Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wasted Space on Calle 26

Jaime Garzón, the martyred comedian, now behind barbed wire.
A handy dumpsite.
A few years ago, when the city began work on the TransMilenio line for the Calle 26, they demolished houses and businesses on both sides of the street. What did they need the space for? It wasn't clear.

But the answer's now obvious: They didn't need the space for anything.

Predictably, the empty lots the city left on both sides of Calle 26, just west of the Central Cemetery, became illegal dumping grounds, providing ugly foregrounds for the huge murals the city has sponsored there. In response, the city is now fencing the empty lots off with concrete posts and barbed-wire.

This sad jaguar and miner
will soon be fenced in.
My prediction: Within a few weeks, the barbed wire will get stolen and the dumpers will move in again.

Isn't there a better use for this land? How about green space? Lots of locals would find these areas useful for dog-walking or pick-up futbol games.

The folks who saw their homes and businesses needlessly demolished must be shaking their heads - and their fists.

A few days ago, these feet murals
were walking on trash piles.
Why did this happen in the first place? I can only speculate. Incompetence? Bad planning? Or did someone with influence own a demolition company?

Pulling barbed wire.

Stringing up barbed wire.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, September 19, 2014

Alvaro Uribe on the Defensive

Sen. Ivan Cepeda on a television in Paloquemao
fruit market during this week's debate.
Leftist Senator Ivan Cepeda's father was murdered by right-wing paramilitaries.

Right-wing Senator Alvaro Uribe's father was murdered by left-wing guerrillas.

This week, mutual accusations in Congress between these ideological opposites created a drama which gripped much of Colombia.

Cepeda, a leader of the Polo Democratico Alternativo party, has also been a human rights activist and spokesman for the Movement of Victims of Crimes by the State (MOVICE). Cepeda's human rights activism is probably rooted in the story of his father, Manuel Cepeda Vargas, a Communist Party leader who was murdered in Bogotá in 1994 by right-wing paramilitaries linked to the regular military.

Sen. Alvaro Uribe hits back during the debate.
The Colombian public official most frequently accused of human rights violations in recent years is undoubtedly ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe. Uribe remains hugely popular among many Colombians because during his two presidential terms, from 2002-2010, he stabilized the country and drove back leftist guerrilla groups, which threatened to make Colombia a failed state. However, Uribe's accomplishments came at a great cost in human rights. Both before and during his presidency, it was an open secret that the military worked collaborated with outlaw right-wing paramilitary organizations, which committed wholesale massacres of peasants suspected of guerrilla sympathies. Uribe's presidency also saw the notorious Falsos Positivos scandal, in which military units were given bonuses and time off for killing guerrillas. Some military units responded by kidnapping young men who were not guerrillas, killing them and dressing them up as guerrillas in order to earn the bonuses. Thousands of youths were murdered that way.

So, Cepeda had lots of potential ammunition. His accusations against Uribe ranged from alleged working with Pablo Escobar's cocaine cartel to helping create the paramilitary groups while governor of Antioquia Province in the 1990s and even a link to the 1986 assassination in Bogotá of legendary newspaper editor Guillermo Cano.

Each of these accusations contains at least a grain of truth.

Uribe's father, Alberto Uribe Sierra, was a prominent rancher, who traveled to his ranch, the Guacharacas, by helicopter to evade the guerrillas who roamed the region. On June 14, 1983 Uribe was at his ranch when three FARC guerrillas arrived. There was a shoot-out, in which the elder Uribe was killed by bullets in the head and chest. (The younger Uribe has, unsurprisingly, spent much of his political career attacking the guerrillas and the left generally.) The guerrillas also shot up the helicopter, disabling it.

The younger Uribe eventually sold the helicopter, and - strangely - it was later found, repaired, on Tranquilandia, Pablo Escobar's cocaine-making complex in southern Colombia. In addition, the elder Uribe was reportedly a friend of the Ochoa brothers, who were part of Escobar's Medellin drug cartel.

But a friendship and a helicopter sale aren't proof of wrongdoing. And, in any case, a son isn't responsible for his father's sins.

Regarding newspaperman Cano's murder, Cepeda said that Uribe had been on the board of directors of a company belonging to a businessman convicted for participation in the assassination. That strikes me as a particularly thin reed to tie a murder charge to. (Escobar is generally believed to have been behind the killing.)

In Congress, Cepeda also charged that Uribe had been - at the very least - permissive with the mushrooming paramilitary forces during his 1995-97 term as governor of Medellin. Cepeda offered videos and recordings of ex-paramilitary leaders implicating Uribe, who denies the accusations.

And Cepeda accused Uribe of having met with paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso on Uribe's Antioquia estate, El Ubérrimo. Mancuso, now in a U.S. prison, says he visited Uribe, who thanked him for helping improve security in the region, and that the paramilitaries supported Uribe's presidential campaign.

Such charges have long harried Uribe, who is fighting dozens of charges in Congress's Committee of Accusations, as well as seven investigations in the Attorney General's office. But, as yet, no charges have stuck. Uribe denies having ever collaborated with paramilitaries.

Uribe, for his part, hurled charges in all directions: He accused Cepeda of being a guerrilla ally and accused President Santos of accepting drug money for his campaign. Cepeda and Santos deny the accusations.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Panama Created the United Kingdom

Colombia has not played much of a role in the campaign for tomorrow's Scottish independence vote.

However, if not for territory which was for a time part of Colombia, Scotland might never have united with England in the first place.
The Gulf of Darien, with New Edinburgh
on the right.

During the 1600s Scotland was a small struggling nation on the edge of Europe - but with dreams of greatness. Why shouldn't Scotland become, like England, the center of a great empire?

Scottish leaders set up a business scheme, which finally settled on establishing a colony on the Gulf of Darien on the Isthmus of Panama. Panama was strategic, the Scots believed, because it would be the pathway to trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But English business interests, fearful of competition and of antagonizing the Spanish empire, prevented the Scots from raising money in London and on the European continent. As a result, the Scots had to raise their money at home, from patriotic Scotsmen and women. Ultimately, between one fourth and one half of all the money circulating in Scotland was invested in the Darien Scheme.

The first five ships, with 1,200 colonists, sailed in 1698 and established New Edinburgh in present-day Panama. But the expedition quickly turned disastrous from disease, internal quarrels, hostility from the Spanish and lack of aid from the English, who didn't want to antagonize the Spanish empire, which also claimed Panama. Only 300 people survived to return to Scotland.
Panama, the country which created the United Kingdom.

But before the survivors returned to tell their tale, another set of ships full of eager colonists had set off for Panama. This group also met disaster, including a Spanish military siege. Only a few hundred survived to return to Scotland. They left behind few traces, but today a town on the would-be settlement site is sometimes called Puerto Escocés.

In the wake of the disaster, the Scottish company invested its remaining money in two ships which bought slaves on the coast of Africa. However, on Madagascar those ships were seized by a pirate, who ultimately burned and abandoned them.

Thus ended Scotland's colonial adventure, which nearly bankrupted the nation. Scots seemed to conclude that they'd have better luck by uniting themselves with their larger, wealthier southern neighbor. The parliaments of Scotland and England passed acts of union, creating the United Kingdom in May, 1707.

The Spanish Empire eventually consolidated its control over the Isthmus of Panama. When South America became independent, Panama became part of La Gran Colombia, which also included what today are Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela. When La Gran Colombia broke up in 1831, Panama remained part of Nueva Granada, which became the Republic of Colombia. U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to dig a canal across the Isthmus, but Colombia's Congress was reluctant.

Not to be stopped, Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanians to rebel, which they did in 1903, and the U.S. recognized Panama's independence. The U.S. dug the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. In a way, the Americans fulfilled the Scots' centuries-old plan of connecting the oceans.

Scotland, meanwhile, seemed to flourish in its union with England. Edinburgh became a center of culture and philosophy, while Glasgow evolved into an industrial center. Many Scots played prominent roles in the British empire.

When Scots go to the polls, will they keep Colombia's role in their history in mind? Probably not.

And if Scotland votes 'Yes' and becomes independent again, will they take up once again the old dream of having their own empire? Panama had better watch out!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tanja's Visa Troubles

The FARC negotiating team. Tanya is on the right,
holding a sheet of paper.
Tanja is a young Dutch woman who joined the FARC guerrillas in 2002 and is now a part of their bargaining team in Havana, Cuba.

As the only foreigner and one of few women among the negotiaters, Tanja is something of a star - and also a target. Members of ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe's right-wing Centro Democratico Party are attacking Tanja because, of all things, she doesn't have a valid Colombian residency visa.

Now, will someone please tell me what's surprising about this? After all, Tanja, who is 36 and whose last name is Nijmeijer, has spent the last dozen years living in Colombia's mountains and jungles - where the Foreign Ministry has no visa paperwork offices. And, during that time, she was on the run from Colombia's military, which was trying to kill her and her companions with bombs, M-16s and helicopter gunships. All that didn't leave much time for government paperwork.

Besides that, Tanja belongs to a terrorist organization which rejects the legitimacy of the Colombian government and wants to replace it with a socialist state. In the very best of circumstances, would she be likely to ask that government for a visa?

Getting my visa renewed was a tremendous headache, as it is for many foreigners in Colombia. (But, for whatever it's worth, Colombia's visa bureaucracy wasn't 1/100th as bad as Bolivia's.) Given a choice between repeated trips to the visa office - to endure long waits for surly service from bureaucrats who kept changing the rules on me and then charged me for that privilege - and fleeing from helicopter gunships in the jungle, I might very well choose the second. Well, not really. But I'd be tempted.

In any case, if Tanja DID have a visa, that'd be a real sign of trouble, because it would mean that some functionary was not doing their job by issuing visas to lawbreakers - probably in exchange for a nice bribe.

Uribe's Centro Democratico party is a harsh critic of the peace negotiations in Havana and they're wielding this visa issue as a new weapon. There are plenty of solid reasons to reject the FARC's legitimacy as a peace partner: the massacres, kidnappings, child recruitment, narcotrafficking, forced displacement and many other crimes they've committed. A government willing to look past terrorism shouldn't wory about a lapsed visa.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joe Biden Looks Out for Colombia

U.S. VP Joe Biden - looking out for Colombia?
Air pollution in Colombia? The United States government is against it!

Cheap ethanol fuel for Colombia? The U.S. government is all for that one.

But as far as inexpensive generic medicines go - well, they could threaten Colombians' health.

Those are some of the messages in a recent letter from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos. The U.S. government's concern for Colombians' health and well-being would be much more moving if the sentiments weren't also in the U.S.'s economic interests, as well as Washington's interpretation of U.S.-Colombian free trade agreements.

Biden wants old dirty trucks junked, to open
the borders to truck imports from the States.
Biden may very well stay up nights worrying about the damaging effects of diesel particles on chatarrización, or junking, of one old truck for each truck imported into the country. Predictably, Colombia has not been forcing truck companies to junk those old, polluting vehicles, something which would cut into the companies' profits. That creates obstacles to legally importing new trucks, most of which come from the U.S.
Colombians' lungs. But it also just so happens that Colombian law also puts roadblocks in the way of U.S. truck exports to Colombia. Colombian law requires the

From the press accounts about Biden's letter (I haven't been able to find the original online), it's not clear whether Biden wants Colombia to junk the truck-junking law as an obstacle to free trade, or whether he wants Colombia to actually carry it out in order to open the gates to more truck imports.

A mural in the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá shows a fat American eating Colombia's industries and benefits.
The cynic in me asks whether this law in any of its forms will actually clean Colombia's air. Will companies really junk their old, polluting trucks, or just throw out the shells and keep the dirty engines on the road? For how long will newly imported trucks run clean in a nation which doesn't enforce emissions laws?

Sugar cane harvesting. Cane ethanol is much more
environmentally sound than U.S. corn ethanol.
As for ethanol, Biden doesn't like the Colombian law which prohibits ethanol imports as long as Colombian ethanol production could supply the country's needs. That, after all, sounds a bit like a violation of free trade.

A charitable view would be that Biden worries about Colombia's ethanol supply out of concerns about health and the environment. (Ethanol, made from organic materials,is mixed into gasoline to supposedly reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.) But ethanol's pollution impacts are questionable - mixed into gasoline it reduces particulate production and carbon monoxide pollution, but in smoggy cities it can increase harmful ozone pollution.

Regarding global warming gases, ethanol's impacts are probably less positive. Researchers debate
Generic medicines are much cheaper -
and less profitable for corporations.
whether the sugar cane ethanol produced in Colombia and Brazil generates less carbon dioxide than does regular gasoline. But it does seem clear that corn-based ethanol isn't economically viable and produces more carbon dioxide than would burning plain old gasoline. But making ethanol from corn is politically profitable in the U.S., where presidential campaigns pass thru Iowa. That's why the U.S. wants to export its subsidized corn products to Colombia - even tho that loses the U.S. money and could drive Colombian small farmers into bankruptcy. (Of course, it's also true that this cheap corn saves Colombian consumers money. But I suspect that this cheap imported corn goes into junk food products, rather than healthy foods.)

Finally, Biden doesn't approve of Colombia's plans to accelerate approval of some 'bio-similar,' or generic, medicines, after the original medicines' patents have expired. Such plans infuriate big pharmaceutical companies, many of which are based in the U.S.

While it is certainly true that companies have a right to recover their research and marketing investments, and that pharmaceutical companies lose some income to generic substitutes of their products, it's also true that expensive medicines are out of the reach of most Colombians, and that these medicines' costs are bankrupting Colombia's healthcare system.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 14, 2014

R.I.P. The Defender of the Defenseless

Roberto Franco
He defended the most defenseless Colombians - those who wield only bows and arrows and spears and don't even know they are Colombians.

They are Colombia's isolated Amazonian tribes, ethnic groups who perhaps have never had contact with Westerners, or - more likely - had tragic contact and decided to have nothing more to do with the pale-skinned people wielding terrible weapons and even more terrible diseases. The Amazonians very sensibly retreated into the jungle to continue their stone age way of life.

Colombia has a few isolated Amazonian tribes, including the Yuri or Carabayo and Passé, inside the 2.47-million acre Rio Puré National Park, bordered by the Caquetá and Putumayo Rivers along the Brazilian border, and numbering somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand people.

A Maloka, house of uncontacted indigenous people in the
Rio Puré National Park (Photo: Colombian Park Service)
In 2012, researcher and indigenous rights activist Roberto Franco and others photographed traditional longhouses in the national park, thus documenting the isolated people's existence. Their work may even save the peoples' lives and culture, since a decree signed by Pres. Juan Manuel Santos in 2011 protects the right of uncontacted peoples to their isolated way of life and prohibits interference in their territory.

However, in a tragedy which received little attention in a Colombia obsessed with the antics of Shakira and James Rodriguez, Franco was among ten people killed when their small plane crashed in the Amazon earlier this month. Altho they will never know it, those uncontacted people lost their greatest protector. Franco died while returning from a visit to the huge Chiribiquete Park, where he had met with indigenous people.

Enslaved Amazonian Indians around 1900.
(Photo: Survival International)
Colombia's isolated people are more properly called 'voluntarily isolated.' Many have had tragic
interactions with Westerners, such as guerrillas, drug runners, illegal loggers, miners or hunters, who sometimes massacre indigenous people, drive them from their homes or transmit fatal diseases. During the decades around 1900, rubber companies invaded much of the Amazon, displacing and enslaving indigenous peoples. Some indigenous peoples fled deep into the jungle, where they have stayed ever since.

Tragically, Franco's mission may be ultimately futile. While rubber tapping has mostly ended, the Amazon remains under assault from loggers, miners, hunters and agriculturalists, particularly cattle raisers. Colombia loses somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 hectares of forest every year - a rate of 653 football fields each day. And Brazil, which possesses most of the Amazon, just reported that deforestation there leaped by 29% between 2011 and 2012.

Four days ago, four members of the Peruvian Asháninka indigenous people were allegedly murdered by illegal loggers in a remote region near the Peruvian-Brazilian border.

In 1981, evangelical missionaries called the New Tribes Mission made first contact with the Nukak indigenous people, who lived in Colombia near the Brazilian border. Using gifts, they drew the Nukaks out of their jungle isolation. After that, the Nukaks fell victim to disease and violence, and now live in squalor, dependent on hand-outs, in the city of San José del Guaviare.

The Karijona people are another tragic story. Late last year the Colombian government more than doubled the size of Chiribiquete Park, to almost 2.8 million hectares - triple the size of the U.S.'s Yellowstone Park. The park's expansion was in part intended to protect isolated peoples, as well as the largest pictographic archeological complex in northern South America. However, for the Karijona people, the protection came far too late. The Karijonas are believed to have drawn the elaborate pictographs in the park hundreds or thousands of years ago, when they probably numbered between ten and twenty thousand people.

But Western diseases, rubber harvesters, violence and deforestation devastated the Karijonas. Today, only 60 Karijonas survive.

Along with Franco, the plane crash also killed indigenous leader and conservationist Daniel Matapí, himself an indigenous native of the Amazon.

Today, the Amazon rainforest, and her indigenous peoples are fighting against the odds for survival. And, without Franco and Matapí, their chances got a bit worse.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Two Truths of Miguel Ángel Beltrán

'No more persecution.' A demonstration this week on the
Universidad Nacional's campus in favor of
Beltrán and other 'political prisoners.'
Miguel Ángel Beltrán was a sociology professor at the Universidad Nacional's Bogotá campus. And, unsurprisingly, he was very leftist. But was he also a secret guerrilla agent? Or just a persecuted professor?

When the Colombian military bombed Ecuadorean territory in 2008 and killed FARC 'foreign minister' Raul Reyes, it reported finding documents showing that Beltrán was a FARC agent named Jaime Cienfuegos.

Beltrán was arrested and deported while traveling in Mexico and spent two years in a Colombian prison, accused of writing guerrilla documents and recruiting students for the guerrillas on the university campus. However, in 2011 a judge absolved Beltrán, concluding that the computer documents could have been manipulated and therefore could not be used as evidence in court.

That didn't end suspicions about Beltrán's FARC connections, particularly because when he was
Miguel Angel Beltrán arrested.
arrested in Mexico, authorities reported that he was carrying a flash drive with FARC documents. Those alleged documents included messages between 'Jaime Cienfuegos' and FARC leader Raul Reyes which indicated that Cienfuegos' international travels coincided precisely with Beltrán's own travels.

And the law wasn't thru with Beltrán. Last year, Colombia's Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez ordered Beltrán stripped of his professorship and banned from holding public office. But Ordoñez, an extreme conservative, could hardly be expected to consider Beltrán's case objectively. And this August, while traveling in Panama, authorities detained Beltrán and deported him back to Colombia. Beltrán was quickly freed this time.

Graffiti over a Universidad Nacional entrance says
'We are all Miguel Angel Beltrán.'
Beltrán clearly shares some ideas with the FARC. In contrast with the governments of Colombia, the United States and the European Union, Beltrán refuses to call the FARC terrorists, but rather "political actors" and "a response to state violence."

Such opinions are not, of course, illegal - altho they may cause some right-wing politicians such as Orodñez and ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe to leap to certain conclusions about Beltrán's allegiances.

Whatever Beltrán's true actions and identity, he's well on his way into the pantheon of heroes and martyrs for the country's left. And another example of how unclear the dividing line can be between combatants and sympathizers in Colombia's long conflict.

Pro-FARC graffiti on the Universidad Nacional's Bogotá campus.

A poster celebrating Beltrán's 'absolution.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours