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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.”
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.