Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Killings of Community Organizers

Protesters against the community leaders' killings rally in front of Bogotá's planetarium.
In recent months, Colombia has suffered an epidemic of killings of community leaders, which seems to be worsening in recent weeks. 
'Defense of Human Rights.'
I haven't seen evidence of a nationwide conspiracy behind these killings. Rather, perhaps they are a product of social tensions, illegal money and lack of rule of law or government presence in many regions. 

And it all once again highlights a fundamental paradox of Colombia: How can a nation of such nice, friendly people suffer such an undercurrent of violence?

Colombian leaders are vowing to stop the killings. But if they are linked to such fundamental national troubles, then the crisis will be difficult to resolve.

Protest signs on the Plaza Bolivar.

'There will not be enough tombs to silence all of us.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Regulating Uber Off The Road

Uber: Going, going, gone?
Uber provides a terrible service in Bogotá!

So terrible, in fact, that many people prefer it over taxis because of Uber's nicer cars, friendlier drivers, greater control and more convenience. So terrible, that taxi drivers and companies are fearing for their carreers.

Is the solution to improve taxi service? Perhaps not. Instead, the government - undoubtedly pressured by the traditional taxi industry - is working on a law intended to legislate Uber out of existence.

The proposed law, which has yet to be reviewed, would require drivers from Uber, Cabify and other
Back to the future of old taxis?
such platforms, to drive only black cars with checkered sides. But that's just the beginning. Drivers would also have to have completed a course in the Sena technical school, completed a second course about how to treat customers, and god only knows what else.

All of these unreasonable, unrealistic requirements are for an industry - the gig economy on wheels - which has been operating pretty well on its own.

Anti-Uber marchers compare the
company to a proveer of prostitutes.
In truth, these proposed regulations have almost nothing to do with improving the quality of ride services. Rather, they're intended to destroy such services in order to protect the taxi drivers' vested economic interests.

'Uber out of Colombia.'
An Uber marketing stand.
Taxi drivers and companies unquestionably find themselves in an unenviable and probably unfair situation in the new economy. But the solution isn't to try to halt change - which has brought lots of benefits in the form of convenient transit and extra income for many people. Instead, the answer is to assist the taxi drivers to improve their service and, ultimately, train for jobs with better prospects.

None of which is to say that ride-sharing platforms don't produce negative impacts, particularly by increasing traffic congestion and pollution. But those are not just the fault of Uber, and should be addressed with a traffic congestion charge, pollution sanctions and other measures.

Incidentally, Colombian tourist guides are threatened by simlarly unreasonable ertification requirements designed to create barriers to entry and protect the interests of a small number of guides who were grandfathered into the industry and often do not even speak the languages needed to do the work.

Professional certifications like these are generally required for professions which involve big risks, such as medicine and engineering, or require intense knowledge, such as law. But driving a car? Telling tourists where Bogotá was founded?

These 'training laws' are really disguised barriers to competitors and attempts to monopolize their industries.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours,

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Who's Sabotaging Colombians' Health?

'In less than 20 years, half of Bogotá's residents will be fat.' (El Tiempo)
The media reports that obesity in Colombia is growing to North American proportions.

Use of both legal and illegal drugs is rising among Bogotá youth.
And a recent survey of students found that use of both illegal drugs, like cocaine and marijuana, and a legal one: marijuana, is rising sharply among youth.

But both vices and drugs - legal ones, at least - have powerful lobbies to protect their right to poison their customers. Intense lobbying recently defeated legislation in Colombia's Congress which would have required companies to label foods high in sodium, saturate fats or sugars. (As if it would make any difference, judging by the rise in consumption of cigarettes, whose boxes carry big warnings.)

Perhaps televisions, cellphones and video games should carry warning labels, as well, because of the way they promote a sedentary lifestyle and waste our time.

Young women market Camel cigarettes near high schools and universities.

A young woman smoking.
What's the solution? Make these harmful products expensive, inconvenient to get and uncool. That won't be easy. But a good first step would be to actually enforce the law prohibiting the sale of loose cigarettes - which goes on on every streecorner and corner shop.

