Ruminations from Colombia
I have been in Colombia for the past three weeks. It has been an amazing opportunity to gain some perspective on how things are in the United States by seeing how they are somewhere else.
Politics in Colombia, at least for the past forty or so years, have been marked by civil war and violence. Guerrillas, right wing paramilitaries, and the state have each had a role in the violence. Opportunities for real political participation, particularly for people on the left, have often been closed off by this violence. Thousands of citizens, union leaders and political candidates have been killed.
Notwithstanding this grim state of affairs, I have been impressed by the accessibility of elected officials in Colombia. Within my first 14 days in Colombia, I ran into the Mayors of the country's two largest cities, Bogota (8 million people) and Medellin (3 million people) each at free concerts at public parks in the city they help to govern. What struck me was the fact that neither man was playing a ceremonial role at the event that I saw them at. They were casually dressed, with friends or family, and neither was surrounded by bodyguards or a security patrol. Both men were having what looked like substantive conversations with folks they had just bumped into at these events. Neither man wore a tie, made a speech, or glad-handed the crowd.
In the almost twenty years that I have lived in New York City, I have never seen an elected official at an event that they were not working at - standing at the front of a crowd at a press conference, receiving an honor, making a speech at an organizational holiday party, or serving as a speaker at a graduation ceremony or a public event. There is nothing wrong with politicians doing any of this, and, often, their participation in these events helps attract media attention to important isues, honor tthe work of everyday New Yorkers, or celebrate the achievements of New York City students. Nonetheless, the absence of elected officials from public events that are accessible to everyone, and the rarity of these officials listening, as oppossed to speaking, at such events, is a weakness of our political culture . Citizens should not need to cough up a thousand dollars a plate, be a lobbyist, or be on the invite list of a special party, to have a substantive converstation with an elected official. Sadly, it took a trip to one of South America's most troubled democracies to see that it doesn't have to be this way.