Offbeat Leftist's New Take on Bogota

Special to The Times

Luis Eduardo Garzon is hardly part of Colombia's ruling elite. He doesn't own a tie, he didn't finish college, and he hangs out in sweaty salsa clubs.

But after a turbulent electoral weekend, he has streaked into the stratosphere -- a former golf caddie turned shining star of Colombia's emergent left-wing political force.

Portly and unpretentious, Garzon won 47% of the vote in municipal elections Oct. 26 to become mayor-elect of the bustling capital, Bogota. The victory put his fledgling party, the Independent Democratic Pole, on the map and placed Garzon in the most visible government post outside the presidential palace.

"I'm a Marxist-Lennonist," said Garzon, who began his political life as a Communist but has since moderated his stance. "Marxist for the Marx Brothers, and Lennonist for [John] Lennon. My style of government will be authentic. There won't be any liposuction."

Garzon's triumph also dealt a serious blow to Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's hawkish, workaholic president, who was still enjoying his political honeymoon when Garzon irreverently stepped into the limelight.

Uribe won last year's presidential election in a landslide on promises to boost military spending and beat back the leftist rebels who have spent nearly 40 years trying to topple the government. Garzon ran against him, on promises to boost social spending, and placed third.

A self-made man, Garzon completed three semesters of college and then left academia behind. Among his political influences he lists Martin Luther King Jr. and comic-strip figures Calvin and Hobbes. He's an aficionado of Latin jazz and an avid reader of fashion magazines.

"I'm a gossip by nature," he said with a shrug.

The 52-year-old Garzon worked as a golf caddie, a messenger and a porter before rising to the top of Colombia's prominent oil union. He was born out of wedlock, and into Colombia's struggling underclass, at a time when boys who didn't carry their father's last name were shut out of private schools and banned from the priesthood.

"He was an illegitimate son, and in Colombia that's heavy," said political analyst and former U.N. Ambassador Fernando Cepeda. Yet Garzon is extremely proud of his roots and loves to show off his mother, a former cleaning lady named Eloisa. During his acceptance speech, Garzon, who is divorced with two children, brought the petite and plain-spoken woman to the podium with him.

By the standards of Colombia's starchy political class, "that's a shock," Cepeda said. "Then you think about it, and it's very impressive."

Garzon lives with Eloisa and his girlfriend, a frizzy-haired woman named Marcela Hernandez who used to manage one of his favorite bars. He dresses informally in turtlenecks and corduroy pants, and he claims to have worn a tie just once, to impress an earlier girlfriend who left him anyway.

Until campaigning began cutting into his social schedule, Garzon was also a regular at Bogota's dimly lighted salsa clubs, where patrons sip Cuban rum and munch on coconut rinds while listening to brassy ballads.

Characteristically, Garzon's mayoral campaign included proposals not just to alleviate poverty, but also to transform drizzly Bogota into a more "Latin" city.

Outgoing Mayor Antanas Mockus, a quirky philosophy professor, made his mark by paving miles and miles of bike paths and by decreeing several "No Car" days to give city dwellers a rest from the smog and grit. His "geek law" closed bars at 1 a.m. and helped lower homicide rates.

"Antanas wanted to create a city in a country like Lithuania, where the mosquitoes don't bite and the dogs don't bark," Garzon complained. "We're going to launch nights full of culture, theater, cinema festivals."

To one-up Mockus, he also plans to initiate "No Hunger" days, when food banks will distribute free meals to Bogota's undernourished.

Allies credit Garzon with creating a new style of leftist leadership. In a break from many other left-wing activists, for example, he condemns Colombia's rebel factions, which have turned to drug trafficking and kidnapping to fill their war chests.

The country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, launched a political party of its own in the 1980s, called the Patriotic Union. But right-wing death squads destroyed the party, assassinating about 3,000 of its members. Garzon, also known by the nickname "Lucho," lost two close friends in the rampage.

"This is a country at war, socially polarized, with strong hatreds," said Daniel Garcia- Pena, a former peace commissioner and one of Garzon's closest advisors. "Lucho wants to insist on an inclusive government."

Garzon is even trying to change the language of Colombia's left. He's especially weary of what he calls the old guard's "R words," such as "rage," "resentment" and "retrograde."

"The left only prepared for socialist revolution," Garzon said.

"It never prepared to govern. The left would discuss everything. The color of a lightbulb was a debate. And when it was time to act, they'd lost the moment. I'm different from that left."

At the same time, Garzon bristles at the suggestion that he's moving to the middle. "Centrism is like asexuality," he said, frowning. "It has no smell, no color, no taste."

His fresh approach has prompted some to compare Garzon to the wildly popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also a former trade unionist, who this year became Brazil's first elected leftist president.

Like Lula, experts say, Garzon will have to strike a delicate balance between fulfilling the lofty expectations of his supporters and working within the confines of rigid state institutions.

And as the capital's first left-wing mayor, all eyes are upon him. If he's successful, Bogota's mayoral post could serve as a springboard for another, stronger, presidential bid.

"The primary challenge now is to govern well, with total transparency and zero corruption," said Cepeda, the political analyst. "Bogota is a big window box. Everything is on display."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°