Cigarettes and candies for sale by a street vendor.
Who's sabotaging Colombians' health? Everybody, including themselves.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Colombia's Medical Marijuana Hits a Speed Bump

Coca leaf and cannabis cures for sale in a Bogotá market.
Are the two plants really so different?
Colombia is by far the planet's biggest cocaine producer, and the cocaine economy is booming, more than quadrupling over recent years.

Now, Colombia wants to be a world leader in another drug: marijuana.

The country's cannabis strategy is full of ironies, of course. Colombia was a world marijuana leader back in the 1970s and '80s, when Colombian Gold was prized in California high schools like the one I studied in. Of course, today pot is legal in California (although it can't be imported), and California produces lots more high quality pot than Colombia does.

But hot, humid Colombia has lots better growing conditions than do temperate nations like the U.S.,

Canada and Europe, where marijuana is increasingly legal or tolerated. In particular, Colombia has drawn lots of investment from Canada, which is in the process of legalizing recreational cannabis, altho the Canadians are careful to stress that their Colombian investments involve only medicinal marijuana.

Colombia's cocaine industry continues costing the country immense amounts of money to pay for carnage and law enforcement, while its marijuana businesses will soon be paying taxes and creating legal employment, like the tobacco and alcohol industries.

Is there a lesson here about the best way to manage mind-altering substances?

Colombia's cannabis industry suffered a black eye a few weeks ago when a group of Israeli cannabis tourists and their guide were kidnapped after visiting a medicinal marijuana plantation near Cali. The kidnappers, who were apparently dissident FARC guerrillas, released the tourists but killed the guide, after demanding an astronomical ransom from her family. Whether the kidnappers were motivated by money or paranoia about strangers entering their region is not clear. But the tragedy was only marginally related to marijuana, which was what drew the tourists into the troubled region, but did not cause the crime.
Mónica Berenice Blanco Sossa,
urdered Argentine-Colombian tourist guide. 

Some have suggested that the tragedy was the fault of the guide and the tourists for pursuing mind-altering substances. That's an interesting sentiment. I'll wait for them to prohibit tourists from consuming alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, as well.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, June 22, 2018

Uribe, Perpetual Kingmaker

Ivan Duque, president elect
and Uribe creation.
If last Sunday's presidential vote proved one thing, it's that Alvaro Uribe continues ruling Colombian politics. No matter that his own presidency was marred by severe human rights violations including paramilitary massacres with evident government collusion and the horrific False Positives murders, or that his brother is in prison and Uribe himself is the object of multiple investigations for paramilitary links.

No, none of that seems to matter in Colombian politics. Eight years ago, Uribe selected his minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, to succeed him. Santos won the presidency, altho he proceeded to defy Uribe by negotiating peace with the FARC guerrillas. Uribe was the leading opponent of the peace talks.

Four years ago, Uribe chose Oscar Ivan Zuliaga, who came close but failed in his attempt to unseat Santos.

But now, with Ivan Duque, a fresh face in Colombian politics, Uribe has shown again his ability to be
Uribe, right, and Zuluaga, his previous political product.
kingmaker. Duque, a senator who is only 41 years old and has been just a few years in politics, was little known until Uribe annoited him as his succesor. On Sunday, he handily defeated Bogotá's leftist ex-mayor Gustavo Petro for the presidency.

While Pres. Santos surprised many by breaking with Uribe, it looks much less likely that Duque will do so. Duque is young and has little political experience. He lacks Santos' long family political heritage. And Uribe will be the most powerful man in Congress, making his collaboration fundamental to the president.

Another winner Sunday were the evangelical churches, most of which threw their support behind Duque. Colombia historically was a strongly Catholic nation. The 1991 Constitution converted it into a secular nation, but Catholicism continued holding great cultural and political influence. In recent decades, however, evangelicals have made great inroads among poor people, while the Catholic Church lost battles on issues including abortion and gay rights and euthenasia. The Conservative Party, which often represented the Catholic church and was one of only two parties which mattered, has lost relevance, while MIRA and other purely evangelical political parties have surged.

The MIRA evangelical party endorsed Duque.
Duque will be indebted to the evangelicals. And, while he has said that he will respect LGBT rights, and "not rip apart" the FARC peace accord, which the evangelicals also opposed, political reality may dictate other plans.

Colombia's environment will be another great loser from this election, although it was already in full retreat. Deforestation has accelerated at a terrifying pace in recent years, and Duque's plans to pursue an economy based on resource extraction will only worsen that trend.

Many suspect that Duque, an academic and diplomat, who is only 41 and has only a few years of political experience, will be controlled by Uribe. Uribe, after all, put Duque where he is and also heads the largest power bloc in Congress.

Duque, however, will have trouble sabotaging the peace deal, which both he and Uribe opposed, because it is a ... law and because many of his likely political coalition partners supported it.

But Duque will pursue prohibitionist drug policies and an aggressive coca leaf erradication effort, even tho both have been shown to be failures. Duque will also deepen Colombia's fossil fuel-dependent economy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, June 15, 2018

Still Losing the Drug War

Today's El Tiempo reports the boom in coca leaf cultivation.
It should be great news. Production of this Colombian product has more than tripled in the last several years. But unfortunately, we're talking about an illegal harvest: coca leaf destined for cocaine.

Nobody's sure why coca leaf cultivation has boomed in recent years. Perhaps the FARC encouraged farmers to plant more, with promises that one day they'd be paid to erradicate their own crops? Well, if the Marxist FARC are capable of such a capitalist wonder, then the government should put them in charge of turbocharging other parts of the economy, such as the beleagured textile industry.

The reality. Coca leaf acreage
is booming.
In fact, the only reasonable explanation is that more demand generates more supply. Evidently, traffickers are succeeding in smuggling cocaine out of Colombia. In Europe, for example, cocaine prices have been stable recently, but purity has increased.

Colombian and United States anti-drug warriors, who have poured billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives into the war against cocaine, are recycling the same old ideas which have failed before: manual and aerial erradication and encouraging alternative crops. The government also proposes deepening the military's role as an anti-drug force - an arrangement which will confront soldiers against the same poor population which they mostly come from.

But even if those strategies did work, they'd only push more coca leaf acreage into Peru and Bolivia,
The fantasy: Colombian plans
to reduce coca leaf acreage.
as has happened before.

In Afghanistan, another nation with tremendous U.S. influence, a different drug crop - heroin - has also boomed.

Isn't it time to admit defeat, legalize these substances, and reduce their harm?

The boom in coca plantations is also one cause behind Colombia's accelerating deforestation. If coca plantations were legal, then farmers would lose incentive to chop down jungle to hide their plots, and the state and consumers could exercise at least some influence about how and where coca wase planted.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Decadence of the Liberal Party

Liberal candidate Humberto
de la Calle: A good man,
but a bad campaigner.
During much of Colombia's history, the Partido Liberal was one of two dominant forces - along with the Partido Conservador - in Colombian politics. The Liberals produced some 30 presidents and helped introduce peace treaties with guerrilla groups, the secularization of the country and expanded rights for women and minorities.

The Liberals dominated the presidency after the end of Frente Nacional in 1974, electing 5 of the country's 7 presidents.

However, the presidency of Ernesto Samper (1994-8), whose campaign was financed by drug cartels, tainted the party (and by the same token, his succesor Conservative Andrés Pastrana's failed peace talks with the FARC guerrillas threw the Conservatives into disrepute). The 2002 election of Pres. Alvaro Uribe, who started his political career as a Liberal, moved far to the right, and won the presidency as an independent, drained both major traditional parties of relevance.

The Liberals' lack of ideological consistency may also weaken it. The party houses both far-leftists
such as e-senator Piedad Cordoba, who evidently sympathizes with both the FARC guerrillas and the government of Venezuela, and conservative evangelicals.

In this latest presidential campaign the Liberals made the mistake of choosing as their standard bearer Humberto De La Calle, who led the government negotiating team in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. But De La Calle's candidacy never took off, receiving only 2% of the vote. And neither did the Liberals enter into a coalition with the only viable centrist candidate, ex-Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo.
The Liberal Party endorses Ivan Duque, right-wing opponent of the peace deal.
Finally, after choosing a pro-peace candidate in the first round, in the presidential campaign's second round the Liberals endorsed Ivan Duque, the political heir of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, furious critic of the peace negotiations. A voter could be forgiven for wondering what the Liberals stand for -if anything.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours