Dr. Antanas Mockus is a bit of an oddity in Latin American. He has a Lithuanian name, an Amish-looking beard, walks around wearing sunflowers, and gives rambling, professorial answers when you ask him a question. He's a stark contrast to the "machismo" we've come to expect from Latin American politicians, but in a few months Colombians will likely be calling him "El Presidente." Perhaps more importantly, he will enter the history books as the first world leader ever elected as a member of a Green Party.
The surprising rise of the former mayor of Bogota is sending shockwaves through the Latin American political scene -- and as Columbia is the staunchest U.S. ally in the region -- his election could have huge consequences for American foreign policy.
In recent years, we've relied on Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe as the primary regional bullwark against the rise of Hugo Chavez, and a front-line general in the war on drugs. Uribe has made huge progress against the communist FARC rebels and made the country far more secure.
It looked likely that this trend would continue, as polls once showed Uribe's even more hawkish defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, coasting to victory in the May 30 presidential election. But then Mockus's campaign caught fire, and polls now show him beating Santos handily after advancing to a runoff in June.
The question now is, what will Colombia look like in the hands of a Green? Are we looking a a benign phenomenon, or the disintegration of Uribe's stability?
Perhaps a little of both. Mockus may be eccentric -- he's certainly not like Uribe -- but he's not exactly Hugo Chavez, either. He's pledged to continue Uribe's hard line against the FARC and the drug cartels -- but security isn't his big issue. He markets himself not as an "anti-Uribist," but as a "post-Uribist" who can take advantage of a newly-secure nation to shift the focus to domestic policy.
In his two terms as mayor of the nation's capital, Mockus won worldwide acclaim for his innovations in local governance. Confronted with a city where disorder and chaos were the norm, Mockus aimed to instill civility and order in the population -- turning Bogota into one giant social experiment in the process.
Perhaps Mockus is best known for his stunts. Attempting to crackdown on traffic law violations, he hired an army of mimes to stand on street corners and publicly humiliate bad drivers. It worked brilliantly. He also created his super hero alter-ego, "Super Citizen" (complete with spandex and cape), to talk to citizens about civic responsibility. This definitely drew more listeners than a mayoral speech. And then there was his most infamous move of all: In an attempt to get the attention of a tuned-out college age audience, he pulled down his trousers and mooned them. Needles to say -- the ploy worked.
He may treat citizens as lab rats, but the mad science usually works.
The more you break down Mockus's urban governance, the more it starts to look like the twisted stepsister of Broken Window Theory. So, in a way, Mockus is something of a bohemian Rudy Giuliani. He's absurd, but the actual nuts and bolts of his governance strategy are actually pretty sound. And in a nation where corruption remains a major issue, a "broken windows" mayor with sterling anti-corruption credentials could do a lot of good.
Still, the elephant in the room is foreign policy. No one knows whether he'll keep Uribe's pro-U.S. stance or whether he'll be making peace-pilgrimages to Venezuela. Unfortunately, we'll just have to wait and see what the mad professor has up his sleeve.