Mayor with mostest hugs the limelight

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The Independent Online
When Antanas Mockus, the 44-year-old Mayor of Bogota, got married in January, he and his bride took their vows while astride an elephant inside a cage full of Bengali tigers.

As a snub to the Roman Catholic Church, in which he had been married once before, Mr Mockus had rented a local circus for the wedding.

All guests, including his family, the best man and the bridesmaids, had to pay an entrance fee and the proceeds went to feeding the Colombian capital's street children.

Not only is Mr Mockus the most popular Bogota mayor of recent times, he is also the most popular man in Colombia and the most likely next president. Opinion polls suggest he would be be a runaway winner were elections to be held now.

The elections are not due until 1998 but Colombia's narco-corruption scandal, with President Ernesto Samper under investigation over cocaine- cartel funding of his campaign, means a snap poll may have to be held this year and the mayor has said he will run.

Born in Bogota of Lithuanian parents, and partly educated in France, Mr Mockus was a well-known professor of both philosophy and mathematics at Colombia's National University until he was elected mayor in 1994. He won without really campaigning. He didn't have to. He was already a well-known eccentric, renowned most for dropping his trousers during a university debate and exposing his bare trasero (backside) to an interlocutor whose views he did not share.

As mayor of the world's most violent capital, Mr Mockus's motto is simple: lighten up and hug each other a lot. He encourages his City Hall employees to hug one another when they come and go and encourages humour to release the stress and anger that has given the city a record per capita homicide rate.

So far, there is little sign that the violence has eased but Mr Mockus, whose beard gives him the look of a young Solzhenitsyn, has certainly put a smile on the faces of Bogota residents. He has even sent in the clowns.

Concerned about aggressive behaviour by pedestrians, he ordered municipal officials to dress up as clowns and make fun of anyone caught crossing streets against a red light or showing any other signs of anti-social behaviour. Walking in the city centre, you'll hear bursts of laughter as pedestrians watch the clowns mimic the guilty party. "Humiliation is more effective than fines," says Mr Mockus.

He issued traffic policemen with red cards and whistles and ordered them to show the card, football referee-style, as a symbolic put-down to anyone violating traffic rules.

After upsetting the city's taxi-drivers by barring them from carrying guns - most did so for their own protection - he won back their support by raising the basic fare. As for the traffic aggression that led to many homicides, he came up with a scheme aimed at encouraging drivers to let off steam without going for their guns.

When motorists pay their road tax, they are issued with a cut-out green fist and a white one. The green is shaped like a thumbs-down and is to be displayed when you're upset with another driver. The white one shows a thumbs-up and is to be shown to any motorist who shows courtesy. Residents say the green card is regularly seen but the white one is somewhat rare.

At a recent press conference, Mr Mockus produced a human-shaped figure made out of yellow balloons and began beating it up, slapping it against a wall. "I'm imagining this is someone that hurt me when I was a child," he told said. "When you're angry, don't bottle it up or take it out on the person who hurt you. Make a balloon man and take it out on the balloons."