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

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Sad Snack in Independence Park

Today I came upon what should have been a purely cheery scene in Parque de la Independencia: a bunch of kids on a school outing. Then I noticed what they were eating. Chips, soda pop, candies. Here and there a sandwich. Not an apple, orange or a banana in sight. If it it's not highly-processed and doesn't come out of a plastic package, these kids won't touch it.

In two decades a lot of these kids will be fighting obesity, diabetes, even heart disease. And then who'll be to blame? The school? Their parents?

In addition to junk food's health damage, it also maximizes the volume of trash produced.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Juan Antonio Roda in the Museo Nacional

'A dead nun's delirium.'

Juan Antonio Roda was born in Spain in 1921 and moved to Colombia only in his early '30s, after marrying a Colombian woman, but still managed to become one of Colombia's leading painters of the late 20th century.

Despite Roda's experiences with the Franco dictatorship, World War II and Colombian violence and politics, his work seems apolitical and often abstract. Instead, it has elements of religion and eroticism.

Roda's work is on display now in the Museo Nacional in Bogotá.

Roda in his studio. 'I make non-figurative painting, but not abstracts. I don't like to be totally abstract; I like painting to be alive.'

A self-portrait.
Self portrait II
'Bullfighting.' Roda compared 'la fiesta brava' to an erotic game, with 'partying, fear and serenity.'

'The laugh.'


By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Solutionless City?

Traffic congestion: the solutionless city?
I enjoyed, in my cynical way, El Tiempo's report today about the Petro administration's almost non-existent transit policy. The headline reads:
El Tiempo - a vehicle for
selling cars.

'What Bogotá is not doing to escape its traffic jams.' (The online version's headline gives a more positive spin than the print edition.)
Needed in Bogotá: More cars. The rate of car
ownership is skyrocketing.
Those many things which Bogotá does not do include:
Building the car culture: A university's massive
parking lot under construction in Bogotá's Eastern Hills.

Charging vehicles for causing congestion: A decree creating a congestion charge, based on two studies by international firms, was junked by the City Council recently with no good justification.

Charging for on-street parking: As it is, vehicles park on the street - and on the sidewalk - for free. The city should also ban the destructive practice of providing free parking to customers and employees, which is a huge incentive and subsidy for the use of private vehicles - and a subsidy for the wealthy.

Congestion by the gallon: gasoline prices are an
obsession here.
Considering transit impacts of construction projects: Incredibly, Bogotá does not appear to consider the impacts of new construction on transit. The 65-story Bacatá Tower is under construction near the corner of 19th St. and Carrera 7. This massive apartment/
shopping/hotel/office will have huge impacts on this already chaotic and congested intersection. Is the city taking any measures to deal with this? I haven't seen them. In a rationally-run city, the building owner would have to pay for compensatory transit improvements, such as a TransMilenio line up Calle 19 or a light rail line on Carrera 7.
Three's not a crowd: Mayor Petro's transit policy has
been limited to this failed car-sharing rule.

The city regulates parking lot fees. Why not let
supply and demand work, like it does elsewhere?

Above La Candelaria the Externado University is building two monstrous towers consisting mostly of parking lots. The minimal public discussion about this project has involved its legality, which is dubious. But little has been said about whether or not deforesting the city's hills in order to generate more pollution and traffic congestion is good for the city and should be permitted.

Creating a public bicycle system: Bogotá, which used to be a regional bicycle pioneer, has talked for years about creating a public bicycles system, and even held a pilot project, but never put the idea into practice. The city does lend bicycles, but only for use on specific streets.

And so on...

Instead, Bogotá culture promotes driving and car ownership. Ironically, the same Wednesday edition of El Tiempo also contained a slick magazine called 'Motor' glorifying car ownership.

Bogotá's public bicycle program is limited to a
few streets and not very practical for transport.
And the media maintains a constant drumbeat about the importance of lowering parking fees and the price of gasoline. Today's El Tiempo also reported that 'The City Council denounced that in the past four years Bogotanos have paid 720,000 million more than authorized for parking fees.'

In fact, car owners have rather received much more than that in subsidies via free parking. And, why are the prices of parking and gasoline regulated by the government, in any case - in contrast to more socially positive things such as bread and books? Isn't charging what the market will bear called capitalism and freedom of competition?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 14, 2014

What Goes Around Comes Around?

A march today by Ordoñez's supporters in central Bogotá.
In the eye of the storm:
Procurador Ordoñez.
Colombia's Procurador Alejandro Ordoñez is one of the most powerful people in Colombia's government, with the authority to oust other officials for alleged misbehavior and corruption, yet most Colombians have probably heard of him for only one reason: Early this year he ousted Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, who fought his way back into office after a month of court battles.

But Ordoñez may now taste a bit of his own medicine. The Consejo de Estado is expected to debate this week on whether or not Ordoñez's 2012 reelection (the position is elected by the Senate from nominees presented by the Supreme Court, Presidency and the Consejo de Estado) was valid. Three separate lawsuits argue that the reelection was either unconstitutional or corrupted by conflicts of interest. For example, some congressmembers had relatives working in the Procuraduria and others were being investigated by the Procuraduria.

The Procuraduria's website gives a feel for the office's wide-ranging powers, listing investigations and sanctions regarding corruption, municipal water services and the welfare of Cartagena's carriage horses.

The Procuraduria's office building in central
Bogotá, under high security.
Ordoñez's extreme conservatism - the Catholic Church he attends rejects Vatican II - and the polarizing battle over the mayoralty of Bogotá, make whatever he's involved in more about Ordoñez himself than the office he holds.

During the battle over Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, who is an ex-leader of the M-19 guerrillas and whom Ordoñez accused of bungling the city's garbage collection, Petro's supporters compared Ordoñez to Satan and to Hitler. Many observers felt that Ordoñez's anti-Petro crusade was motivated more by ideology than concern for municipal hygiene.

'Father, why have you abandoned me?´An El Tiempo
cartoon shows Ordoñez being crucified.
But for Ordoñez's conservative supporters, the procurador's unyielding opposition to abortion, euthenasia and same-sex marriage make him a heroic defender of morality and traditional values. But the congressmembers and others whom Ordoñez has ousted from office have included many conservatives.

If Ordoñez loses his job, Petro will undoubtedly enjoy a good laugh, as well as sleep more soundly. But if Ordoñez has tried to enforce a rigid moral code, he has never as far as I know been accused of personal corruption. Depending on who replaces Ordoñez, a lot of corrupt officials might sleep more soundly as well.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Gun Sale Gone Wrong

A Sig Sauer model S P2022 pistol. (Photo from Sig Sauer website)
It seemed to be yet another routine United States arms sale to Colombia: 64,485 Sig Sauer model S P2022 pistols, with a price tag of $28.6 million.

But this sale went wrong - in two different ways.

Several months ago, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that German-made Sig Sauer pistols, part of a lot shipped here between 2007 and 2012, were in the hands of Colombian security forces. That meant a violation of German law, since Germany has not authorized the sale of such arms to Colombia out of concerns about human rights violations and Colombia's internal conflict.

The sale put the U.S. government into hot water with the Germans because the U.S. had apparently promised the Germans not to resell the arms to a third country. Ironically, the U.S. government could have legally sold Sig Sauer pistols to Colombia - if they were made in Sig Sauer's plant in New Hampshire. However, the pistols shipped to Colombia were reportedly a mix of U.S.- and German-made arms.

German officials told Semana magazine that the case was "very grave," but that it required more investigation.

Whatever the human rights challenges of Colombian security forces, this apparently illegal sale underlines the importance of regulating and monitoring international light weapons sales, as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which is awaiting ratification, would do.

Perhaps the U.S. and German governments are monitoring these weapons to determine whether Colombian security forces employ them in human rights violations. However, they will not be able to monitor all of the pistols, because last November 100 of them were stolen from the police even before their importation process was complete.

Authorities reported recovering 36 of the pistols and arresting six people, including pawnshop owners, who'd participated in the robbery and black marketing of the guns, reports El Tiempo. A police official had sold the guns for 500,000 pesos, about US $260.00. each. But the other 64 guns are out there, likely in the hands of criminals, who may use them to rob, rape or murder civilians - or even to kill the police the guns were intended for.

By all accounts, Sig Sauers are well-made, long-lasting guns. So, Colombians will have reason to fear these weapons for many years to come.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours