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LATIN AMERICA // A New Breed of Politicians

When Antanas Mockus ran for mayor of this city of 6-million, he had no political experience, no money and no party backing.

In fact, at that point, he was best known for baring his buttocks in public.

Unconventional? Yes.

Unelectable? No.

He won _ by a landslide.

So too Irene Saez. When she stood for mayor of Chacao, a wealthy district of Caracas, the capital of neighboring Venezuela, body parts were also her main claim to fame. In 1981 she won the Miss Universe title.

Both are colorful examples of a new breed of political outsiders challenging the traditional elites of Latin America. They are independents who believe in politics but not political parties.

Their elections are more than just an entertaining diversion from the way politics is normally conducted. They reflect the public's deep disenchantment with what is perceived to be a corrupt monopoly of power held by the region's ruling political class. National problems are going unattended, voters say, while politicians devote their energies to handing out favors to friends and wealthy business groups in return for handsome kickbacks.

It's a trend that is growing throughout the hemisphere, including the United States. Call it the Ross Perot phenomenon, after the Texas billionaire who won 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election.

To bring about real change these alternative politicians are using innovative ideas to catch the public's attention, whether it's blowing up condoms in public to demonstrate safe sex, or distributing flashcards to frustrated city motorists.

But their chief success lies in a back-to-basics philosophy of caring for the community, paying taxes and receiving value-for-money services in return.

All over Latin America, newcomers are mounting campaigns against old-style politicians, and public pressure groups are cropping up to demand democratic reforms to eliminate electoral fraud and corruption.

Hollywood actor and singer Ruben Blades won 20 percent of the vote in Panama's presidential elections in 1994, and he is expected to be a contender in 1998.

In Nicaragua, some people talk of Cleveland Indians pitcher Dennis Martinez as a presidential candidate. He won't be standing in elections there this October, but friends say look out for him in 2000.

Alternative candidates are scarce in Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party has ruled uninterrupted for 67 years. But popular pressure groups under the umbrella of the Civic Alliance have successfully demanded reforms to the country's repressive and authoritarian political system.

"There is a growing bitterness among many Mexicans, a growing feeling among many of us that enough is enough, that we want our public officials to be accountable, that we are fed up," said Sergio Aguayo, a Civic Alliance leader.

But Aguayo, a university professor, says Mexico is still learning the role civil society can play in politics. It has not been easy getting the outsider message across in a country where local television and radio are controlled by groups linked to the ruling party.

He said: "The traditional elite does everything it can to ignore us and minimize our importance."

The "Carrot Plan'

At first sight the Venezuelan mayor, Saez _ a striking blond _ and her Colombian counterpart, Mockus _ a bearded philosopher _ might appear as different as beauty and the beast. But they share a surprising amount in common.

Both emerged from countries in political crisis and have won enormous popular support, bordering on cult status. Yet both refuse to join established political parties, or spend money on election campaigns.

"My election shows how deep is the public disdain for the traditional political process," Mockus said in an interview at his office.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is a former professor of philosophy and mathematical logic, with a resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. He wears round-rimmed glasses and speaks slowly and thoughtfully, often pressing his fingers together and staring at the ceiling or floor in an intellectual gaze.

"Ideas are what make history, politicians are ephemeral," Mockus said, raising his voice over the sound of demonstrators passing in the street outside calling for the resignation of President Ernesto Samper.

Formal charges of drug-related electoral fraud were brought against Samper on Wednesday by Colombia's attorney general. But the president refuses to resign, swearing he is innocent of allegations that he accepted more than $6-million from drug traffickers to finance his 1994 election campaign.

Mockus says the crisis has exposed the illegitimacy of the country's politicians. On Friday the local Catholic church said corruption runs so deep in Colombian society that the country is "morally sick."

Mockus has taken his own mockery of the system to unusual lengths. He staged his marriage last month in a circus tent, an apparent parody of the state of Colombian politics. He and his betrothed rode into the big top on an elephant. The wedding ceremony took place in a cage, with seven Bengal tigers as witnesses.

"Mockus is giving new oxygen to the country," said Juan Lozano, a columnist with the daily El Tiempo. "He has added new ingredients to our political culture, as well as our moral behavior."

He first made headlines as rector of the National University when he dropped his trousers before an audience of university students who were heckling him.

That display cost him his job. When he ran for mayor in 1994, some refused to take him seriously, calling him "the clown prince of Bogota."

Refusing to seek campaign funds or hold public rallies, he instead rode around Bogota on a bicycle talking to people in the street. He won with a budget of $3,000.

As mayor he has launched a program of what he calls "citizen culture," teaching residents how to treat each other with greater courtesy in a city where disputes often are settled at gunpoint.

At Christmas, he launched the controversial "Carrot Plan," using the vegetable as a symbol of healthy, socially conscious behavior.

Under the plan, fireworks were banned and new drinking laws introduced, forcing Bogota night spots to close at 1 a.m.

In past years, scores of Colombian children have been killed or maimed in fireworks accidents. Late-night drinking has also been blamed for Bogota's high incidence of street violence.

The mayor's office says early results show the number of car accidents and homicides has dropped appreciably.

"Not an airhead'

Next door in Venezuela, Saez has had to overcome her Barbie-doll looks to prove to critics that she is a woman of substance.

Although the spotlight is currently on Colombia's drug scandal, corruption is as bad if not worse in Venezuela. Some who like the corrupt old ways are irritated by Saez. "I am what they call around here a stone in their shoe," she says.

In other respects she has had an easier task than Mockus. Chacao is the wealthiest district of Caracas, with a population of 180,000.

Her programs emphasize clean streets, better health care, improved education, sports and culture.

"There is a lack of leadership that is truly in tune with the community," said Saez. "Essential community problems have no political color. It's common sense, it's being practical and sensitive to the needs of the people."

Her greatest achievement has been the creation of an honest, well-paid, well-educated police force. That's a rarity in Latin America, where many officers can barely read or write and are lucky if they earn $100 a month. Bribery and corruption are consequently the norm.

In Chacao, traffic and parking regulations are strictly enforced. There's even a ban on drivers using cellular phones.

Like Mockus, when Saez decided to run for mayor in 1992, she ran an untraditional campaign, refusing to spend money or paste up posters of herself because "that dirties the city."

Some said she was out of her league, with no political experience and a resume that included, "1981-82: Television actress in commercials for sugarless gum."

She was satirized on a popular television program, which featured a look-alike whose campaign promise was: "I'm going to make everything beautiful, everyone is going to love everybody else, birds will sing, flowers will bloom . . ."

A reporter interrupted: "And the broken sidewalks?"

"I'll make them into catwalks."

"And the potholes?"

"I'll put makeup on them."

But Saez is no bimbo.

After winning Miss Universe in 1981, Saez led a literacy campaign and served as Venezuela's cultural attache in New York. She speaks English and French, has a degree in political science and is currently studying for a second degree in municipal administration at night school.

"People love Irene Saez," she says. "They know everything she's done. They know she's not an airhead."

Love her, they certainly do. When she stood for re-election last December, she refused to campaign at all. When a wealthy businessman decided to run against her, his mother said she was ashamed of him. Saez won with 96 percent, possibly a record in the history of Latin American democracy.

Indeed, Mockus and Saez are so popular that commentators are talking of them as presidential candidates.

That may not be far off. Polls suggest Saez's anti-corruption platform would make her a strong candidate.

Elections may not be far off in Colombia, where President Samper is also in danger of being impeached. A poll last week of possible presidential candidates put Mockus well ahead of rivals from the main political parties.

Mockus acknowledges he would like to give it a shot.

If either of them win, their supporters wonder whether Saez and Mockus will be able to resist being sucked into Latin America's seemingly irresistible vortex of political corruption.