dropping his pants to silence an auditorium of rowdy students. (It worked.)

Later, during his two three-year terms as Bogotá's mayor, Mockus taught civic values by getting mimes to mock motorists who broke driving laws. He dressed up as the "Super Citizen" -- a character that required a spandex suit -- and took a televised shower with his wife to promote water conservation. He thrived on such "teachable moments" that made the city better without new regulations. And he became what he is today: a national phenomenon.

Despite these unconventional tactics, however, Mockus is far from a novice politician. The "outsider" label should be applied with care. True, he is fiercely independent and promises a real break with "politics as usual" in Colombia. His reputation for probity, for example, is deserved: He is truly allergic to the wheeling and dealing that has dominated the country's politics for many years. Unlike with the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as Santos's "U" party, no one in a hypothetical Mockus government would be waiting in the wings for key posts. But Mockus is politically savvy and intensely ambitious. This is his third run for the presidency, and being mayor of Bogotá is no small feat. The office is the second-most important and demanding elected seat in the country.

Mockus can rightly boast of his achievements as mayor. His imaginative pedagogy to foster civic responsibility and encourage "convivencia" (fellowship) yielded tangible results, including a marked drop in crime and improvements in infrastructure and public order. He did this even while remaining notably austere; no one could justly accuse him of fiscal irresponsibility. (In fact, some on Colombia's left have accused him of being "neoliberal.") He managed to assemble sound, competent teams that worked very hard. So though Mockus's quirks stood out in Bogotá's traditional political culture, his performance earned him considerable praise.

That brings us to Mockus's remarkable rise on the national stage. He has moved from just 1 percent in the polls in February to nearly 10 percent at the end of the March, 20 percent by mid-April, and almost 40 percent today.

How did Mockus do it? The key was tapping into a broad fatigue with political infighting and polarization, something Colombians might not have realized they were feeling until Mockus came along. Colombians, it turned out, were eager for a more relaxed, calmer style of leadership than Uribe's frequently confrontational approach. To be sure, Colombians widely credit Uribe with helping to subdue the FARC insurgency and paramilitary forces and bring greater security to the country. Uribe's take-charge political style was reassuring at the time. But after nearly eight years, that quality -- though still valued, as evidenced by opinion polls -- seems to be wearing thin.

Shrewdly, Mockus has refused to define himself as either pro- or anti-Uribe. He has claimed, instead, to be "post Uribe." That largely sums up popular opinion (in favor of Uribe, but also ready for the next phase) and was in sharp contrast to the other candidates, Santos included, who mostly claimed the mantle either of "uribismo" or "anti-uribismo." While those politicians weren't watching, however, the debate had moved on.

Mockus has already made good on his promise to usher in a new era of political harmony, in the conduct of the newly created Green Party's first primary. Running in an extremely cordial race in March against two other popular former Bogotá mayors, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Garzón, Mockus won the contest and was able to show, at the same time, that he could pull off a nondivisive political campaign.

Mockus's next good move was naming Sergio Fajardo, a highly regarded former mayor of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, as his vice presidential candidate. Fajardo, also a former math professor, had begun his own presidential campaign, which quickly fizzled. When he accepted Mockus's offer, it proved, as the Colombian newsmagazine Semana noted, that "two mathematicians do not add but multiply." Mockus even got a political bounce after acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The public admission reinforced his forthright image.

Although Mockus is playing off Uribe's weakness, he's also benefiting greatly from the current president's successes, something that would be even truer for a President Mockus. Thanks to Uribe, Colombia's security situation has substantially improved (despite some recent backsliding), and Mockus would be able to concentrate on of the issues that interest him more: education, anti-corruption efforts, and good governance.

Yet Mockus is hardly a dove when it comes to security, which remains a crucial concern for many Colombians. The drug trade continues largely unabated, fueling the FARC insurgency and many criminal gangs. Although untested at the national level, Mockus's record in Bogotá gives him credibility. His position on FARC is also clear: Mockus long ago ruled out any negotiations so long as the leftist rebels continue to kidnap.

Hugo Chávez is the other ubiquitous foreign-policy issue, and here, the split between Mockus and Santos cuts both ways. Santos's tougher stance against the Venezuelan president calms fears of an arms buildup next door, which most believe is already underway. But Mockus’s pragmatism also wins points for those who worry about an escalation, particularly if that meant further border closings of the sort that have already hit Colombian exports hard. Some hope a Mockus presidency would have a tranquilizing effect.

Of course, Santos has the party machine on his side, and he was seen as an effective defense minister, no small matter in a country still confronting an internal war. But at this point, Mockus has the momentum, and polls show that Santos might have reached a ceiling.

Whatever happens, the uncertainties and effervescence of the current political moment are salutary for Colombia's democracy. The Mockus phenomenon has refreshed the land that inspired Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism. Sometimes truth is a better read than fiction.

Flikr, Creative Commons


Can South Africa's Bungling Ex-President Save Darfur?

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki tries to rewrite the history of his diplomatic career.

When South African President Thabo Mbeki stepped down from power just over a year ago, it seemed like his political career was kaput. His decade-long administration, beginning triumphantly in 1999, was ending in shame and failure. His administration was rocked by scandal after scandal, to the point that his party, the African National Congress (ANC), lost faith in Mbeki and finally forced him to hand over the reins to an interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe. Abroad, the news was also rough. Toward the end of his term, Mbeki had worked to broker a power-sharing agreement in next-door Zimbabwe. But he failed by all accounts, and today Zimbabwe's government coalition is still perilously frayed. Mbeki, it seemed, was simply too close to Zimbabwe's strongman, President Robert Mugabe, to stand up to him.

But now just a year after his political exit, Mbeki is back on the diplomatic circuit, working for the African Union (AU) as head of a panel on Sudan. The man who failed in Zimbabwe, who couldn't even keep his own party from ousting him, is now supposedly fixing things in Darfur.

Skepticism naturally abounds. The real surprise, however, is that it may be unwarranted. If Mbeki's first fact-finding mission is any indication, his experience with Africa's big men may be a remarkable asset to the project. The ex-president gained unprecedented access to Khartoum, and the AU is backing his so-called "Mbeki Report" as an "African solution" to the violence that has plagued Sudan. When the ex-president presented his findings to the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 21, he met general approval. Could Mbeki's second act be a complete reversal of his first?

Mbeki's history of negotiating with tyrannical governments goes back far longer than Zimbabwe. Born in South Africa at the heart of the apartheid era, Mbeki started his career as a freedom fighter. Although he spent most of his young-adult life in exile in Britain, the United States, and other African countries, he still became one of the key players in the negotiations to end apartheid. In the 1980s, when many within the ANC were still advocating armed uprisings against the government, he began a series of dialogues with members of the white South African business community. Four years later, he led the ANC delegation that negotiated with the apartheid government.

Mbeki argued for a peaceful cure to the problems ailing his country. "There is nothing to stop us from placing a bomb in a cinema of 300 white people. But we don't do it," he said in a 1984 interview quoted later in Mark Gevisser's biography. "[W]ith a white population of almost five million, it makes political common sense to win over as many of them as possible." When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president in 1994, with Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk as his deputies, that "common sense" showed its worth. Mbeki became president himself in 1999, thanks to Mandela's endorsement. (Asked if he would be able to fill his mentor's shoes, he replied, "Why should I wear those big, ugly things?")

While it was his past as a freedom fighter that propelled Mbeki to the presidency, that legacy created problems for him in his dealings with Mugabe. The two men first met in the 1980s, while Mbeki was working to improve relations between the ANC and Harare. Mugabe had just taken over rule of Zimbabwe from the British, and having led his country to independence, Mugabe was naturally a mentor to many in the ANC, including Mbeki.

Perhaps it was difficult for Mbeki to see his fellow liberation hero transformed into a new brand of tyrant. Or maybe he never saw it that way. But whatever the case, Mbeki's attitude toward Mugabe bordered on appeasement: He opposed the West's calls for tough sanctions on Harare, claiming that this would drive the country deeper into isolation. Instead, he insisted on a "softly, softly" approach. He held countless meetings with Mugabe's ruling party, ZANU-PF, all without any visible result other than bad publicity for himself. At the height of Zimbabwe's post-election violence in 2008, when ZANU-PF was clobbering dissidents in the streets, Mbeki was photographed holding hands with Mugabe. "There is no crisis in Zimbabwe," he told incredulous reporters.

The kindest thing you can say about Mbeki's approach in Zimbabwe is that he was defending South Africa's geopolitical interests. The two countries are major trading partners, and it is to South Africa's advantage to have a stable Zimbabwe on its border. ("Why should South Africa have to play the role of Oxfam, defending human rights?" asked Nigerian lawyer Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who was consulted in the research for the fact-finding report. "Every state has its interests to protect.") Far more cynical things have been said: that he is a contrarian who wants nothing more than to contravene Western diplomacy, or that he was coddling his old friend Mugabe.

Meanwhile at home, Mbeki's presidency saw South Africa make great economic advances tempered with staggering unemployment figures, an upswing in violent crime, and a rash of attacks on immigrants. Most notoriously, Mbeki presided over South Africa while the country was being devastated by AIDS. In 1999, when Mbeki became president, around one-quarter of all pregnant women in South Africa were thought to be HIV positive. By 2005, the government estimated that 5 million South Africans -- or about 10 percent of the population -- were infected.

In the midst of this crisis, Mbeki surrounded himself with renegade scientists who argued that AIDS was caused not by the HIV virus but by Western colonial-style oppression. He banned the use of anti retroviral drugs in public hospitals, claiming that the drug was a Western poison. He backed a shoddily-researched, locally produced alternative medicine. And when that turned out not to work, his health minister urged South Africans to eat more garlic, lemon, and olive oil -- natural, African remedies to AIDS. Why he did all this was unclear. While his biographer has suggested it was mere stubbornness -- the instinct to defend his position when challenged from abroad -- others believe that Mbeki's striving for an "African solution" to this African problem just went terribly awry.

