Monday, March 2, 2015

Faces of the Victims

These huge posters appeared on Calle 26 the other day, just north of the Central Cemetery. I'm told that they portray leftist victims of government and other violence, including particularly victims of the genocide against the Union Patriotica.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Power Corrupts, and....

Lord Acton.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." - Lord Acton; April 1887.

Alvaro Uribe was unquestionably Colombia's most popular and powerful president of recent times. Thanks to his firm and aggressive policies, Colombia's guerrillas were beaten back, laying the groundwork for today's peace negotiations.

However, anybody who lived thru that time remembers how Uribe's aggressiveness could carry over into paranoia, which caused him to accuse principled leftists and even critical journalists of being guerrilla supporters.

Alvaro Uribe: the almost-dictator?
The consequences of that became clear last Friday, when two high officials of Uribe's government were convicted for their roles in the 'chuzadas' or eavesdropping case. In that scandal, the president used the DAS, then Colombia's secret police, to spy on political opponents and critical journalists. (The DAS was dissolved in the wake of the scandal.)

Uribe was so powerful that he succeeded in amending Colombia's Constitution to enable himself to
run for a second consecutive term. If the Supreme Court had not blocked his try for a third term, Uribe might still be Colombia's president today, instead of in the Senate, from where he attacks the Santos administration's peace talks with the FARC.

Ex-DAS director Maria
de Pilar Hurtado.
The chuzadas scandal, which many observers said was worse than Watergate, was only one of many which scarred Uribe's eight-year administration. Under Uribe's watch, the military also allied itself with right-wing paramilitary death squads, which committed horrific massacres while the regular troops stood by. And soldiers also murdered thousands of innocent young men and reported them as guerrillas in order to receive bonuses, in what became known as the False Positives scandal.

Uribe's great power may have caused a moral breakdown. Or, a lack of scruples may have helped Uribe, in Machiavellian fashion, to attain power. But in Uribe power and questionable morality coincided and for a while threatened to carry Colombia down the path of Latin American caudillismo.
Ex-Secretary of the presidency.

It was fortunate - and perhaps surprising - that after almost eight years of Uribismo the courts
retained enough independence to defy the president's try push a third term. Unfortunately, however, the same has not happened in nations such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua, where presidents hold near total control - and the potential for near total corruption.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, February 27, 2015

Venezuela Vs. Colombia's Media
Disparaging - but a coup? (From Semana magazine)
Maduro says that paramilitaries
infiltrate from Colombia.
His popularity at 20%, his nation's economy in collapse, and his democratic credentials increasingly questioned, Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro is fighting back - against the Colombian media.

When Semana magazine cartoonist Vladdo published a cartoon portraying Venezuela's coat of arms with a sickly horse, empty cornucopia and empty branches, Maduro was ready.

"I reject the campaign of manipulation, lies and hate in Colombia against Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, against Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution," Maduro thundered over a national 'cadena' (chain), when all Venezuelan radio and television stations are required to carry his speeches.

Madura offensive against
the Colombian press.
Whether Vladdo's portrayal is accurate or not - and it sure seems true that Venezuelan shelves are empty and its people discouraged - the context is revealing. Maduro attacked Colombian media by enslaving (literally 'chaining) a Venezuelan media which has already been tamed by official threats, intimidation and lawsuits.

Over the past several years, the Venezuelan government has progressively taken away broadcasting licenses and bought out critical broadcasters and newspapers. Surviving independent papers struggle to obtain paper to print on. And the famed opposition opinion paper Tal Cual, run by old leftist Teodoro Petkoff, it switching from being a daily to a weekly under the burden of government lawsuits, lack of advertising and lack of newsprint.

So it's not surprising that Maduro, used to a pliant and passive media back home, would object to a critical one next door.

At the same time, of course, everything Colombian provides Maduro with a convenient target to attack. In that respect, Maduro's use of the term 'Santanderean oligarchy' is also telling. Maduro was referring to Colombian revolutionary hero and president Francisco de Paula Santander, who broke with Simon Bolivar after independence and is famous for telling Colombians that 'Weapons have given you independence, but laws will give you liberty.' In contrast to Santander, after independence Bolivar wanted to discard the Constitution and make himself lifetime president - much as the Chavez-Maduro dynasty, whch has ruled for 16 years, has done in Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fired for Truth-Telling?

Yohir Akerman, ex-columnist. 
For years, Yohir Akerman wrote often polemical columns for Medellin's El Colombiano newspaper - columns often critical of religion and even of the newspaper's other columnists.

But when Akerman dared to suggest that the Good Lord could be - horrors of horrors - mistaken, he got ousted from the paper.

