04 May 2011

an Interview With Antanas Mockus


Septimius Parvu

How should a Mayor tackle corruption, mobilize the citizenry and fight the drug cartels? Is the rehabilitation of Bogotá a miracle or is it pure management and honesty? These questions have been answered by Antanas Mockus, a two-term mayor of Bogotá, between 1995 – 1997 and 2001-2003, and a former presidential candidate in 2010 (he placed second after Juan Manuel Santos, who won the elections).

R: I was hoping to ask you a few questions about corruption because I find it fascinating how you dealt with the corruption within the greater Bogotá Municipality. My first question is: you said that most of the councilors were corrupt or had connections with all kinds of businessmen. How did you deal with this and enforce your decisions?

A.M: By completely blocking their ability to blackmail, by having the conviction to do so, and by having the team convinced that, if during the three-year term, the councilmen didn’t make any decisions, there would be no agreement. Even if they radically opposed our initiatives, we had to be patient; I imagined that a new council would have been installed after 3 years of blockages, I was sure. So they never risked having any boycotts last longer than three months. And there were times when I pressed with stoic resistance; sometimes I didn’t say anything.

R: And in City Hall? Did you remove the previous public servants, or how did you clean up the municipality?

A.M: One of the first important steps was the stabilization of their work. At the national level, there was a law called carrera administrativa– administrative career – and I could have fired a lot of people and organized an exam, but the time limit was very short, so I decided to trust those people, even if they were working with the Mafia at the time. They belonged to a group. So people had two chiefs, a former one and a real political patron. So I decided to break up the patronage by incorporating these people en masse in the administrative career system.

The other thing was respecting the division of labor ; so, for example, the specialists in law. Each time the council made an agreement, they reviewed it to see if it was legal and constitutional. Everybody was amazed because I did the legality review solely from the point of view of legality, not convenience.

Sometimes, things were very funny. During the elections, a transporter called me and said he had three thousands votes. I told him that I didn’t need them and to let them vote as they want.

Another thing that helped a lot in fighting corruption was a very simple policy, using the general and private secretaries wisely. If someone asked for a meeting, the person was given a card to write with their own handwriting the objectives and topic of the meeting. So, during the meeting I had the card and when people tried to speak to me about other things, I said: “I can give you another appointment tonight or tomorrow morning. I like to prepare my appointments, so I will not speak to you about unprepared matters”. So, no one has ever written that they needed a contract or something else.

When we were children we were taught that God sees us everywhere. Today we have cameras.

R: You used cameras when you had meetings?

A.M: We did that once, for people. When we went to various localities, we connected to the local television networks. We did that in the mayor’s office once, but it was more about practicing how to speak about your enemy, your rival, in a way that the other listens to what you have to say. It was not meant to be too offensive. It was, to rephrase it, about saying “don’t ask me or offer me things in private that you would not ask or offer in public”. It’s a precaution.

R: You oversaw a lot of urban changes. How did you manage to do that? In Bucharest we have a problem because a great part of the land is owned by influential businessmen or by people with connections.

A.M: One thing was applying the law literally, and I remember a very rich person demanding a meeting with me. During the meeting, even in the paper, he said that he would like to discuss restrictions – he had to build high structures, a hotel. It’s called Casa Medina, and instead of building it high, he would have to buy all of the houses in the surrounding area and arrange them respecting the external appearance, because of patrimony. And when we met I said that there was a patrimony committee; I said: you cannot imagine how they would look at me, asking them to do this favor for you. Perhaps I lost his support, but I think he understood the arguments that I made. It’s an independent expert commission… the decision to keep or destroy is a very delicate question, arbitrary, because, at a certain point, he wanted to insinuate that I was the committee or a committee member and I said that I was not.

Society has high division of labor. Many times I used my metaphor of a circus in order to defend the division of labor. There were tigers, in a big cage, and the notary said: “I will not marry you, the circus yes, but not the tigers”. And I said: “we will have two specialists in managing the tigers and we have to trust them, because it will be an example of division of labor”. So let the decision be made by the experts.