The Analyzer (acmeeoy) wrote in ontd_political,
The Analyzer

A Tight Election in Colombia Exposes a Generational Divide in Queens

Luis Guillermo Cano and Diana Pacheco moved to New York City from Colombia around the same time and for the same reason: to escape the drug gangs and guerrilla groups that had terrorized much of their country for decades.

But that is about all they have in common. Mr. Cano and Ms. Pacheco are 20 years apart in age, and their vastly different memories of life in Colombia set them on a political collision course on a recent Sunday over who should be their homeland’s next president.

Ms. Pacheco, 23, who lives in Elmhurst, Queens, supports Antanas Mockus, a progressive mathematician and philosopher credited with sparking the transformation of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, during his tenure as its mayor.

Mr. Cano, 43, who lives in neighboring Jackson Heights, backs Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister under the current president, Álvaro Uribe, who led a bloody offensive against leftist guerrillas.

Standing on 90th Street, near Roosevelt Avenue, Mr. Cano glared at Ms. Pacheco and her college-age compatriots, who wore green shirts with campaign slogans praising Mr. Mockus, and said, “Mockus is very smart, but he doesn’t have a strong arm to govern a country at war.”

As Colombia prepares for national elections on Sunday, the close contest between Mr. Mockus and Mr. Santos has exposed a generational divide among voters thousands of miles away in Queens, which is home to most of the 120,000 or so Colombians living in the city. (There are about five million living outside Colombia.)

On Mr. Mockus’s side are people like Ms. Pacheco, a graduate student in educational psychology at Hunter College who left Colombia in 2001. Her most vivid recollections of the country, she said, are of the positive changes Mr. Mockus inspired in Bogotá, like getting people to use crosswalks by hiring mimes to mock jaywalkers at some of the city’s busiest intersections.

Mr. Mockus “represents something totally different, something that’s not traditional,” Ms. Pacheco said. “Older people are not used to having politicians thinking outside the box.”

Using tools that are familiar to them — a Facebook page, instant messages, videos on YouTube — Mr. Mockus’s followers in New York strive to drum up support for their candidate and organize events. It is a strategy that proved successful before, they said, when a certain senator from Illinois used social-networking media to mobilize young voters and ended up in the White House.

“It’s the same ideas of hope and change that got people to vote for Obama that are pushing this movement,” said Michael Alvarez, a health insurance sales agent from Astoria.

Mr. Alvarez, 32, was born in the United States and raised in Medellín, the Colombian city made infamous by the violent drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar. But Medellín has been transformed, with a murder rate lower than that of Washington, thanks in part to the work of a former mayor and Mr. Mockus’s running mate, Sergio Fajardo.

Mr. Santos is sharing the ticket with Angelino Garzón, a former journalist and labor leader who most recently served as Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. He is regarded as a liberal balance to Mr. Santos’s conservative leanings.

Mr. Mockus’s surprising surge in recent polls to a virtual tie with Mr. Santos has stirred widespread interest over what is seen as a critical election for Colombia’s future.

“A lot of people who left Colombia because of the violence are hopeful that the country will maintain the level of security it has achieved under President Uribe,” said Adriana Aristizábal, a Colombian consular official in New York. “We’re expecting a big turnout because there’s great interest in the election and because there’s no candidate leading the polls right now.”

To vote on Sunday, Colombians here must have voted in past Colombian elections or have registered at the local consulate by Dec. 31, 2009. In New York, they can cast ballots at two locations, the Colombian consulate in Manhattan and Public School 69 in Jackson Heights.

To Mr. Cano, a salesman who moved to New York from the mountains of western Colombia in 1999, Mr. Mockus is the anti-Uribe, a man too soft to deal with the serious threats posed by guerrilla groups, which are closely connected to the drug trade.

To the young backers of Mr. Mockus gathered near Roosevelt Avenue on May 16, the final stop on a march along the streets of Jackson Heights, Mr. Mockus is the ideal successor to Mr. Uribe, someone who will also address Colombia’s needs beyond safety.

“Mockus will bring something very important: a discussion of values,” said Camilo Aristizábal (no relation to the consular official), 29, who left Colombia three months ago and lives with an uncle in Long Beach, N.Y.

On foot, bicycles and roller skates, the supporters of Mr. Mockus turned onto 81st Street and then headed west onto 37th Avenue, weaving in and out of side roads. It was an event modeled after Mr. Mockus’s closing of a major roadway in Bogotá to traffic — an idea that inspired Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to do the same on some streets during the summer. By late afternoon, the caravan convened before a screen at a local community organization to watch a live video of Mr. Mockus addressing Colombians in 67 cities around the world.

Mr. Mockus talked about the importance of English-language education and tax reform, as well as the need for a new approach to fighting the guerrillas. “We have to win the war,” he said, “but not in a dirty manner.”

The audience cheered. One of the people in the crowd was Andres Santacruz, 32, who moved to Englewood, N.J., from Bogotá 12 years ago and runs a small promotions company.

“The fact that I’m sitting here in Queens, on Roosevelt Avenue, watching him with all these people, it’s huge,” Mr. Santacruz said. “To be registered to vote in another country, but have your vote count, is amazing.” 


Tags: colombia, elections, new york

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