Why you should care
Because her passion could help change her country’s future.
The apartment tells little about its famous occupant. On the third floor of a brick building in a middle-class Bogotá neighborhood lies a modest residence with no doorman and an old sofa in the entryway; it is decorated with only some books, a hammock and an abstract painting. This tranquil space is home to Colombia’s most strident, polarizing and fearless public figure: Claudia López.
Small, almost frail looking, López has picked fights with a long list of heavyweight foes who have tried squashing her by all means possible — including death threats. But three presidents, dozens of congressmen and some of the continent’s most sanguinary villains have failed to shut her up, instead helping fuel her rise from activist to senator. “I’m frank and call things for what they are,” she says. “This is a country of hypocrites where evil is trivialized. And it boils my blood.” Assuming she can survive in a country with a long history of assassinating leaders who defy the establishment, some supporters even see her as a future president.
The purity of her discourse has fueled her rise but could also lead to her downfall.
A culture of corruption and terror has shackled this nation of 47 million with unrelenting, violent civil strife longer than Lopez, 45, has been alive. A 2013 report tallied 220,000 killed, thousands unaccounted for and nearly five million displaced between 1958 and 2013. Ongoing peace talks with the biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could help end the death and disruption. Long an outsider, López is now poised to play a significant part in Colombia’s future from the inside, if she can stomach the game of politics.
“The purity of her discourse has fueled her rise but could also lead to her downfall,” says Juan Carlos Rodríguez Raga, director of the political science department at Bogota’s University of Los Andes. Learning to make an occasional concession, Raga says, “is part of her learning process.” She’s had plenty of teachable moments: Besides being threatened, she’s been sued (unsuccessfully) for defamation numerous times. Most recently, foes tried to get her booted from congress for allegedly being the partner of another congresswoman. (Openly gay, López proved there was no relationship.)
In her apartment in Bogotá, López proves to be witty as well as passionate, even sprinkling an occasional profanity into the conversation. Her elegant, boyish hairdo matches her macho outfit and almost unnoticeable makeup. Unlike most other Colombian leaders, Lopez doesn’t come from the country’s upper crust. She was the only child of a schoolteacher and a businessman; her mother took on groundskeeping duties in return for housing at her school. She struggled to get into college, initially planning to go to med school but ultimately graduating with a degree in finance, government and international relations in 1996.
At 27, she was named director of community action in Bogotá, the capital and home to 7 million people. That launched her activist career. In 2000, after learning just enough English to qualify, she decided to get her master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University in New York, supporting herself by cleaning houses. She returned to Colombia in 2003 to work as a consultant for the United Nations, but her life changed completely in 2006, when, as an independent researcher, she almost single-handedly exposed a complex corruption and electoral-fraud conspiracy known as parapolitica, or paramilitary politics, showing how drug money controlled by paramilitary forces flowed through the country’s political establishment.
Her findings helped jail dozens of officials and business leaders, including 42 congressmen, and raised questions about the election of then-President Alvaro Uribe. The government called her work politically motivated, suggesting she was working with FARC, but some guerrilla-funded politicians landed in jail as well. Threats on her life began to mount, so in 2011, she decided to flee again to the United States, this time with a Fulbright scholarship to seek her doctorate in political science at Northwestern University. To add to her worries, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a scare she has survived. Feeling the strain of both, she says, “I’ve never felt death so close.”
Back in Colombia in 2013, she decided to enter politics, running for the Senate with the Green Alliance Party, a progressive-centrist group, and surprisingly won one of the highest vote totals in the March 2014 balloting. Not surprisingly, she has used her new pulpit to continue her criticisms of the system. Even some friends say she might be overdoing it. “Claudia is too impulsive sometimes. She’s very outspoken, and that can be dangerous,” says close friend Juanita León, a journalist and author. Still, León believes López is learning to be more strategic. “I can see her as president one day,” she says.
It’s far too early for that, political scientist Raga says; she needs more experience. López does not argue the point. She admits her impatience and perfectionism combine to make her “intolerant.” So she tries to find some balance in her life out of the spotlight, away from the team of bodyguards and armored cars she must employ as she tries to save her country’s troubled soul. She is in love, she says, and hopes someday to have children. For now, she finds time to go dancing, to ride her bike and enjoy nature with her dog, Matias. “My soul depends on very simple things,” she says, “and I have all of them.”