How to Change a Country
contributed by Charles Lemos
The videos are:
“If a fish needs to swim, a man needs to walk.” —Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia
The agony of Colombia is well known. For over forty years, Colombia has suffered an interminable guerrilla war whereas the rest of Latin America has seemingly put guerrilla activity behind them. Some of the reasons for our continued nightmare are due to factors outside Colombian control, namely the drug trade that continues to allow the FARC an invaluable source of income. And yet Colombia is turning the corner by becoming a bold experimenter and innovator in urban planning and sustainable development.
As the Colombian national anthem notes, en sucros de dolores el bien germina ya, in furrows of pain good now germinates. We are an exceptional country and an exceptional people. What other country would elect a poet, yes that was his profession, as President as we did in 1982 when we elected Belisario Betancur Cuartas. A Conservative and yet a Progressive. His speech given in 1983 to the United Nations General Assembly is considered by many to be the most august, lyrical and dramatic speech ever delivered at that podium. And yet the 1980s were a painful decade as Colombia battled not only guerrillas and the then nascent paramilitary death squads but also Pablo Escobar and his ilk, and thus unable to combat what it most needed to combat, poverty.
Then in 1990 came the neo-liberal government of Cesar Gaviria Trujillo who opened up the economy and that did have some beneficial effects but it failed to alleviate the misery of half of Colombia. We have now discarded much of the Washington Consensus model and opted like most of the rest of Latin America for more of a European-style social democracy and a mixed economy. But Gaviria, who was only 43 when he became President, did have one profound and lasting effect on Colombia, he changed the Constitution to allow direct elections of mayors and governors. And that change changed the country. In Bogotá, we elected progressive mayors such as Antanas Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, and Enrique Peñalosa Londoño. Their urban experiments have led to deep and profound changes that have altered Colombian life in unexpected ways.
The greatest experiments of these is the ciclovias. Every Sunday and on holidays, large swaths of every mayor Colombian city is closed to vehicular traffic. Recreational activities take over Colombian cities. Biking, skating, rollerblading, and walking are the order of the day. In addition, bikes are provided for those without bikes. Free aerobic, exercise and dance classes are given on the public square. It literally brought the country together. For at least just one day a week, we are simply people out with their families enjoying the day. In Bogotá, now a city of nearly 8 million people, at least two million participate every week.
Please watch these three films and see how one country is changing itself. But if you only have time for one, watch the Ciclovia film from Street Films. While Ciclovias have now been to exported to other countries the world over, in the United States only El Paso, Texas has adopted them and then only during the month of May. Change is possible in so many ways and they do not need to cost prohibitively.
In 1900 Bogotá was a city of 100,000 inhabitants but by the year 2000, Bogotá had over 7 million people. Rapid growth led to endemic poverty which begot endemic crime. By the 1980s, Bogotá had one of the worst quality of life indices in the world. Everything was a mess. And yet through of the efforts of three mayors, one fiscal conservative followed by two progressives, the city has been transformed. Jaime Castro, the first popularly elected mayor of Bogotá, organized the city’s finances and rationalized the tax structure. The next two Mockus and Peñalosa changed perceptions and values through their unorthodox experiments. Peñalosa, in particular, effected change by placing the public good ahead of the private good. For him it was people before cars. He literally has waged a war on cars. In the process, he made Bogotá one of the most sustainable cities in the world. It is twelfth worldwide according to this rank: http://www.alternet.org/environment/57973/?page=entire
The other videos cover Bogotá’s approach to its problems and the mass transit system, considered by urban planners and sustainability experts to now be among the world’s best if not the best. Bikes are an essential component of that strategy as well. If Colombia can change as profoundly as it has in the last 15 years, then I can only hope that the United States can realize its own potential.
I won’t spoil the ending, but listen to Colombians and what they are saying. How such a simple thing as reinventing the public space and biking with one’s neighbors changes attitudes. Perhaps to start the process of change in America, all you need is your Schwinn. Cars are mobile isolation booths and highways become impenetrable rivers of cars that divide people from people. Reclaiming the private space of cities and encouraging cities to offer more pedestrian activities is changing Colombia in so many unexpected ways. Our democracy has become more participatory with voting at an all-time high.
This might be just one good clue.
For a story on Belisario Betancur’s speech to the UN please visit this link: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40D13FD3C5F0C758CDDA90994DB484D81