Friday, April 17, 2015

Corruption: Here, There, Everywhere

La Candelaria Mayor Edilberto Guerrero,
under house arrest, speaks to supporters thru his window. 
When the La Candelaria neighborhood's mayor Edilberto Guerrero was arrested last week on corruption-related charges, I felt disappointed - but not surprised.

After all, during Guerrero's years in office, I've heard stories about apparently inflated contracts, such as one to install expensive Christmas lights, many of which didn't work. And also under his watch and with his acquiescence, ugly constructions have gone up, including a junk food chain store, a parking garage in the hills and a multi-story apartment building on a cobblestone street of single-family houses. At the very minimum, it seems, Guerrero doesn't have the historical center's patrimony and interests in mind.

Guerrero now stands accused of awarding a contract for a children's nutrition program to an unqualified company and is under house arrest. In his defense, Guerrero claims he's a victim of political persecution and denies he did anything wrong. But if the charges are correct, Guerrero's actions amount to stealing food from the mouths of babes.

Sadly, Guerrero isn't the only local Bogota official in trouble these days. The ex-mayor of Kennedy, a
Magistrate Pretelt denies corruption accusations.
huge impoverished area in southern Bogotá, was removed from office and banned from politics for 11 years, also for inappropriately awarding a contract, this one for supporting local small businesses.

One might not feel so bad if we had confidence that the court system could address and punish endemic corruption. However, the nation's highest court, the Constitutional Court, is engulfed in its own scandal, in which court's president Jorge Ignacio Pretelt fights an attorney's accusation that he asked for a bribe for a favorable ruling (which was not produced). According to to other reports, rural land Pretelt owns in Antioquia was violently stolen from its campesino owners.

Add to that several cases of apparent corruption I've heard about 'on the street.' An acquaintance who wants to buy a house using a government-backed loan, says the bank official who approves the loans demands a gift of a multi-million peso slice of that loan for herself.

Evidence of corruption? An old bus belches smoke
in Bogotá not far from the Ministry of the Environment.
According to Colombia Reports, 80% of Colombians consider their government corrupt, and more than half believe it's getting worse. Transparency International's reports appear to support that conclusion: Since 2002, Colombia has plummeted from 57th place to 94th in Transparency's rankings.

How corrupt is Colombia? Nobody can say exactly, but it seems to be pretty corrupt. As important as is the corruption itself is the perception of its pervasiveness, which undermines confidence in government and produces a sensation of helplessness. I have a constant personal campaign against air pollution, as you can see here. But the evident complete apathy - if not corruption - of government officials might make one shrug one's shoulders and ask 'why bother?' According to Colombia Reports, corruption has also been an important contributor to the nation's armed conflict.

The positive side to all of this is that some of the corruption cases do come to light and are investigated. When even the investigators have been completely corrupted, the situation seems hopeless. But, even tho corruption victimizes all of us, it is also a victimless crime in the sense that both people participate willingly and feel they benefit.

What's the solution? Stiff penalties are part of the answer, but Colombia requires a deep, deep cultural shift.

Colombia won't soon be Sweden corruption-wise, but is being like Chile or Uruguay too much to hope for?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Are the FARC Capable of Peace?

Soldiers carry the corpse of one of their companions killed by the FARC in El Cauca this week.
(Photo: BBC)
The FARC's killing 11 soldiers in El Cauca this week makes little sense strategically and no sense politically.

The guerrilla leaders clearly want the peace talks in Havana to succeed, which is one reason why they declared a unilateral cease fire last December. But this apparently unprovoked ambush imperils the talks' progress. Pres. Santos already ordered a resumption of air attacks on the guerrillas, altho, surprisingly, he did not suspend the peace talks.

Buenos Aires, in El Cauca Department.
(Image from Wikipedia)
But the soldiers' killings will harden public sentiment against the guerrillas, including that of hard-liners within the military, and will give ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe and other right-wingers more ammunition against the peace talks. And the guerrilla leaders' number one goal doesn't appear to be social justice or land redistribution, but soft terms for themselves in any peace deal, despite their innumerable human rights violation. This latest massacre puts that further out of reach.

I can think of only two possible reasons for this action:

One, that the FARC disastrously misread national sentiment following the April 9 pro-peace marches, in which some guerrilla sympathizers called for a bilateral ceasefire. Perhaps the guerrillas hoped that committing an atrocity like this one would motivate more Colombians to support the ceasefire to stop the killing.

Instead, in the same way that Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor even while Japanese-U.S. negotiations were being held rallied Americans behind FDR's declaration of war, these latest killings seems to have only generated more anti-guerrilla anger.

Could the guerrilla leadership have read public sentiment so incorrectly? I doubt it.

The more likely and even more worrying explanation is that the guerrillas have lost control of some of their 'fronts,' whose leaders may aim to sabotage the peace talks. The attack occurred in the municipality of Buenos Aires, in El Cauca Department, located near the Pacific coast and the Ecuadorean border. The region is valuable because of illegal mining and cocaine exportation routes.

Could it be that local FARC leaders, aware that a peace deal would extinguish their huge illicit incomes, have made this their way of trying to kill the talks - in defiance of the guerrillas' top leadership?

If my second hypothesis is correct, it bodes badly for the negotiations, since many local guerrilla leaders have their own motives for wanting to preserve the conflict and its illegal incomes.

If the guerrilla leadership cannot pull those far-flung units into line, then a peace deal may not be merely far away, but impossible.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

´Do As We Say, Not As We Sell´

'Get On the Bus', editorializes El Tiempo. But buy one of our advertisers' cars, first.
One of the huge, daily traffic jams on Calle 26.
El Tiempo, Colombia's largest newspaper, has long been part of the chorus calling for people to use mass transit instead of private cars. And I can't doubt their sincerity. After all, the evidence is there for all to see in the city's immense and ever-growing traffic jams.

But, while El Tiempo wants you on the bus, they clearly also want you to buy a car, whose propaganda constitutes much of the newspaper's advertising, including two weekly pull-out car magazines. (The editorial, in any case, is mealy-mouthed and consists mostly of cliches, while neglecting the only policy demonstrated to reducing car use - a congestion charge.)

El Tiempo's hypocrisy in calling for less car use while doing all it can to promote car sales, is an example of the contradictions in many of us, not least of all Bogotá's city government, which claims to want to reduce private car use. Until the government and others actually make their policies match their rhetoric, the traffic crisis will only get worse.
A lone cyclist weaves thru traffic near the National University.
One of the huge, daily traffic jams in La Candelaria.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, April 13, 2015

Where Have All Those Tires Gone?

Just a few months ago, the used car and truck tires littering parks and sidewalks across Bogotá were making headlines: In particular, after an illegal lot with thousands of tires caught fire, turning the air grey for days.

Then, government and tire industry leaders - and apparently did nothing.

Recently, however, I seem to see fewer tires on the sidewalks, making me wonder where they've gone.

This pile of tire shreds near Calle 26...

....were helpfully covered up recently.

Then, one day, I happened to look thru a gap into this nondescript vacant building behind the Central Cemetery.

The building is packed with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of used tires.

Waiting to burn.
One day, a homeless person will sneak in to sleep and light a fire; the tires will ignite and smolder for days, turning the sky grey. A few months ago, an unregulated tire dump caught fire and polluted Bogotá's air for days.

But there is a solution: Apply a deposit to tires (and many other waste products), creating an incentive for people to dispose of them properly, as well as a subsidy for processing them into, say, asphalt.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Colombian Artists Thru Hernan Diaz's Lens

Journalist and movie director Guillermo Angulo and Vanna Brandestini, 1961, posing as silent film actors. 
Hernán Díaz (1931- 2009) lived and chronicled a golden age of Colombian creativity during the second half of the 1900s. His friends included Colombia's three great artists: sculptor Fernando Botero, architect Rogelio Salmona and writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as many lesser known figures of cinema, painting and photography. Díaz also photographed common people and presidents, as well as landscapes.

Díaz's work is now on display in the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, on Calle 11 in La Candelaria, across the street from the Botero Museum.

Alejandro Obregon, 1920-1992, painter, muralist, sculptor and engraver.
Beatriz Gonzalez, pop painter.
Argentine painter, muralist and sculptor Rogelio Polesello and Colombian sculptor Feliza Bursztyn. 
Painter and sculptor Eduardo Ramirez, Hernán Díaz, sculptor Édgar Negret and photographer Rafael Moure.
Scenes from Bogotá's Eastern Hills (which are now being paved over).

Feliza Burzstzyn.

Sculptor and painter Fernando Botero.
Painter and sculptor Freda Sargent 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez appearing serious and intellectual.
'Girl with Dog.'
Writer, poet and sculptor Gonzalez Arango.

Fernando Botero at work.

Landscape scenes.

Argentine-Colombian art critic and writer Marta Traba.

Six Colombian artists.
A sweets vendor.

Cartagena scenes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, April 10, 2015

Where the Victims Lie?

El Parque del Renacimiento may have ended a mystery with this unimpressive monument to the thousands of people killed during the 1948 Bogotazo, who are supposedly buried underneath the park, whose name means 'Rebirth.'

The monument didn't seem to include any evidence for the remains' presence below the park, which was once the Children's Cemetery. But the remains' presence here would be logical, since I've seen photos of hundreds of corpses laid out in the nearby Cementerio Central.

If true, tho, maybe it explains why the park is so often vacant.

The park's monument.
An image of a newspaper headline reporting Gaitan's assassination 'by an agent of the government.' In fact, Gaitán was apparently assassinated by a mentally unstable man who had an obsession with the political leader.

Gaitán speaks in the Santamaria Bullfighting Stadium.
Yesterday, passionate followers of Gaitán held this rally by the spot on Ave. 7 and Jimenez Ave.

A Gaitanista makes an angry speech calling for Latin American unity.
An image of a smiling Gaitán.
A man sells DVDs of Colombian history.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours