Friday, October 20, 2017

Trump and Tumaco

A bus burns in Tumaco, where police have clashed with
campesinos resisting coca leaf erradication. (Photo: El Pais)
It's not difficult to draw a line from Donald Trump's more aggressive anti-drug policies to the recent violence in Tumaco, on Colombia's Pacific coast.

Colombia's coca leaf and cocaine production have boomed in recent years, to the dismay of anti-drug officials both here and in Washington. But the boom has not brought the violence of the 1980s drug boom. Some say that's because the cartel wars have shifted to Central America and Mexico; others, that it's because the narcos moved their headquarters from the cities to rural areas, where violence is less noticed. Or, is it due to some tacit understanding between authorities and drug producers to live and let live?

But any such truce was shattered in Tumaco Oct. 5, when six campesinos were killed in clashes with police, under confusing circumstances.

It's not clear who started the confrontations. But tensions were escalated by increased pressure from Washington to erradicate coca fields, the crop which puts food on the table for innumerable rural families but also supplies narcotraffickers.

Cocaine produces untold environmental and human damage here and overseas. But decades of drug fighting, billions of dollars and innumerable deaths haven't eliminated it, and aren't likely to.

The Trump administration's mounting pressure on Colombia to reign in drug production won't eliminate cocaine, but will mean more confrontations like Tumaco's. Non-governmental organizations point to ten more municipalities in the region with the same combustible ingredients: booming drug acreage and violent outlaw organizations which profit from and defend the drug trade.

Meanwhile, the crisis is intensified by the U.S.'s refusal to deal with the FARC, even tho they have demobilized, turned in their weapons and transformed themselves from guerrillas to a political party - yet remain on the U.S.'s list of terrorist organizations.

One of the key selling points of the FARC-government peace agreement was that the FARC would help fight narcotrafficking. But that's difficult as long as Washington refuses to talk to them.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Memory, and a Warning

Tables and photos on Plaza Bolivar today memorialize murdered members of the Union Patriotica political party.
Supporters of the Union Patriotica political party held a memorial on Plaza Bolivar today honoring the 3,000 to 5,000 members of the party who were assassinated in the late 1980s and early '90s in what is remembered as the 'genocide of the Union Patriotica.'

The U.P., founded in 1985, was linked to the FARC, and many saw it as the guerrillas' tentative effort to integrate into Colombia's political system. The killings, carried out by right-wing paramilitaries support by the regular Colombian military, ended that initiative. 

The U.P. killings carry a special resonance today as the FARC guerrillas demobilize and integrate into society. Although the paramilitary groups formally demobilized in the mid-2000s, many people claim they continue operating in remote parts of Colombia. 

Ironically, the FARC carried out their own political 'genocide' in the early 1990s against demobilized members of another leftist guerrilla group, the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion, EPL, who had formed a political party. In the best Stalinist fashion, the FARC called them traitors to the guerrilla movement and proceeded to murder about 200 ex-EPL members.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, October 16, 2017

Was It Fraud?

Venezuela's official election results: Overwhelmingly red.
Can a government whose popularity is in the mid-20 percentiles, whose incompetence has given its people a shrinking economy, the world's highest inflation rate and a terrifying crime rate, and driven untold thousands of its citizens to flee to Colombia, really win in almost three-quarters of its provinces?

It strains credulity, particularly since the electoral authorities also announced a high turnout of 61% of voters for a regional election.

And fraud wouldn't be unprecedented. After July elections for members of a Constitutional Assembly, which was boycotted by the opposition, the company which supplied the voting machines called the government's turn-out numbers inflated. The assembly was widely denounced as illegitimate. Venezuela is notoriously corrupt.

Caracas Chronicles, a pro-opposition website, speculated that opposition voters lost enthusiasm and did not turn out. But does it make sense that pro-government voters would turn out in big numbers when store shelves are bare of toilet paper, medicines and basic food stufs?

Perhaps information will leak out and reveal what really happened. Until then, Venezuela's crisis is only likely to worsen.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Buying a Wayuu Bride - Sort Of

A column decorated with goat hides represents the dowries paid by young Wayuu men to their brides' families.
Before he can get married, a young man of the Wayuu indigenous people must give his bride's family a big dowry: Often 50 goats, necklaces, cattle, money and jewels.

In this matrilineal society, the valuables are supposed to go primarily to the family of the bride's mother, according to Bogotá's Museum of Regional Dress, which has a small exhibition on now about the practice.
The Museo de Trajes Regionales, located on Calle 10 
just above Plaza Bolivar, is one of 
La Candelaria's lesser-known museums.

The exhibition consists primarily of a column covered with goatskins representing the animals given by the groom. The young man generally must collect gifts from relatives and friends to amass a sufficient dowry. It's a controversial practice which persists mostly in rural areas of La Guajira.

Despite appearances, the museum's website denies that this represents a bride price, calling the payment rather the groom's 'appreciation of the prestige of the bride and her family.

"In no case is this a sale or trade of a human being," says the website.

Wayuu traditional dress.
Nevertheless, when I visited La Guajira years ago, Wayuu women told me they felt humiliated by the dowry, as tho they were being traded for livestock.

But the dowry is perpetuated across generations, since fathers insist that they be paid, to compensate them for the dowry they themselves paid their own wives' families.

The Wayuus' traditional territory was divided in two by the Colombian-Venezuelan border. While this certainly separated families, it also created a privilege for the Wayuu people, who usually can cross the border freely. Many Wayuu, particularly women, have become wealthy traders - and contrabanders.

The Guajira peninsula has a history of lawlessness, from contraband and pirates. Henri Charrière, the protagonist and author of Papillon, cohabited with Wayuu women while hiding out after escaping from Devil's Island.

The Wayuu divide themselves into clans, based on maternal descent, and these clans have historically
carried out murderous feuds. When paramilitary groups wrested control of the region from guerrillas in the mid-2000s, they sided with some clans against others, committing massacres and forcing people to flee to Venezuela.

The last few years, the Wayuu's always-dry territory has suffered a severe drought, killing many children. The situation has likely been worsened by coal mines, which have diverted streams and consume huge amounts of the region's scarce water.

And altho the Wayuu exhibition is small, the dress museum is worth visiting to see the regional and historical clothing worn by different groups of afro, indigenous and white Colombians.

Campesinos from Huila Department.

Guambiano Indigenous people from Huila Department.
A mask from an Amazonian indigenous tribe.

A view from the museum's interior.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Venezuelans are Coming, and Coming

Two young men from Venezuela sell arepas on Plaza San Victorino recently.
The two employees in a stir fry place here in La Candelaria came recently from Venezuela, where one was an attorney and the other had some small businesses. A street musician whom I knew more than a dozen years ago in Caracas just showed up in La Candelaria. The other night, I was accosted by two young Venezuelan women selling arepas venezolanas. Apparently desperate, one of them placed her hand fondly on my shoulder just a few minutes after we'd met.

A Venezuelan man and boy ask for money - supposedly for
other Venezuelans - near Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar.
Colombia, which for decades sent millions of its people overseas, is now being inundated by immigrants from oil-rich Venezuela - which until not long ago was the economic envy of the rest of the continent.

The reasons are obvious: Venezuela's incompetent, increasingly authoritarian government, has caused the economy to contract nearly 20% and inflation of almost 800%, numbers usually seen only in wartime.

The Caracas Chronicles website calculates that more than 70,000 Venezuelans have come to Colombia - but nobody knows for sure, since many undoubtedly cross the border illegaly.

According to this graph from the Caracas Chronicles blog,
the number of Venezuelans fleeing their nation far exceeds the
number of refugees crossing the Meditarrean to Europe.
The wave of foreigners has inevitably generated tensions. The two young arepa sellers talked about minor confrontations on the bus, and said that street merchants insulted and harrassed them. Undoubtedly, low income Colombians feel threatened by the wave of cheap labor. Even Colombian prostitutes have complained that Venezuelans are invading their industry, offering services at cut-rated prices.

What will happen? Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro seems determined to continue his disastrous economic policies, and shows no sign of sharing power with the oppisition. So, Venezuela will likely continue its economic tailspin, and possibly end up in some sort of civil war.

Expect the Venezuelans to keep coming.
Many thousands of Venezuelans pack Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar
during a recent vote arranged by that country's
opposition parties.
According to one poll published by the Caracas Chronicles
website, the great majority of Venezuelans
want to leave their country.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 6, 2017

Paint it Before It's Gone

This non-descript three-story home on Calle 26B and Carrera 4 in La Macarena is due to be demolished in a few months. But until then it's living its most colorful chapter as the canvas for a multitude of Bogotá street artists, who have painted it inside and out. 
Called 'Galería Fenix', after the mythological bird which was reborn from its own ashes, the paintings are supposed to represent life, death and rebirth. This is third such project since 2015 by the LAVAMOÁ TUMBA arts collective, always in such doomed buildings. The group's name means, informally, 'We're going to knock it down.'
The organizers expect the paintings to remain there for about two months, or until the building gets demolished. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Motors Matter More Than Lungs

Straight out of TransMilenio's tailpipes and into our lungs.
Bogotá's Secretariat of the Environment just decided not to require TransMilenio and Sitp buses to use filters to reduce their pollution.

Anybody who traveles Bogotá's streets can see why many of those buses are called 'rolling chimneys.'
Air pollution causes thousands of premature deaths in Bogotá each year, as well as untold suffering for the aged and for people with asthma and other breathing ailments.

But the agency that's supposed to protect Bogotá's environment (and presumably our health) took the side of the bus owners, who claim that filters would damage their engines. That might come as a surprise in the many cities around the world which have required filters for years - and where residents breathe clean air. It's enough to make one suspect that the Bogotá bus owners' real agenda is to save money by sending their unfiltered filth belching into our atmosphere.

A SITP bus does what it knows best:
pump billions of diesel particles into our air.
Instead, the law instructs bus owners to select from a range of anti-pollution options, including valves, conventional filters, magnetic filters, etc. In other words, by giving the owners many alternatives, none will be enforced.

And even if the owners are right about the engine damage, it only means an additional cost - undoubtedly still much cheaper than the immense health and environmental damage caused by Bogotá's toxic air pollution.

Besides the medical and environmental impacts, how many companies have chosen to locate elsewhere because of the gray air? How many tourists have opted to spend their time and money elsewhere to give their lungs a break?

Putting the economic interests of bus owners first is a bad bargain for the city all around.

Bogotá's environmental agency has made it clear: Their motors are woth more than our lungs.

An afterthought: The polluters are shifting their costs onto cyclists and pedestrians in a very concrete way: by forcing them to buy the filters, to cover their own mouths.

Dressed right for Bogotá's air.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours