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Fall 2019

“We have nothing to lose and everything to win.”

Northwestern alumna Claudia López is the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. By Lisa Stein

Image: Alejandra Quintero

When Claudia López ’19 PhD began her doctorate in political science at Northwestern in 2011, she was already well known in her native Colombia as an activist, political researcher and fearless investigative reporter.

Before López was awarded her degree last June, she had also served four years as a Colombian senator, beat cancer, run as the vice presidential candidate for the Green Alliance Party in 2018, triumphed over stereotypes as a proud lesbian and inspired a new generation of voters.

And the astonishing truth is, she’s just getting started.

In the months before and after Northwestern’s Commencement, López was in the middle of campaigning for mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. The position is akin to the mayor of New York City and is seen as a steppingstone to the Colombian presidency. On Sunday, Oct. 27, she became the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, winning 35.2% of the vote. Her four-year term begins Jan. 1. 

López’s energetic, upbeat campaign appealed especially to young, urban voters eager for change and not yet weary from decades of corruption and violence. Since 1964 a civil war between the government, deadly right-wing paramilitary groups, organized crime and leftist guerillas has left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and much of the country outside major cities ungoverned.

A November 2016 peace accord ended a half-century of war between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Yet, last August, the historic peace agreement was in trouble from opposing forces both inside and outside the government.

Despite the precarious state of her country, López infused her campaign with her signature optimism, warmth and tolerance.

“Claudia’s approach is celebratory and exciting,” says Northwestern professor Edward Gibson, López’s dissertation adviser. “As a gay woman she will be culturally transformative and motivating to a lot of people who have felt left out of mainstream politics.”

“We have a planet to save. We have democracy to save. And we have a generation to lead.”

López now applies the ideas she learned at Northwestern to the often dangerous world of Colombian politics — a warrior bolstered by intellectual rigor.

An ardent defender of constitutional rights since her university days, López’s defining moment came during a televised panel discussion in 2010, when she confronted then-President Álvaro Uribe about his connections to paramilitary groups, mass murders and drug trafficking. Uribe had been a formidable force in Colombian politics for decades, and López’s takedown of him was epic (see video).

Her attacks in the press against Uribe and violent groups led to the loss of her job at the newspaper El Tiempo and so many death threats she was forced into exile twice. Eventually she left journalism for politics.

“I was frustrated,” López recalls. “The people in paramilitary groups and drug cartels are so powerful. Instead of reporting endlessly I went to work so we can change it.”

At Northwestern, López studied methods of modern state-building — particularly those that could be applied in Colombia’s essentially lawless rural areas. Her dissertation focused on countries that had tackled similar challenges.

“Other countries have been able to build a vibrant society with an inclusive capitalist market,” she says. “We have to understand how others made it and stop making excuses.”

López has become the voice of a new center-left coalition working for anti-corruption agendas, political reform, environmentalism, education and gender issues.

Although she has seen the worst of humanity, López believes that the key to a thriving, stable society comes down to one quality: “The 21st century citizenship needs empathy. Adaptation will be the constant change — we have to foster empathy and self-esteem so people have the capacity to adapt without fear.”

When asked how she remains confident despite so many challenges, she replies, “We have nothing to lose and everything to win. We have a planet to save. We have democracy to save. And we have a generation to lead.”

Lisa Stein ’94 MS is a freelance writer based in Evanston.

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Reader Responses

  • While I agree with certain points in all the comments made, I do think there is a tendency to assume that Colombia and its capital city Bogotá are essentially chaotic and malgoverned. Mayor López did say in her inaugural speech that poverty in Bogotá, with close to 8 million inhabitants (10 million in the metropolitan area), has been reduced overtime from high double digits to the current close to 10% poverty level. She did as well acknowledge the outgoing administration's job and will in fact preserve some of its policies. In sum, it is not accurate to portray Colombia as a lawless deinstitutionalized country. Claudia, for whom I voted, did state that 200 years of democracy had led to her election. All mayors who took office on January 1st in Colombia's major cities (80% of the close to 50-million population is urban) were elected much on the same surge of opinion-based rather than partisan vote. Old politics are on the way out albeit through the country's longstanding electoral system.

    Augusto Figueroa Bogotá, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

  • As a Colombian woman, Northwestern alum and current student, I could not feel more proud to hear the news.
    Wishing Claudia success during her tenure as mayor of Bogota. I am sure the Northwestern community will support your leadership.
    Go Wildcat values!

    Sandra Wagner ’09 CERT Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

  • This is fantastic news. Many people woke up the next day to find this fantastic event that filled our hearts with hope.
    As a fellow researcher I feel proud that finally someone with good education has taken the lead of the chaotic Bogotá. I am sure she will do a fantastic job, which will certainly be tough because she receives the city in very poor conditions to begin with.
    Is her thesis accessible online? It would be very good for political science students to read it.

    Leslie Solorzano Sweden, via Northwestern Magazine

  • With determination and conviction, Claudia is giving to all Colombians an example that we can change our reality and become a peaceful land. As a young Colombian from the countryside, I regard her victory hopefully.

    Alberto Guaranda, Sucre, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

  • I'm so proud of what she’s doing. She’s the light of Colombia and I'm 100% sure she will be the first female president of Colombia.
    Also I would like to highlight that behind this amazing woman there is another amazing woman, Angelica Lozano.
    Glad for my country that is waking up from choosing bad candidates.

    Felipe Suarez London, Ontario, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Excellent article. Thank you!
    Claudia gives hope to the city, and I’m sure that with a bit of luck and tons of her work we will have the best city that we can dream in four years.
    We may not agree on everything, but, as she says, it’s a whole lot more what we have in common than what divide us. We hope for the best, and I’m sure she will exceed all our expectations.

    Carol Naranjo Kaiserslautern, Germany, via Northwestern Magazine

  • It’s important to say that her Ph.D. studies were possible thanks to the Fulbright grant she won in Colombia.


    Sus estudios de doctorado fueron posible gracias a la Beca J. William Fulbright que ganó en Colombia.

    Diana Bogotá, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Claudia is the living and clear example that those of middle / lower social classes can also make the most important political decisions.
    We have to change that dichotomy, and this victory — like that of other alternative candidates throughout our country — is undoubtedly a good start of the course that Colombia must take.
    Thank you for inspiring, Claudia.


    Claudia es el ejemplo vivo y claro que los de clases sociales medias/bajas también podemos llegar a tomar las decisiones políticas más importantes.
    Tenemos que cambiar esa dicitomia, y esta victoria - como la de otros candidatos alternativos a lo largo y ancho de nuestro país-, es sin duda un buen comienzo del rumbo que debe tomar Colombia.
    Gracias por inspirar Claudia.

    Julián Henao Buitrago Bogotá, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Our society is on track toward important social and political changes. Colombia is a beautiful, rich and amazing country, where just a few are giving us a bad image.
    Claudia as politician, woman and lesbian shows perfectly how we are growing as a country and society.

    Julian García Bogotá, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

  • I will second Pilar’s request for Claudia’s dissertation.

    Juan Bogotá, Colombia, via Northwestern Magazine

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