For Bogota Mayor, Funny Business Isn't Just Clowning Around

Outside an ambulance in downtown Bogot, thousands of young Colombians line up to receive their "vaccination against violence." Inside, Alvaro, a teenager, paints the face of an enemy on a balloon and bursts it, pins a wish on a "tree of desires," and receives his symbolic inoculation - a drop of water. About 40,000 Bogotanos have received similar "treatment" in the past two months.

Meanwhile, Superman parades the city center, encouraging shoppers and vagrants to become super-citizens.

Behind the superhero disguise is Antanas Mockus - mayor of Bogot, and these are two of his policies intended to change the face of the Colombian capital.

Mr. Mockus, a mathematician-philosopher originally from Lithuania and former dean of Bogot's National University, was elected in 1994 with no political experience. He didn't even bother to campaign. But 6 million Bogotanos, disillusioned by corrupt politicians, decided his flair for the outrageous was worthy of a wider audience.

Shortly after his landslide election, Mockus decided to crack down on Christmas. A time of heavy drinking and impromptu fireworks displays, the season has traditionally placed a heavy burden on Bogota's hospitals and morgues. Mockus ordered bars to close at 1 a.m. and banned fireworks altogether.

Such heavy-handed tactics had been disastrous for his predecessors, but for Mockus, it worked. Hospitals reported almost no burn cases, and the number of violent deaths during the Christmas season was halved - to 57. Again, the key to his success was humor, this time in the form of a vegetable. The Spanish word for "carrot" - zanahoria - has the idiomatic meaning of a nerd in Colombia, and Bogotanos were urged to have a "carrot Christmas."

Mockus's mode of dress also flies in the face of convention. Colombia's Congress is a sea of designer suits, slick hair, and expensive aftershave. The mayor is a shabby dresser, with a pudding-bowl haircut and chinstrap beard.

Mockus believes that to change Bogot means first changing public behavior. "We must learn to correct others without mistreating them, or generating aggression," he claims. "We need to create a citizen's culture in which civility rules over cynicism." For example, he has introduced soccer-style penalty cards to motorists, hoping they will replace fists and machetes as a form of reprimand to other drivers.

"I believe that if people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are more likely to accept change," the mayor insists.

Critics argue that his approach is frivolous and fails to address pressing problems. Mockus counters that when he took office, city hall was destitute. He says his hands have been tied in terms of spending, while he tries to balance the books.

Mockus is part of the current vogue in Latin America for "anti-politicians" such as President Abdala Bucaram of Ecuador, who shares Mockus's penchant for the outrageous. Mr. Bucaram calls himself El Loco, and in his inauguration speech, he proudly declared that he was the first madman ever to be elected president. He stage-dives into crowds at rallies and fronts his own pop group.

Not to be outdone, Mockus was married - for the third time - in January. The ceremony took place inside a circus animal cage with two Bengal tigers as witnesses. The happy couple left riding an elephant.

Bogot's traffic and pollution are horrendous, and much of the south is still without essential public services. But Mockus has captured the hearts of Bogotanos. His eccentric policies retain 65 percent support among voters. With Colombia's mainstream politicians discredited by drug scandals and corruption, he is widely tipped for the presidency in 1998.

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