Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Day the Cold War Ended

Headlines in today's El Tiempo announce the U.S.-Cuba detente and the FARC ceasefire announcement.

The quiet little island of Cuba rocked the region today with two announcements which may mean the end of the Cold War.

Cuba and the United States will normalize relations, meaning that Washington has accepted that hemisphere's only communist nation, and one of very few in the world, is no threat to democracy and capitalism.

And the FARC, the hemisphere's oldest and largest Marxist guerrilla group, announced in Cuba a unilateral, indefinite ceasefire in its war against the Colombian state.

Coincidence? Partly, perhaps. After all, not even Cuba's closest ally Venezuela seems to have known in advance about the Cuba-U.S. agreement. But both moves reflect a transformed world in which capitalism - if not liberal democracy - has triumphed and the communist vestiges are either futile or irrelevant.

The FARC have announced previous ceasefires, but never before an indefinite one. This one may not even last - the FARC leaders promised to call it off if the military attacks their forces. But it's yet another sign that the guerrillas are tired and weakened and really want to reach a peace deal in Havana.

The Economist points out that the guerrillas' move hands the Colombian government a difficult choice: if it ceases attacks on the guerrilla it will implicitly accept a bilateral ceasefire - an idea which Pres. Santos has repeatedly rejected. But, whatever happens, the guerrillas have clearly signaled that they want 'no mas.'

The ceasefire will be great news for Colombia if it means an end to kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, car bombings, land mines and all the other horrors the guerrillas have inflicted on Colombia.

As for the Washington-Havana detente, it removes a source of tension between Colombia and its biggest trading partner, Washington, since Colombia has maintains normal relations with Cuba. And it further weakens Venezuela, already in an economic tailspin, which has long counted on Cuba as its closest ally and unwavering partner in denouncing Washington policies. Now, Venezuela becomes the hemisphere's prime target of U.S. criticism.

'Times in the Americas are changing,' says The Economist.

That's true. But if capitalism seems to be triumphing everywhere - including 'communist' China and inevitably in Cuba, one can't say the same about liberal democracy. Looking across the hemisphere, it's unclear whether liberal democracies, on the model of the U.S., Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and others will prevail, or whether the region will become dominated by authoritarians disguised as democracies, on the model of Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy 40th to Bogotá's Ciclovia!

Cyclists, skaters and walkers on La Ciclovia.
Bogotá's Sunday/holiday Ciclovía, one of the city's proudest and best-known institutions, is celebrating its 40th anniversary these days. 

La Ciclovia, now sometimes called 'the world's longest street party,' began in late 1974 as a small event with a few thousand riders on closed-down portions of carreras Septima and Decima. In the four decades since, it's expanded to 121 kilometers and added an annual Nocturnal Ciclovia and activities such as aerobics classes, called La Recrovia. (That's one of several versions I've heard of La Ciclovia's origin story.)

During those decades, the La Ciclovia idea has been adopted by cities across Latin America, the United States and as far away as Asia. Back home, however, Bogotá's own Ciclovia has had to fight off efforts to reduce its length and cut back its hours. 

Today, La Ciclovia is likely Bogotá's greatest good-will messenger and an opportunity for recreation for millions of bogotanos of all social classes, including many who don't own bicycles.

I only regret that La Ciclovia's huge turn-out doesn't translate into millions of cyclists on the other days of the week.
Ciclovia 'guardians' with signs commemorating the 40-year anniversary.
Dancers in La Recrovia, public aerobics classes held during La Ciclovia.

Orlando often appears on La Ciclovia with his bicycle displaying pro-Cuba and anti-U.S. placards.

A rainy Ciclovia.

Taking the dogs out for a spin on La Ciclovia.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bogotá - Still Trash City

Garbage - specifically, the stuff dumped in public spaces - has been Mayor Gustavo Petro's nemesis.

Petro's plan for transforming the city's collection system from private to public resulted in mounds of trash on sidewalks all over the city and eventually got Petro temporarily ousted from office. That was followed by the city's Basuro Cero (Zero Garbage) campaign, which only involved ever-increasing production of garbage - and recycling campaigns, which have produced no noticeable changes in trash disposal habits.

A pedestrian passes a trash-strewn sidewalk in La Candelaria.
Finally, the city issued a law, which went into force about ten days ago, which was supposed to finally and absolutely cure the garbage problem by fining people who did not dispose of their trash at the right time, in the right locations and in the correct-colored bags.

Of course, in a city of millions of people accustomed since forever to tossing their trash willy-nilly onto the sidewalks, where dogs and homeless people tear open the bags and paw thru it for anything they can consume or sell, an unenforceable law changed nothing. If Petro had bothered to ask the opinions of any Bogotanos, they could have saved him the trouble of creating a doomed law.

City 'Zero Garbage' workers sweep up a bit
of the city's tons of garbage.
Recently, Petro lamented to El Tiempo that 'We might have created a revolution.' Yes, he might have, if he had only implemented sensible solid waste policies tested and proven by other cities, such as deposit laws, taxes and other charges to shift the cost of trash disposal onto the businesses which produce and sell the products - thus motivating them to reduce, reuse and recycle their trash.

But Petro, despite being an ex-guerrilla, chose conservative policies obviously doomed to failure. That's nobody's fault but his own.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Photo of the Day: The Aquatic Car

During recent days, Bogotá has experienced some intense rains (altho they usually don't last long).

Even tho Bogotá should be used to rain, the city obviously isn't prepared for it, as this scene proves. Water pools up in low places, producing urban lakes.

This taxi, however, didn't seem to mind too much, and continued on its wet way.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Relax Americans: You're Safe

James Watson,
murdered DEA agent.
Members of the taxi-driver gang which murdered a U.S. DEA agent in north Bogotá in June of last year during a mugging-gone-awry are being sentenced in a court in Virginia, and you can be certain that these guys regret their crime.

"If I could go back in time, I would," taxi driver Andrés Álvaro Oviedo, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, was quoted in El Tiempo. "I made a mistake and know I'm going to pay for it. I never wanted to hurt anybody."

(The five men were extradited to the U.S. on the shaky justification that the smart phone which they stole contained classified DEA information - even tho the gang sold the phone without bothering to check its data.)

Whether someone who 'never wanted to hurt anybody' had any business joining a band of muggers is more than debatable. But so is Oviedo's sentence: 20 years in prison - even tho he didn't actually participate in the crime, because his taxi broke down on his way to the scene. Colombian paramilitary leaders, some guilty of hundreds or thousands of murders as well as other crimes, are getting out of prison this year after doing just 8-year terms.

Two of Oviedo's associates in the robbery-murder received prison sentences of 25 and 27 years, while the principal actors in the crime are expected to receive terms of 40 and 60 years.

These guys may very well deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison for a crime which the judge called "grave and brutal." That's particularly true since they undoubtedly had committed previous robberies and perhaps even murders which went unpunished (and perhaps the fact that those victims were Colombians had something to do with that).

The harsh sentences may be intended to "send a message to the world that whoever attacks a U.S. citizen will pay a high price," wrote El Tiempo.

If that was the goal, they picked an effective way to accomplish it. As a result, we U.S. expatriates can relax. Any mugger who suspects a potential victim may be a gringo will surely turn around and assault someone else.

But if the goal of the justice system, either in the U.S, or Colombia, is to deter potential future
Ernesto Manzanera killed five in a car crash
and fled the scene, but is at home resting.
criminals, then perhaps they should apply similar harsh punishments to other killers, such as Avianca co-pilot Ernesto Manzanera, who while driving at 180 kilometers per hour in the early morning smashed into another car and killed its four occupants. A judge gave Manzanera home detention, and so he's resting comfortably awaiting his court date. Manzanera could be subject to 18 years in prison, but if his case follows the pattern of previous drunk driver killers, he'll receive a few years of home confinement of dubious enforcement.

One might argue that, in contrast to the cabbie gang, Manzanera did not intend to kill. But his extreme recklessness and irresponsibility come close to the same level of moral culpability. And after the accident Manzanera fled the scene and turned himself into police only 15 hours later, when any evidence of alcohol or drugs would have been flushed from his system. When Manzanera fled, at least one of his victims was still alive, compounding Manzanera's responsibility for her death.

That not all crimes or criminals are punished equally is a cliché. But occasions like this offer the opportunity to examine why that is and how the system of 'justice' could actually be true to its name.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, December 12, 2014

End of the Road for Rolling Chimneys?

A TransMilenio bus belches smog along the Environmental Axis in La Candelaria today. Has this one covered a million kilometers?
Those highly-polluting buses and trucks popularly called 'rolling chimneys) are a bane on Colombia's
A private bus belches smoke on Carrea 10. Will
these buses be controlled as well?
streets and cause thousands of premature deaths every year in Bogotá alone.

A new law reported on by El Tiempo today is to require exhaust filters in TransMilenio buses with more than one million kilometers under their belts as well as those blue SITP buses built before 2009.

The rules are a step forward for Bogotá officials, who have until now basically ignored air pollution, even tho it causes several thousand premature deaths every year - but they appear to leave huge gaps.

Do we really believe that TransMilenio buses only start polluting after covering a million kilometers? And what about SITP buses built before 2009, which presumably pollute more than the newer ones?

Most of all, what about the private buses, many of which are extremely old and polluting?

Finally, since existing laws are not enforced, what should make us believe that these new ones will be?

A truck belches away. Will they be controlled.
A SITP bus turns a corner with a blast of smoke.
El Tiempo reports: 'Buses to use filters to pollute less.' I'll believe it when I see it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, December 11, 2014

San Victorino Gets the Xmas Spirit

Want some stylish shorts?
You know it's Christmas season when you can't walk across Plaza San Victorino.

The plaza is the center of Bogotá's budget, often pirated, clothing retailers. As Christmas approaches, the plaza fills up with informal sellers, to the chagrin of nearby stores, which pay rent and taxes. In past years, police have tried to clear the sellers away, sometimes causing riots. This year, authorities appear willing to let them stay, just as long as they leave space for pedestrians.

According to El Tiempo, some vendors are sleeping on the plaza in order to not lose their vending spots. And perhaps also to save on rent.

Need a pair  of shorts, a football jersey or a swimming pool to finish off that Christmas shopping list? Hurry on down!

Counterfeit football jerseys are always in style.

Socks for sale.
Want a ´poncho?
After dark, the scene's still hectic.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours