A Huffington Post article about transformative mayors has once again fanned the political flames that have been burning in Bogotá since last year by including controversial ex-guerrilla mayor Gustavo Petro.
The article names eight mayors around the world that are “transforming their cities with flair and enthusiasm.” The list spans several continents and includes the mayors of major European cities like Paris and Berlin; the tattooed politician that has made the city of Thessaloniki one of the few bright spots in the middle of economically troubled Greece; and the beloved mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia, nicknamed “Mother Risma.”
Latin America had two representatives on the list, both of them somewhat less universally adored than the Indonesian politician.
Outspoken in Argentina
Mauricio Macri, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, was the last politician to make the cut, though with somewhat shaky credentials. The Argentine mayor rose to prominence first as a businessman and then as the head of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s most storied football clubs — a position he held for 10 years before being elected mayor of the capital in 2007. He is currently in his second term, having won re-election in 2011.
However, his tenure has been far from calm. In 2010, he was indicted in a spying scandal involving the city’s new metropolitan police force — an institution that Macri himself created during his first term. In 2012, accusations swirled that Macri had received campaign funding from Raul Martins, an Argentine facing criminal charges in Mexico for running a prostitution and human trafficking ring.
He has also taken considerable flak for his statements on social issues. In 2010, he was criticized for saying that immigration in Argentina, which has a long history of accepting immigrants from many different countries, was out of control.
His most recent faux pas came in April, when he responded to a survey that found that 60 percent of women in Buenos Aires felt intimidated by the widespread socially-accepted practice of cat-calling and street harrassment. Asked for a comment on the survey, Macri said the women were lying, calling such comments “nice” and saying that “Basically, all women like to be complimented.”
Social media exploded in anger at the mayor, with thousands of people criticizing Macri’s response on Twitter and other channels. Eventually, Macri was forced to issue a public apology, saying his own daughter had called him in reaction to his comments.
Macri is a notorious political enemy of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and has clashed with the administration on many issues, most recently criticizing the government’s plan to pay bondholders within the country.
Despite all of these incidents, Macri still remains very popular in some circles — so popular, in fact, that he has begun campaigning for the 2015 presidential election and will likely be a competitive candidate. This, combined with his funding of flood prevention projects, creation of bike paths and close relations with Israel, was apparently enough for the Huffington Post writer to consider him one of the world’s most “transformative” mayors.
The case with Bogotá’s Gustavo Petro, the other Latin American mayor to make the list, is even more complicated — so much so, in fact, that the Huffington Post has had to issue two separate corrections to his section in the article just to get the commenters to calm down.
Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, has been in the middle of a national political storm dating back to his 2011 election, which many members of the conservative political establishment saw as a direct threat to their hold on power.
Since taking office, he has tried to implement a number of reforms to the sprawling city of about 9 million — some with much more success than others. He has been lauded for some of his social reforms and “Bogotá Humana” campaign, as well as efforts to increase bike ridership and overhaul the city’s dysfunctional public transportation system — even breaking ground on construction of a long-overdue subway system.
Still, he stands in the shadow of two previous mayors, Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus, whom many residents view as responsible for most of the positive progress Bogotá has made over the last two decades.
Petro has also been criticized for his oversight of major contracts, including those awarded to some of the transportation companies in charge of new bus lines. The biggest crisis came when Petro attempted to reform the city’s private trash collection system. The rollout of the new system was a universally acknowledged disaster, with insufficient equipment and workers and disagreements about contracts that resulted in trash lying in the streets of the capital for almost a week in some places.
In December 2013, the national inspector general deposed Petro, ruling he had overstepped his constitutional limitations with the reform of the trash collection system. The official also banned Petro from politics for 15 years, a decision that some saw as slightly overblown, especially considering that the previous mayor, who was removed and charged with corruption, only received a suspension until the end of his term.
Petro supporters took to the streets to protest what they saw as a clear effort on the part of Colombia’s right wing to get rid of Petro, who has been discussed as a potential presidential candidate. Bogotá was rocked with demonstrations and remained without a mayor for several months, then had two interim mayors in the span of two months before Petro was finally reinstated in April 2014.
Transformative? Definitely. But the “flair” of these two mayors may be more for drama than anything else.