But the Mbeki who has appeared in recent months seems like a totally different figure from the man who stubbornly shut his eyes to the ravages of AIDS or was a little too friendly with the dictator next door. Instead of denying disaster, Mbeki has been spending his time visiting refugee camps and interviewing victims in Darfur, one of Africa's most troubled regions. And he has done one of the hardest things for any politician: He seems to have reversed his position on an issue.

During his presidency, Mbeki looked like a defender of Sudan's regime. He actively opposed U.N. sanctions on Khartoum. And after the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes, Mbeki was quoted saying that there was a "Western conspiracy" against the Sudanese president. He was not alone in making this claim; many African and Arab leaders have argued that the ICC indictment demonstrates a Western double standard, because the court has yet to charge any Western-backed politicians. Many in the Darfuri community had written Mbeki off as an ally of Bashir. "I didn't expect much from Mbeki," said Salih Osman, a human rights activist from Darfur who met with Mbeki on his fact-finding mission. Activists inside Sudan and abroad also worried that he was too close to Khartoum. They feared that he would advise against letting the International Criminal Court handle the prosecution of war crimes in Darfur -- or that he would recommend giving Bashir immunity from prosecution altogether.

What happened instead is being hailed by some as a breakthrough. The report acknowledges that atrocities were committed in Darfur and calls for a "negotiated process [of conflict resolution] in the context of a democratic transformation of the whole Sudan." Most tellingly, the report notes that Darfuris are terrified of their government and mistrustful of their courts. Steps must be taken, the Mbeki report argues, to restore their broken trust. The report places the responsibility for seeking justice for atrocities in Sudan's hands and calls for a system of special courts for Darfur, a hybrid tribunal for the most serious crimes and a truth-and-reconciliation committee. "Sudan, which has not ratified the Rome statue of the ICC, continues to reject the intervention of the ICC. It cannot, however, ignore its own duty to deal with the crimes that have been committed in Darfur," the report reads.

"[W]hen the report was released a lot of people, even the victims, announced that it was a fair report," says Osman. "It disappointed the [Sudanese] government, who expected it to be in their favor, and it disappointed the pessimists." Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had previously been very critical of the AU's position on Darfur, also welcomed the report, praising its assessment of the roots of violence in Darfur: The panel rightly lays the near total absence of justice for horrific crimes committed in Darfur at Khartoum's feet, said Richard Dicker, HRW's director of international justice.

Far from being an obstacle, Mbeki's perceived sympathy toward Bashir instead meant he had unprecedented access -- no small detail for a government that is notoriously secretive. Last year Khartoum expelled more than a dozen NGOs on the dubious grounds that they were spying for Western powers. The ICC has complained that it is almost impossible for its representatives to interview victims in Darfur. Mbeki, by contrast, was allowed to travel freely within the country and meet with virtually whomever he chose.

In fact, in Sudan Mbeki was operating with a freedom he had not experienced in years. Already out of office, Mbeki had no need to seek popular approval for his actions. He had no personal relationship with Bashir, as he did with Mugabe. And South Africa does not have with Sudan the same kind of close, intertwined relationship that it does with Zimbabwe. All of this meant that Mbeki was able to evaluate the situation in Sudan with an almost scholarly objectivity, putting aside his emotional and political ties. And this allowed him to bring a totally fresh perspective to the crisis in Darfur. "Mbeki was totally free in Sudan," Odinkalu told me. "He was able to work on his own terms."

Perhaps Mbeki is returning to his instinctual self -- one suddenly unconstrained by the political reins of elected office. In writing the Mbeki report, he drew heavily on his experience negotiating a settlement to apartheid. Once again he became a listener, bringing together long standing enemies and forcing them to hear each other out. He sat down with militia members, community leaders, and government ministers. Alex de Waal, a British researcher who worked with Mbeki to produce the report, said Mbeki "spoke a great deal about his experience negotiating the end of apartheid. He talked about how many people within the ANC had wanted to bring the rulers of apartheid South Africa to jail, to punish them, to kill them. But he talked about the need to avoid conflict and bloodshed and to involve everyone in the consultations."

It's still not certain whether the recommendations of the Mbeki Report will be implemented. That depends on international support and, more importantly, on the response of the Sudanese government.

At the very least, though, most people agree that Mbeki has managed to reframe the debate. This in itself is a giant step forward. For years, Khartoum has managed to frame the Darfur issue as a clash between the Western powers on the one hand, and Africa and the Middle East on the other. Bashir cries "imperialism" with any accusation of misdoing. That strategy has played fairly well among Arab and African leaders, whose memories of colonization are still fresh. Given the choice between siding with the "West" (read: the ICC) or Sudan, the AU and the Arab League have both chosen to support the latter and denounce the indictment of Bashir.

This is where the Mbeki report is so valuable. Whatever Mbeki's failings, he has impeccable credentials in the anti-colonial category. Nobody can accuse him of being a Western puppet. He also has a perfect track record when it comes to trusting home grown African solutions first before internationally proposed plans. That philosophy led him astray in Zimbabwe and on HIV/AIDS. But it also gives him the credibility to push for change now. In achieving some redemption for himself, Mbeki may also find it for the troubled people of Sudan.