Akerman's latest and last column arose from the recent flap over the Universidad de la Sabana's opinion on the issue of adoption by same-sex couples. Sabana University, an elite private school located in north Bogotá, was founded by Opus Dei, the extremely conservative Catholic group. Predictably, the university's medical school recommended against permitting gay adoption. However, it went on to opine that homosexuals could be considered mentally ill, a position long since rejected by the medical establishment. The retrograde view on gay people brought the university so much criticism
that it issued a retraction.

In his newspaper columns, Akerman quoted Old Testament verses prescribing the
El Colombiano
death penalty - often by stoning - for adulterers, rebellious children, women who are not virgins at marriage and other 'wrongdoers.' He also also cited Bible verses endorsing slavery.

"All of these concepts are in the Bible," Akerman concluded, "and as history has demonstrated on these subjects, god was mistaken."

The newspaper appended this convoluted message to the column: 'Note from the directors: This newspaper promotes debate from respect and good arguments. We consider that this column strays from those principles. For the author, not publishing the column would mean his resignation. We publish it and accept his resignation.'

The directors did not explain why quoting the Bible constituted a lack or respect or good argument.

The Bible: Infallible?
Semana magazine quotes Akerman as saying that the paper's director criticized him particularly for not capitalizing the word 'god' and for asserting that God was mistaken.

In Sabana University's defense, it's not explicitly clear that its criticism of same-sex adoption was based on religious ideas. In fact, it doesn't seem unreasonable that growing up in a heterosexual family, which has been the norm for much of human and pre-human evolution, would be better for kids. But it also seems obvious that a loving, supportive family of any type is much better than an abusive one or being warehoused in an orphanage.

And the studies I've seen show that children of same-sex couples tend to out-perform those of heterosexual couples for a simple reason having little to do with the parents' gender or sexual orientation: they have highly-motivated parents who had to make lots of effort to have kids. In contrast, we all know that many heterosexual couples become parents by mistake.

For its part, Akerman's column seems to fall well within the spectrum of reasonable commentary. After all, he primarily quoted the Bible rather than attacking it.

Rather than summarily ousting Akerman, El Colombiano's editors might explain why the Bible is unerring, and therefore that death by stoning is a reasonable punishment for a range of moral 'lapses.'

But while they're at it, El Colombiano might also find itself endorsing a Christian version of the barbaric Islamic State.

As for the court, it ruled that, for now, same-sex couples could adopt only when the child was the biological offspring of one member of the couple, but that the legislature should regulate the issue.

Perhaps such an incremental decision is best in a highly-Catholic nation. In the U.S., when courts made rulings on controversial issues such as racial segregation and abortion it's led to years of conflict. Some things are best decided by the more democratic legislature.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, February 21, 2015

That Mysterious Smog

Here's the view of central Bogotá these days in the morning from the high end of La Candelaria. Smog causes thousands of premature deaths every year in Bogotá alone, but authorities do nothing about it.

According to this blog's secret sources in City Hall, the Petro administration has hired top scientists to clear up the mystery of where this deadly smoke is coming from, in order to finally do something about it. Apparently, these scientists need another 10 or 15 years at least for the job, because pollution sources such as cars, trucks, buses and industry are very difficult to identify, much less sanction, when they have lots of political influence.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cleaning Up the Emerald Industry?

Taking a stand. Emerald dealers march yesterday on Plaza Rosario.
Emerald traders examine loose emeralds
 on the sidewalk by Carrera Septima and Jimenez Ave.,
the city's informal emerald market. 
Bogotá's emerald industry workers protested yesterday against a law which they fear will force them out of business or into illegality.

The law requires emerald workers, all the way from informal miners to exporters, to register and issue receipts and, of course, pay taxes. It also requires certificates of origin on all emeralds stating where they were mined.

The government says the law is intended to formalize an industry historically characterized by illegal and informal mines, as well as relationships with smugglers, drug traffickers, paramilitaries and other illegal groups. Many emerald mines have also historically been dangerous and have illegally employed children. In addition, the big emerald miners, popularly known as 'czars', have sometimes waged violent war among themselves, killing thousands.

Ready to formalize? Emerald miners toil amidst
head and mud. (Photo from: Pacifista)
Many observers have also noted that, despite the huge mines in Muzo and other places, the industry pays few taxes.

But is this law realistic? Are its demands practicable? If not, it will just transform many emerald workers from being being just informal to being outright illegal.

Emeralds in a window of the Emerald Trade Center on Jimenez Ave.
Loose emeralds for sale. 
The Emerald Trade Ceneter on Jimenez Ave. in La Candelaria.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Early Sign of Easter

All those people with crosses daubed onto their foreheads were commemorating Ash Wednesday, the symbolic start of the run-up to the Easter holiday. It's one of the few times when many people are identifiable by their religion, which is usually Catholic here.

The cross is supposed to be created using ashes of last year's palm fronds, representing the fact that we will all be dust one day.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours