Saturday, July 26, 2014

Envisioning Violence

Paramilitary fighters overlook Medellin; by Jesus Abad Colorado.
Few nations have had more experience with violence in recent decades than has Colombia, and probably no region of the world more than Latin America. 

'Comuna Trece,' by Jesus Abad Colorado.
So the exhibit 'Reality in Conflict' on now in the Espacio Arte Nexus in the Las Nieves neighborhood is timely and thought provoking. A girl peers out thru a bullet hole in a window in Medellin's notorious Comuna 13; Paramilitary fighters with automatic rifles overlook Medellin; Bolívar's plate crumbles into cocaine; Colombia's 1,000-peso bills carries not only one image of martyred leader Gaitan, but many.

The works, all of which come from private collections, span decades of art and include work by famed photographers and painters. Most are understated, but their message is still clear.

Unfortunately, the gallery, located on the second floor of a nondescript building in the Las Nieves neighborhood, is only open for walk-in visitors on Saturdays. However, you can call and make an appointment to see the exhibition on a different day. The exhibit ends Aug. 7.

Amidst the plethora of abstract art exhibitions, which say almost nothing, this one's worth seeing.

'Violence Study,' by Alejandro Obregón.'
'Violence', by Luis Angel Rengifo.
'Violence', by Luis Angel Rengifo.
'The harvest of the violent ones'. By Alfonso Quijano.
The nondescript Las Nieves building, on Carera 8, nos 20-17, which contains the Espacio Arte Nexus, has been converted into art studios.
A video by Fernando Arias.
Bronze sculptures by Fernando Arias.
'Flowrs for Diana', by Zoraida Diaz.
Juan Manuel Echavarria, 'Requiem NN.'
'The biggest weapon makes the rules.' By Moris (Israel Meza Moreno)
By Maria Cano.
From The New York Times, Sept. 1970. By Liliana Porter.
'Efluvio (Miedo)' by Johana Calle.
'Who can erase the prints?' by Regina Galindo.
'Boceto.' By Deborah Arango.
'Justice'. By Debora Arango.
'Knife fight class.' By Edwin Sanchez.
How to make a knife.
'Tirofijo,' by Jonathan Hernandez. Tirofijo was the founder and historical leader of the FARC guerrillas.
'Shell ball', by Fernando Arias.
Multiple Gaitans, by Luis Hernandez Mellizo. Jorge Eliecer was a populist politician whose 1948 assassination triggered the Bogotázo riots.
'Knights of faith,' by Jose Alejandro Restrepo. (Rescue workers carry dead and injured out of the justice palace in 1985. 

Plates fracturing into - guess what?
'Bolivar's plate,' by Juan Manuel Echavarria.

'Legion,' by Carlos Castro: a music machine made from knives.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Get Away With Financing Terrorism

A mural in Bogotá shows bananas and victims of violence. 
Between 1989 and 2004 the Chiquita banana company paid millions of dollars to Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

The organizations are or were classified as terrorists by the U.S., Colombian and European governments. And, while Chiquita was paying terrorists millions, the organizations were violating human rights in all kinds of horrific ways: torturing, massacring, kidnapping and driving peasants off of their lands and out of their homes. While Chiquita was paying off the paramilitaries, they murdered 4,000 people in Uraba province and drove 60,000 off of their land, according to the leftist organization COHA.

Chiquita claims that it had no choice but to make these payments in order to protect its workers from murder
and kidnapping. But the companies' critics charge that Chiquita also paid the paramilitaries, at least, in return for the far-right organization's repressing unions and peasants - sometimes with violence.

Read horrific accounts of paramilitary violence here.

The paramilitaries also smuggled at least one shipment of weapons - and perhaps several more - into Colombia thru a port controlled by Chiquita's subsidiary Banadex.

And Chiquita clearly did have an alternative to funding terrorists: it could have pulled out of Colombia.

In 2007, Chiquita, whose annual revenues are in the billions, paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government for funding terrorists. (If you or I funded terrorists, we'd probably go to prison. But Chiquita's ex-lawyer is U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.)

The Colombian victims of the terrorist groups which Chiquita was funding received nothing.

However, 4,000 relatives of those victims sued Chiquita in U.S. courts - and yesterday their lawsuit got nixed.

