Gustavo Silva

A Bad Dream: a Bogota mayor’s legacy of incompetence

posted by Gustavo Silva Cano

An American by birth, grandson to a military dictator, and a Harvard graduate, Samuel Moreno is also the worst mayor that Bogotá has had in about fifteen years. His eighteen months at the head of the Colombian capital have been a sad mixture of clumsiness, inefficiency and sometimes pure inaction.

Before Mr. Moreno’s arrival to Palacio Liévano, the seat of the mayoralty, Bogotans felt proud of the progress their city had made in road building and the fight against crime. Bogota’s system of public transportation, Transmilenio, was praised internationally and used as an example in Mexico City, Santiago, Cali, and Medellín among others. Bogotá, for too long ashamed of itself, for too long an unruly jungle that made the inhabitants of other Colombian cities question its status of capital, rebuilt itself with the help of visionary mayors.

But then came Samuel Moreno. Since he took power in 2008, much has changed for worse. Among many other concerns, crime has been on the rise (the homicide rate climbed to 19.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, from 18 in 2007) and the perception among Bogotans is that the mayor and the police under his command are doing little to fix the problem. As Semana, a magazine, put it a few months ago, “the city is deteriorating and the mayor … has not been able to take control of the capital … the citizens feel that the capital has become less safe, dirtier and more chaotic.” The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest liveability ranking maintains that Bogotá is the least desirable capital in all of Latin America, behind crime ridden Caracas with its shocking 130 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, and awfully poor La Paz, where annual income per person reached a mere US$997 in 2006 (against Bogota’s US$5,000). Perhaps Bogota will go back to being ashamed of itself.

When he was running for mayor, Mr. Moreno assured voters that he would not raise taxes or make changes to the city’s policy of road space rationing (pico y placa) that restricted access to Bogota’s streets for every car during peak hours twice a week. He also promised to build a subway system for the capital. So far, the mayor has failed to keep all three campaign pledges. Bogota’s house tax will increase up to 70% this year. Moreover, in the past few weeks he has postponed at least twice an event where he is supposed to unveil a detailed plan for the subway. Mr. Moreno is as good a liar as he is a slacker.

And now, his masterpiece. Under the administration of Samuel Moreno, Bogota’s became the most draconian and arbitrary policy of road space rationing in the democratic world. Without debating it in the city council, Mr. Moreno decreed that until 2011 Bogotans will not be able to use their cars for an entire day, twice every week. His pretext is that there will be so much road building around the city, that he needs fewer cars in the streets to avoid traffic jams while construction lasts. However, his decision means that in these two years Bogotans must keep their vehicles in the garage for 208 days. Any politician in the USA, Europe and many a Latin American country would know that advancing such a policy would be akin to political suicide. And somehow Samuel Moreno ran away with it–so much for the citizens’ right to enjoy their hard earned property.

This incredibly abusive decision has already started to affect Bogota’s economic activity and the city coffers. Mr. Moreno’s abusive restriction on vehicle use has led to fewer people shopping on weekdays and to Bogotans using less gasoline, which is taxed to fund part of the city’s budget. Fenalco, a business association, calculated in March that Moreno’s new policy reduced sales in Bogotá by 16%. Mr. Moreno found the perfect strategy to worsen the recession for Bogota’s citizenry.

With this perplexing incompetence of his, Samuel Moreno is taking Bogota down an ugly road the city knows all too well. He has also ruined (and that is the only feat we should thank him for) the political capital of his leftist party, the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA). If things do not take a turn for good, his disastrous administration will make sure that no other Bogota mayors come from the PDA in the foreseeable future.

And no doubt, this would be an excellent thing: PDA members in Moreno’s administration and the city council love to work against the citizen’s best interests. City councilor Antonio Sanguino wanted to pass a bill that would forbid all cars built before 1989 (owned disproportionately by the poor) from using Bogota’s streets. Diana Marcela Martínez, a local mayor, sought to regulate small business publicity in her district by dictating sizes for all posters and ads outside family shops; those who would not comply would have their stores closed by the police. Let them eat cake.

Having spelled the end for Bogota’s previous recovery, Samuel Moreno will need a series of miracles to turn around the fate of his administration. But perhaps he will not have the time. A group of concerned Bogotans have already started to collect signatures to depose him. Only 366,000 signatures (40% of the number of votes he obtained during the election) are needed for Colombia’s National Registrar to call a vote on Mr. Moreno’s future as mayor of Bogotá. Things being what they are, reaching that number should be quite easy: the mayor’s approval ratings rival those of George W. Bush towards the end of his presidency.

Now, what Bogota needs is lots of patience. With a little bit of luck the maladroit administration of Mr. Moreno’s will soon be a nightmare from which Bogota can finally start to awake.

Author Gustavo Silva is Colombian and studies
Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University in the
U.S. He has his personal weblog.

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