Friday, May 23, 2014

Peñalosa's Last Run?

A Peñalosa campaign rally in Bogotá's Parque Nacional.
Try and try, again. That's been Enrique Peñalosa's political strategy.

But this go around, it doesn't appear to be working.

Peñalosa's story is one of contradictions. Born in Washington D.C. of a high-powered father,
Semana magazine compared Peñalosa to a
phoenix bird. But his flight was short.

Peñalosa got his undergraduate degree from Duke University in North Carolina and then at the University of Paris.

Despite this elite background, back in Colombia Peñalosa made a name for himself by by meeting people on the street and riding public buses while campaigning for mayor of Bogotá in 1991 and '94. Despite his fame, he lost both times.

In 1997, Peñalosa won his only major political victory, being elected mayor of Bogotá. As mayor, Peñalosa won international renown with his innovative urban policies, such as the TransMilenio express bus system, new public schools, libraries and parks, and the city's bike lane network.

His success as mayor made Peñalosa a popular speaker on urbanism and sustainable development and earned him professorships at universities in Colombia and abroad. My parents went to hear him talk once in California and were impressed.

But that success didn't translate into further political success at home. Peñalosa's political career since then has been another series of losses. He lost races for mayor to Bogotá's current mayor Gustavo Petro, who was briefly ousted from office by the procurador, and also lost to previous mayor Samuel Moreno, who is now in prison on corruption charges.
'With President Peñalosa we can.'
A Peñalosa campaign
poster across the stree from
Bogotá's City Hall.

Many bogotanos probably regret not having voted for Peñalosa.

Peñalosa also ran for the Green Party's presidential nomination in 2010, but lost to Antonus Mockus, who himself was overwhelmed by now-president Santos.

As a bicyclist and sustainable growth advocate, I tried voting for Peñalosa for mayor. (Foreigners living in Colombia have the right to vote in local elections.) But at the polling station I was informed that my cedula number was registered as 'deceased,' perhaps an inheritance from its previous user. All my efforts to demonstrate to them that I am still breathing and walking didn't help.

In the current presidential campaign Peñalosa is the Green Party's standard bearer. Polls briefly had him in the running to make it into a second-round run-off against Pres. Santos, but more recently Peñalosa has been in a distant third or fourth place in polls. The current scandal engulfing right-wing candidate Zuluaga might boost Peñalosa, but not likely enough for him to make it to the second round.

Despite campaigning on a bicycle and smiling a lot with barrio residents, Peñalosa has not been able to shake his reputation for arrogance and self-interestedness. And perhaps it's deserved. As a journalist and bicycling advocate, I've had a few brief interactions with him. I and some other central Bogotá residents are fighting to stop the Universidad Externado, a respect university, from building towers on Bogotá's hills. The towers would contain huge car parking facilities. Knowing Peñalosa's advocacy of alternative transit and sustainable growth, I sent him an e-mail asking for his support. To his credit, he replied. But in his response, Peñalosa said he 'couldn't believe that the university was building on the hillsides,' - even tho I'd sent him photos showing that it was.

Peñalosa also lamented that the universities were building these car-centric campuses, but seemed to shake his shoulders and resign himself. So much for passionate idealism. (The fact that Peñalosa was a Externado dean and professor may also play a part.)

Perhaps the same arrogant personality that sinks Peñalosa's campaigns keeps convincing him that he can actually be elected to something. Instead, Peñalosa, a talented man and capable administrator, should look for other ways to contribute to his country.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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