The court didn't reject the lawsuit based on the facts of what happened. Chiquita confessed that it paid off the terrorists, and the terror groups' actions are public record. However, the court ruled that the plaintiffs couldn't sue Chiquita in the U.S. because the crimes were committed in Colombia.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers argue that the decisions to fund the terrorists were made in Chiquita's U.S. corporate offices. According to the Associated Press and Wikipedia, a Chiquita executive wrote a note saying the payments were the "cost of doing business in Colombia" and pointed out the "need to keep this very confidential - people can get killed." Chiquita's outside attorneys had also advised the company that the payments violated U.S. anti-terror laws, but the company continued paying until it sold its Colombian interests in 2004.

The plaintiffs' attorneys say they'll appeal.

Perhaps the victims can now sue Chiquita in Colombia - except that the company sold its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, in 2004, and no longer has assets here the plaintiffs could sue for.

The lesson: If you're going to finance terrorists, it helps to be a rich, well-connected multinational.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Dark Side of Jamesmania

A vendor in Paloquemao Market celebrates the success of millionaire athlete James Rodriguez.
Of all the things which might obsess a nation, one of the last I'd have expected would by the hiring of a Colombian football player by a team in Spain.

While we were obsessing with James Rodriguez...
drought-killed cattle in northern Colombia.
James' shirts fly off the hangars in Spain.
James Rodriguez is undoubtedly a talented football player and seems to be a nice guy. He's also become fabulously wealthy by playing a sport which many others play for fun. Banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento and beer brewer Alejandro Santo Domingo, Colombia's richest men, made their money by decades of getting up early, negotiating deals, hiring employees and analyzing budgets (and, sure, probably exploiting more than a few people along the way) - but they probably receive more resentment and jealousy than admiration from other Colombians.

Rodriguez undoubtedly worked hard, too. But he became rich and famous doing something fun, thanks to lots of inborn ability. And he gets showered with admiration, rather than jealousy.

Colombian footballer Juan Guillermo Cuadrado signing
t-shirts for Colombian children he has helped.
And, while the media and public have been obsessing over Rodriguez's ball-kicking ability, other things have happened in Colombia: There's a terrible drought in parts of the country; El Chocó has been wracked by poverty and violence; A new study found high levels of malnutrition in impoverished Colombian kids; Guerrilla bombings are spilling oil; a mine disaster in El Cauca killed seven people...and on and on.

But that's been eclipsed by Rodriguez. Is Rodriguez's ball-kicking ability really more important than any of that?

A football jersey from James Rodriguez's
foundation Colombia Somos Todos.
Spanish newspapers have questioned whether Rodriguez is really worth 80 million euros, just because he played well in a few World Cup games. They should also ask whether it's ethical for a Spanish company to spend a fortune on a single athlete while millions of Spaniards are unemployed, homeless and hungry.

Colombians should ask whether Rodriguez, a young man who hardly needs millions to survive, will send part of his fortune home to help the needy. I found this ugly list of five ways Rodriguez might spend his money, including buying luxury cars and big mansions. Helping others was last on the list. The Colombian business publication Portfolio has an equally ugly article suggesting that Rodriguez buy a luxury car or a mansion, and pointing out that he'll earn 2 million pesos per hour, more than triple Colombia's monthly minimum wage. Rodriguez's annual salary is greater than Bogotá's planned investment to clean up the Rio Bogotá. How many displaced or sick people could Rodriguez help? Or, will he instead follow in the footsteps of team mate Cristian Ronaldo and spent his fortune collecting luxury automobiles?

Hopefully not. In 2011, Rodriguez created the 'Colombia Somos Todos' foundation. That's a good start. Now that he's earning close to $1 million a month and will surely rake in much more by endorsing things like athletic shoes and deodorant, let's hope he does good with his fortune.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Picturing Discrimination

Only young white females need apply. (Photo: El Espectador)

Wanted to hire: 'Female medical surgeon with diploma....
                           From 25 to 35 years of age, white skin.
                           Personal interview with Dr. Guarin, July 22 at 10 a.m.'

This shamelessly racist classified ad was published recently in a newspaper in Cali, a mostly Afro city. Dr. Guarin has deservedly received lots of criticism for his overt racism. The clinic where he rented his office disowned him, and I suspect he'll be facing lawsuits.
Would you hire these people? Resumés with
photos make it easy to select applicants by race,
age and appearance.

But Dr. Guarin is not only a bigot, but also stupid. After all, Colombian employment practices make employment discrimination of every kind perfectly easy - and covert.

Why didn't Dr. Guarin just call for all applicants to send him their resumés - and then toss into the trash all those whose photos showed they didn't have 'white skin'? (I'm not saying he should have done such an ugly thing, which would also have been stupid, since he'd be reducing his own pool of applicants.)

The Colombian practice of including photos on CVs has always seemed to me not only pointless, but also an open door to discrimination of every kind: by age, sex, ethnicity and attractiveness.

Not long ago, researchers at Los Andes University in Bogotá sent out a bunch of resumé's with identical qualifications and experience, but accompanied by photos of applicants of different races. Surprise, surprise: those resumés with photos of black applicants received fewer calls for interviews.

The contrast with the United States, which seems obsessed with stamping out discrimination, couldn't be greater. There, if you were a member of your high school's black/Jewish/gay/Christian etc Student Union you're supposed to leave it off just in case it might give you an unfair advantage or disadvantage with the employer. Require applicants to include their photos, and every civil rights organization, as well as the federal government, would have you in court in no time.

It's a measure of what a hot-button race is that the public uproar was all about skin tone. After all, in his tiny ad, Dr. Guarin also discriminated by gender (he specified that the surgeon be female) and by age. Such discrimination is routine in Colombian businesses, and taken for granted. Is it illegal?

I have no idea about Dr. Guarin's medical abilities. But, judging by this ad, he's a lousy businessman. After all, by restricting applicants by age, gender and race, he's excluding most potential applicants, likely eliminating his best potential employee.

It all makes one wonder whether Dr. Guarin's motives for hiring only a young woman were something other than professional.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Sculpture's Sad Legacy

Amongst the alcoholics, prostitutes, illegal street vendors and alcoholic prognosticating taitas stands La Mariposa, by famed Colombian sculptor Edgar Negret, shamefully abandoned. The abstract sculpture, whose name means 'Butterfly', presumably represents hope. Instead, it's a public urinal, a sleeping place for drunks, a refuge for pigeons.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Once and Future Paramilitaries?

A Botero painting portrays a 1988 paramilitary massacre.
Leg bones from a massacre victim.
During the 1980s, '90s and the early 2000s, the Paramilitaries were the terror of Colombia, committing many of the conflict's worst atrocities: rapes, chain-saw massacres and the driving of campesinos from their homes and land.

But in 2005-6, they signed peace agreements, turned in their weapons and agreed to short prison terms in return to confessing their crimes.

Investigators recover bodies from a
paramilitary massacre site.
And, last week, Colombia's paramilitaries officially disappeared - at least according to the United States government. In a little-noticed act, the U.S. State Department removed the paramilitaries' umbrella organization, the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) from its list of terrorist organization.

Unfortunately, however, according to news reports and to many Colombians, the paramilitaries are still there.

Recent newspaper headlines mention paramilitaries.
Yes, the AUC was dissolved, and many of its leaders are doing time in Colombian and US prisons. But, in parts of Colombia where government control is weak and violent criminal groups remain strong, paramilitary groups continue operating as an  almost inevitable product of the circumstances.

What else would you expect? After all, if you were a farmer living in an area wracked by guerrillas and other criminal bands, which stole your livestock, threatened to kidnap you and your children and taxed your income, wouldn't you also embrace 'self-defense' forces to fight those groups?

After the AUC's disappearance, some of its ex-members simply transformed themselves the so-called BACRIMs - regular old criminal bands lacking ideology, but just as murderous.

I just saw this cheery profile piece on NPR about paramilitary forces in Mexico carrying out an heroic battle against narcotrafficking cartels. But Colombia's paramilitaries started the same way before evolving into the massacring, drug-trafficking death squads which left such a scar on Colombian history.

In fact, Colombian paramilitarism had several origins, including government-organized self-defense organizations and anti-kidnapping hit squads created in part by Pablo Escobar and other drug cartel kings.

If the main paramilitary groups have disappeared, their legacy continues, with frequent discoveries of massacre sites and court rulings requiring the Colombian government to pay huge indemnizations to victims of paramilitary massacres which the regular military could have prevented but did not. And ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe and his brother Santiago are fighting accusations linking them to paramilitary groups.

In the coming months, hundreds of one-time paramilitary fighters, including many who confessed to massacres and other atrocities, are expected to be released from prison after completing their eight-year terms.

Both victims and government officials worry that they will reconstitute their paramilitary bands or join other criminal groups.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours