Will the real Claudia López please stand up?

By Phil Stoneman November 4, 2019

Some of the people who have worked with Bogotá’s new mayor speak of her ability to get things done and describe her as enthusiastic, tireless and passionate.

Claudia López celebrates in the centre of thousands of people.

The election of Claudia Nayibe López Hernández has been filling headlines in Colombia and around the world since her mayoral election victory on October 27. As the first female and the first openly gay mayor of Bogotá, elected on a progressive centrist platform, and known for her outspoken style, there’s been no end to the rhetoric written about what she represents for Colombian politics.  

Born into modest surroundings in the centre of Bogotá, Claudia López showed an early inclination for medicine, and started a degree in Biology at the Universidad Distrital. This wasn’t to be though, and an awakening in her political activism led her to switch to a degree in Finance and International Relations at Universidad Externado de Colombia.

She seems to have left a lasting impression, too. Externado lecturer Marie-Eve Detoeuf still remembers the young López’s initial interview as an aspiring finance student almost 30 years later. “She stood out as more mature than the other students, and was very keen to participate,” Detoeuf remembers, going on to describe Claudia as an “outstanding student, very faithful to her group of friends.”

Similarly, Luz Amparo Medina, currently General Culture Director at the Organisation of Ibero-American States in Madrid, and López’s classmate at Externado, recalls her activism and is keen to stress that López is a woman who makes things happen, and a woman of coherence and principles. She sums up her experience of studying with Claudia as it being “a privilege, an honour and a joy to be her friend.”

Related link: Our 3 questions for Claudia López

Bridging the gap between López’s early activism and her much-celebrated anti-corruption stance of recent years is her investigative work first with the Electoral Observation Mission, and then the Arcoiris Corporation around 2006. Mauricio Romero Vidal remembers enthusiasm as a key characteristic of Claudia, who was also able to get people motivated and was highly capable of leading and coordinating teams. He also recalls her being a demanding investigator, who was keen to work on the Corporation’s research into Colombia’s parapolitics scandal. “She had a surprising ability to turn academic research into political argument,” Romero Vidal states.

Many people had the chance to work alongside Claudia during the campaigns this year. Among them was Milton Peña, newly elected edil (councillor) for Bogotá’s Kennedy area. “Her influence was fundamental,” Peña says, going on to describe her as a tireless worker who never hesitated to pound the pavement and talk to people face to face on the campaign. “Some people doing the rounds with us had to drop out: It was too much for them, but not for Claudia.”

Peña stresses that during the campaign Claudia put particular emphasis on listening to people, and asking what could be done to better serve them. She was especially focused on setting up spaces where local residents could voice concerns and grievances, with an eventual aim of “going beyond complaining, and moving into action.” Given her notable anti-corruption stance, it’s hardly surprising that this was also close to the centre of her campaign. Peña describes the proposal to set up new investigative groups to look into public contracts in detail. The idea is to pick up on the sort of everyday corruption that’s rife in Bogotá, hiring companies to resurface perfectly good roads being one example of this.

Melissa Paerez is an example of a more grass-roots level campaigner for Claudia López. After founding La Candelaria’s artspace-cum-hairdresser, La Peluquería, Paerez found herself drawn more and more into Bogotá’s alternative culture scene, and the clashes with the law that came with it. “Our cultural spaces are really vulnerable,” comments Paerez. “The police can close down artistic events at any moment.” Frustrated with a lack of progress, Melisa found herself at one of Claudia’s workshops, and was heartened to see that her complaints were listened to.

Paerez became a firm López supporter, seeing in her campaign “a new generation of activists, and new ways of doing politics, with many activists finding that they now have a voice.”

Not that everything has been straightforward. While some have criticised Claudia as a political chameleon, at times her changes of stance within the wide spectrum of Colombian politics have had quite the opposite effect. As opposed to blending in, her declarations have jarred with her own supporters and even put the future of her own campaign in jeopardy. Paerez acknowledges that she was put off by some of López’s statements, such as her continuing close relationship with Sergio Fajardo and her early campaign announcement that she was sure he would become president of Colombia. But she puts this down to the pure force of Claudia’s convictions: “She’s a passionate person, someone full of emotion.”

Find out more: visit Claudia López’s official campaign site (in Spanish)

It remains to be seen how much of an advantage or obstacle this forceful sense of emotion might be for López’s political career, particularly when weighed against the measured tone of Colombian career politicians.

Just as Romero Vidal described her capacity to motivate and interest her colleagues, it seems that her energy has also caught on in Bogotá. Within our jaded political environment, and after so many years of bad experiences, it’s hard to really feel a sense of optimism, but there seem to be cautious signs that things might be taking a turn for the better. At the very least, López’s sense of commitment, her integrity and desire to make Bogotá a better place is difficult to dismiss.

Where we’re headed is hard to know, but it seems that the person who’ll be at the helm has every wish to move us forward in whatever time scale that might involve. As Paerez says, “we need time to see real change, organic change, in Bogotá.”

In this ever-evolving city, there’s plenty to work on. Let’s hope that Claudia López is fit for the sizeable task at hand. The evidence from people she’s worked with suggests that if anyone is, then it’s her.