AQ's Jason Marczak Features IRI's Democratic Governance Summit in Latin America

August 10, 2011

Latin American Mayors at the Forefront of Innovation
Americas Quarterly Blog

By Jason Marczak

It’s not often that mayors from nine Latin American countries and even Jordan have the opportunity to come together for three days to learn from each other about how to deal with some of their cities’ most pressing issues: balancing budgets, increasing citizen participation, promoting public-private partnerships, fostering economic growth, improving security, and, of course, strengthening democracy. But that’s precisely what happened in Bogotá, Colombia, last week at a conference organized by the International Republican Institute (IRI).

The message was clear: these mayors are among those at the front line of creating new, creative policies and programs that respond to their communities’ most urgent challenges. And policymakers at the national level have much to learn from these local laboratories of innovation.

Take Oscar Montes, mayor of the municipality of Tarija in Bolivia. He inherited a city drowning in debt and revived it through a participatory budgeting plan. Montes’ initiative is structured so that citizens and local interest groups submit their priorities for infrastructure projects and jointly decide with the municipality which projects should be financed. Involving local stakeholders in city planning is more time consuming than simply rolling out a budget—but the process has paid off. Tax collection is up because tarijeños now feel like they are part of the city’s development, and project beneficiaries are now willing to financially contribute to infrastructure development that is aimed at their particular interests or neighborhoods.

Mayor Montes has also focused on converting the wine-producing city of Tarija into a tourism destination through partnerships with local entrepreneurs. With technical assistance from the municipality, family wineries have opened up restaurants and small hotels to attract visitors from neighboring Argentina. (Check back to AQ Online for a forthcoming exclusive interview with Mayor Montes.)

Participatory budgeting is also a priority for Mayor Carlos Ocariz of the municipality of Sucre—where 70 percent of the population is in the two lowest economic quintiles—in Caracas, Venezuela. (See my interview with him posted today.) In office for three years, Mayor Ocariz aims to have 50 percent of his municipality’s budget managed by the community in 2012. And this is no short order: in the last year, the citizens managed the budgets and implementation—with oversight from the municipality—of over 600 projects.

But he admits that Sucre’s principal challenge is insecurity. When Ocariz took over as mayor in 2008, the municipality registered 773 homicides per year and was trying to rein in the violence without a police academy—it had been closed earlier—or any social programs. Only 12 police cars and 17 police motorcycles patrolled the 1.6-million person area. Mayor Ocariz addressed these problems head-on: creating new public spaces (including a “movies in the street” program); bringing people together through sport; and overseeing a 100 percent jump in police salaries and a 925 percent increase in the number of police cars. These along with other initiatives have led to a 40 percent drop in crime since Ocariz took office.

And there are other mayors taking charge of their communities. Oscar Ortiz, an FMLN member during the civil war and now a politician, works nonstop to increase security in the Salvadoran city of Santa Tecla. In a country where the public and private sectors are often more divided than united, Mayor Ortiz constructed a plan to not only bring stakeholders in his city together but to also liaise with international organizations such as the World Bank for funding his city’s improvement strategy. He focuses on tangible results and is keenly aware of the need to plan and work toward long-term goals—those that extend beyond one term in office. That’s how to affect real, lasting change. (Check back to AQ Online for a forthcoming exclusive interview with Mayor Ortiz.)

But among these outstanding mayors, Jeaneth Ordoñez stuck out—and not just because she celebrated her birthday with us at the conference. Mayor Ordoñez is the first female mayor of San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán in Guatemala. She got the job after the previous mayor was assassinated—and before that, his predecessor was killed as well. Still, Mayor Ordoñez, a mother and wife, took the job as she believed it was her destiny to help the community.

Mayor Ordoñez has not only overcome machismo from the local assembly—men who, in her words, are not accustomed to having their meetings led by a female—but she also oversaw efforts to tackle the problem of illiteracy in her municipality. On January 28, 2010, the town became the first in Guatemala to eradicate illiteracy according to international standards. She emphasizes that 100 percent illiteracy is impossible—but the small percentage of those illiterate in San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán, 2.57 percent to be exact, falls within United Nations guidelines of an area being declared fully literate. Since her feat—one that she notes was a community-wide effort involving all stakeholders—six additional Guatemalan towns have followed in her footsteps to eliminate illiteracy.

Mayor Ordoñez is up for re-election as part of Guatemala’s national elections on September 11, 2011. (Like the others, check back to AQ Online for a forthcoming exclusive interview.)

These mayors are just a few of the 50-plus participants at this IRI forum—which convened leaders of all ideologies—that had one single goal: improving local government and democracy. And while their political positions may differ, all shared many common aims: governing for all; transparent administrations; teamwork; citizen participation; public-private alliances; and producing concrete, quantifiable results. U.S. policymakers in Washington DC would have a lot to learn from these innovative leaders across Latin America.

Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AQ Online and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.