Thursday, August 28, 2014

End of the Road for Cuban Refugees?


Cuban refugee Rafael Alejandro Hernández argues with an immigration official on Plaza Bolivar today.
They'd fled from Cuba to Ecuador to escape, they claim, abuse and violence from government authorities.
From Ecuador they crossed into Colombia four months ago, and today planted themselves on Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar and announced a hunger strike until they received refuge in some free nation.

'Cuban political opponents. Colombia denied us refuge,'
says the poster.
"I don't care about getting mugged on a bus," said Rafael Alejandro Hernández, "I just want to live in liberty."

Hernández and his friend Yuniesky Rampón Borges Jiménez said that back in Cuba they'd opposed the government and been repeatedly arrested and physically beaten for their actions. Hernández recited a list of Cuban dissident journalists he said were his friends.

The pair had requested asylum in Colombia, but understood that their case had been rejected. They seemed clearly desperate. Hernández, who claimed that the Cuban government had trained him from age 16 to be a spy and to infiltrate the U.S., said he'd had to leave behind his infant daughter in Cuba.

If the pair wanted attention, they'd chosen the right place. Colombian police and migracíón officials showed up, the migración officials eager to take the Cubans back to their office to discuss their cases.

"There are many possible solutions," an immigration official assured them. "In Colombia, every procedure has an appeal."

Yet, their prospects weren't good. In March, Colombia denied refugee status for six Cubans who two months previously had gotten off of a plane headed to Cuba and staged a hunger strike in the El Dorado Airport. By that time, Colombian government officials said they had lost track of the six Cubans.

The two Cubans on Plaza Bolivar this afternoon were nervous about trusting the government officials - appropriately, for citizens of the hemisphere's last surviving full dictatorship. They feared being sent back to Cuba or to Venezuela, a close Cuban ally.

"You're not being detained," the official assured them. "We'll just talk."

An older man with a bicycle listening to the discussion, apparently a sympathizer of the Cuban government, began criticizing the paramilitarism and corruption in Colombia.

"If you said those things in Cuba, my friend, you'd be in prison already," Hernández told him.

But other bystanders were also fearful. One woman worried that people would be endangered because they appeared in my photographs. (I can't imagine that would be true, in this situation.)
Ready to go with the officials, Hernández rolls up a poster
announcing their hunger strike.

"You foreigners have caused us all problems," another person in the crowd yelled out. "Foreigners started the guerrillas here."

During the Cold War, Cuba financed guerrilla groups across the continent. And Colombia's ELN guerrillas were founded by a group of young Colombians who had studied in Cuba.

"The last thing we want to do is cause problems," Hernández assured her.

This man criticized Colombia as corrupt and violent.
"These people are crazy," one of the immigration officials told the Cubans.

"You see, we can't talk here."
The immigration officials urgently wanted the protesting Cubans off of the government plaza. Cuba is hosting peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas. Perhaps an international incident involving Cuban dissidents wouldn't be convenient.

"What about those negotiations in Cuba?" Hernández asked. "You see - there's politics in everything."

Bystanders watch and photograph as the Cubans
leave with immigration officials.
The two men finally, reluctantly, agreed to go to the immigration office. Hernández gave me his e-mail address - rafale1220 (at) gmail (dot) com .

"Write me. If I don't reply in three days, it means I've been disappeared, or sent away," Hernandez told me. Apologetically, he added: "I've been made to imagine the worst possible things."

The crowd from the plaza followed them to the government car. "Copy down the license plate number," someone yelled out. Others photographed the official cars.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Popeye The Free Man

Popeye holds a book about his ex-boss Pablo Escobar.
Popeye, Pablo Escobar's favorite assassin, responsible for hundreds of murders and innumerable bombings, became a free man this evening. At this writing, he's on his way to Bogotá in an armored caravan.

But don't feel scared. Popeye, age 52, has turned into a mild-mannered seen shuffling thru the Combita Prison in Boyaca clutching folders of documents. Because of all the enemies he made outside, Popeye is the one who should be scared. Several other ex-members of the Medellin cartel were assassinated soon after finishing their own sentences. Popeye himself says there's a $1 million dollar price on his head.

Popeye will now live in a Bogotá halfway house, where he'll get retrained for the normal world - and certainly be guarded 24 hours a day.

Popeye, whose real name is Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, told Semana magazine that he killed some 300 people with his own hands and participated in 3,000 murders. His 24 years in prison constitute fewer than 30 days for each person murdered. In contrast, last August a Bogotá man was sentenced to 5 years in prison for stealing a cellular telephone.

Popeye got out early because of good behavior and because he studied in prison. But he also got his sentence reduced for cooperating with authorities, singing about other criminals (who may be aiming to get him now). While those confessions serve justice, they also show how the worst criminals - who naturally know the most - sometimes serve relatively short sentences.

It also seems strange that Popeye will not be extradited to the U.S. on narcotrafficking-related charges. While he may not have trafficked himself, he killed in the service of the most notorious narcotrafficker of all.

To walk free, Popeye had to pay a 9 million peso bail. I'd like to know where he got that money, which is more than half of Colombia's average annual income. I doubt Popeye the small fortune washing dishes in the prison lunchroom, and the government supposedly seized all of the Medellin cartel's fortune.

Who's placing bets on Popeye's life expectancy outside the prison walls?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wish You Weren't There

Be glad you're not there. Supermarket shelves in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo: Twitter)
For all the frustrations of Bogotá: the chaos, crime, pollution, occasional rudeness and bureaucracy, we can be grateful for at least one thing: We're not in Caracas, Venezuela.

To remind yourself of that, read this pathetically hilarious blog entry at Caracas Chronicles.

Next time you're shopping and discover that your favorite color toilet paper's sold out, remember that in
Caraqueños on their way to the beach.
(Photo: Ultimas Noticias)
Caracas finding any toilet paper at all means getting in line before dawn. And, when Venezuelans travel overseas, they have to do so on a Venezuelan government stipend. And, pretty soon, if Venezuelan Pres. Maduro's plans become reality, Venezuelans will get fingerprinted every time they buy soap, powdered milk or toilet paper - just to be sure they aren't buying too much.

Frustrated by Bogotá's chronic, worsening traffic congestion and pollution? But imagine if gasoline were almost free - as it is in Caracas - and you were trapped all day in perpetual traffic jams behind 30-year-old gas guzzlers.

Scared by crime? Bogotá's homicide rate is still way too high - but Caracas's is one of the world's highest for a country not at war. During my last several months living in Central Caracas, in 2005, there were 3 or 4 homicides on my street.

And corruption? Let's not get started.

Inadequate health care? In Caracas, I visited a large public hospital which had no air conditioning, elevators or gauze. No joke. And the intercom system had been stolen!

So, as frustrating as things can be, remember that all is relative.

And, as for the blogger from Caracas, Bogotanos kept asking him whether he planned to return home. He actually did.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Plaza Gets its Name Back

Plaza Las Nieves -  or Plaza Eduardo Umaña Mendoza
The patch of cement across Ave. Septima from Iglesia Las Nieves is commonly known as Plaza Las Nieves, after the church. 

But the official name of this haunt of pigeons, alcoholics and skateboarders is Plaza Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, named after a radical leftist attorney assassinated by right-wing killers in April 1998.

Today, several posters celebrating Umaña appeared on the wall of the ETB building. Why today? I have no idea, since it's not the anniversary of his birth or death.

Born in 1946, Umaña Mendoza defended victims of the Union Patriotica assassinations, fought against privatization of the ETB phone company and other state-owned enterprises (the plaza adjoins ETB's building, which is probably why the plaza was given his name), and even Abimael Guzmán Reinoso, leader of the notorious Peruvian terrorist group Sendero Luminoso. Umaña traveled across Rurope denouncing human rights abuses in Colombia. 

'It's a lie that Colombia has a general impunity.
(Rather), there is impunity for those on top and
repression for those on the bottom.'
Umaña also studied the 1948 assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, and argued that the United States' Central Intelligence Agency was behind the crime - despite the lack of any evidence I know of. Umaña's own assassination has been tied to right-wing paramilitaries.

For a man who was likely an atheist, it would be tough knowing that his plaza is popularly associated with a Catholic Church. And, a man dedicated to defending society's humblest would certainly feel saddened seeing some of those people wandering drunk about his plaza.
A group of alcoholics sits on the the plaza below Umaña's posters.

'The rights of peoples and human rights are two separate battles which meet each other.'
Feeding pigeons on the plaza.

The plaza's centerpiece is this long-suffering statue of Francisco Jose de Caldas.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Where Those Cars Went to Die


I discovered these old cars the other day in a small parking lot located a few blocks west of the Casa de Nariño, in a neighborhood which the government wants to turn into ministry buildings, but whose residents and business owners are fighting to remain. I guess the fact that these vehicles have been taking up space here for years, perhaps for decades, suggests that the area is being under-exploited in an economic sense. On the other hand, they do add a sort of beauty to the place.

The many millions of dedicated readers of this blog will know that I don't like cars, for their impacts on society and the environment. These cars, at least, have stopped polluting - the air, anyway. (They're probably leaching metals and chemicals into the soil.) But their presence here years or decades after they stopped moving demonstrates how cars continue occupying space long after they're any social use has ended.Th














By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fewer Murders, More Injuries

Police hustle away a young man a week ago in San Victorino. I don't know what he had allegedly done - perhaps assault or theft.
While Bogotá leaders have crowed in recent years about the city's decreasing
rates of kidnappings and homicides - during 2013 the homicide rate was 16.7 violent deaths for every 100,000 Bogotá residents, down from 22.1 per 100,000 in 2011 -  personal injuries have increased, from fewer than 42,000 in 2009 to over 45,000 last year.

'A city under the scourge of
personal injuries
' reports El Tiempo.
The rise in personal injuries could well be a measurement issue. However, in a more peaceful city, one would expect a dramatic drop.

And, during the past few weeks, I've happened on more than my share of scenes of violence. Here are a few images.

An alleged thief lies on the sidewalk near the Museo de Oro. Other people had kicked him until the man in the striped shirt intervened. Soon after, police showed up and took him away. 
A policeman attends a young man (not visible), who had just been mugged by three youths who left his face and arm blooded before running off.  
The young man's injuries left blood splattered across the sidewalk.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

And If Galán Had Lived?

Luis Carlos Galán's assassination 25 years ago this past Sunday was one of many such political killings during the 1980s and '90s - but is still the most iconic.

The charismatic, incorruptible Galán would almost surely have won the 1990 presidential election. But an assassin's bullet killed him on the evening of August 18, 1989 while campaigning in Soacha. Galán's death and his popularity shared a common cause: His uncompromising opposition to the corrupting influence of the drug trade.

Galán was shot by an assassin who fired upward from his hiding place beneath the speaker's stage. Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar and right-wing paramilitaries had planned the killing, but a quarter-century later investigators continue looking into corrupt collaboration by Galán's security detail.

What if the assassination had failed? Most likely the assassins would have tried again - they had already tried and failed once before, after all. And Escobar later bombed a passenger airline out of the sky in a failed attempt to kill Galán's successor, Cesar Gaviria. Gaviria, who would go on to win the presidency, had not taken the flight.

But if Galán HAD become president, history could have taken different turns. Galán's support of the practice of extraditing Colombian drug traffickers for trial and imprisonment in the United States - the punishment they most feared - could have made Colombia's drug war even more bloody and violent than it in fact was. But it might have been shorter, as well.

On the other hand, one of the signal events of recent Colombian history, the 1991 constitutional convention
Security guards scramble Aug. 18, 1989 in the
plaza of Soacha after Galán was gunned down.
which produced the humanist Constitution in force today, might not have happened at all. That's because it was Galán's assassination which motivated the convention's organization.

On the other hand, a President Galán's strong moral compass might have reduced the cynicism and disillusionment with politics which many Colombians continue to feel today. At least, that could have been true if Galán had become a successful president. That was far from assured, since, according to at least one opinion, his lack of willingness to compromise had earlier made him a terrible minister of education.

But if Galán had been an effective president, the consequences could have been limitless. A stronger, respected and less corrupt state could have reined in the cocaine economy and weakened the guerrillas. The right-wing paramilitaries which rose up in response to the guerrillas might never have appeared at all. Perhaps the failed 1998 negotiations with the FARC would have gone differently - or not been needed at all. In a more secure, successful Colombia, the election of hard-line Pres. Alvaro Uribe, with all its consequences in corruption and human rights violations, might not have taken place.

But I'm dubious about all of this. Unless you believe in the 'Great Man' theory of human history, there are broader forces which determine events. Colombia was able to beat back the cocaine cartels and waken the guerrillas not because of any one leader, but because of changes such as the end of the Cold War, which enabled the United States to direct money and attention toward other issues, such as Colombia's crisis.

Galán might have been an excellent, honorable president. And, today's Colombia might be better thanks to him. But I doubt he could have fundamentally changed the nation's course.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours