Friday, December 31, 2010

Here Comes the Sun!

After months of ponchos, umbrellas and flooded streets, during which Colombia suffered record flooding, the sun has suddenly invaded Bogotá. 
Instead of this....
Things look like this!
 By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Santa Fe Neighborhood

Today, Santa Fe is one of the man slum areas in central Bogotá. But Santa Fe has special claim to notoriety as the site of the city's main red light district, or Tolerance Zone, giving the area a reputation for vice and degeneracy. A half-century ago, however, the neighborhood was wealthy - and then the wealthy moved further north, to the Teusaquillo and then the Usaquen neighborhoods.
The La Piscina brothel in the background
Many garbage scavengers bring their gleanings to scrap dealers
in Santa Fe.
Once-grand homes are now brothels.
One of the neighborhood's few well-maintained older homes.
Children line up outside a church-run social services agency.
An apartment building
Santa Fe is also a neighborhood, with families and children.
But what a place to grow up!
Scrap scavengers often use horsecarts. 

Several years ago, leftist university students working with a guerrilla group were building a bomb in this apartment building when it exploded by accident, killing them, the neighbors and a woman walking past. The government has a policy of rebuilding things destroyed by terrorism. But when they discovered that the building had been bought with drug money, they left it as it is. Nobody else has bothered to repair it, either.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours.

Twilight for Colombia's Drug Era?

Not a Colombian issue, anymore?
Tardily, I ran across this April 2010 Wall Street Journal article reporting that the illegal drug trade has dropped to about 1% of Colombia's economy, down from over 6% back in the late 80s, when Pablo Escobar ran the world's cocaine production.

Recent stories have also reported that Peru may now grow more coca leaf than Colombia, and that the U.S. street price has spiked, suggesting shortages.

I suspect that both percentage numbers are underestimates. But, whatever the truth, we're unfortunately still so far from winning the war on drugs that we've got to study strategies other than repression and prohibitionism.

Illegal drugs certainly have an out-sized impact on Colombia's identity and its public discourse, judging only by the stream of news articles about drug traffickers' arrests, killings and drug-generated corruption. And, if the economic percentage has dropped in Colombia, in Peru the cocaine industry contributes an astounding 17% of the nation's GDP.

Taking needles to an exchange in Portugal. Does
prohibition make users less likely to seek safe methods?
I got to thinking about drug policy - again - because of this story about Portugal's success in decriminalizing cocaine. After decriminalization, the number of users did not rise, while the number of court cases fell, more addicts got treatment and the number of drug-caused HIV infections dropped.

Foreign Policy magazine's predictions about next year's possible nations in conflict are also significant. The magazine lists Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. I think they're very wrong about Colombia, which is stable, growing economically and has the guerrillas on the run, but the fact that those three nations are all victims of the drug trade highlights the impacts of that industry.

At the very best, U.S. policy has pushed drug production out of Colombia into Peru and Bolivia - and it's only a matter of time before they start planting the stuff in Brazil, Venezuela, even Africa and Asia. All of this is nothing new. Peru historically was the world's biggest cocaine producer, and for a brief period a Dutch company planted coca leaf plantations in Java, making that the world's biggest producer. Colombia was only a processor and cocaine producer until Pablo Escobar imported seeds and decided to become the Johnny Appleseed of the coca bush.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bogotá's Beleaguered Mayor

Samuel Moreno Rojas won Bogotá's mayor's office in 2007 on the strength of a smile and a promise - to build a subway system.

Three years later, the subway is still uncertain and bogotanos are complaining about the terrible traffic jams contributed to by way-behind-schedule work on Transmilenio lines on Carrera 10 and 26th St. (which goes to the airport).
El Dorado Avenue; All dug up as far as the eye can see.
There've been lots of allegations of involvement by the mayor and a relative in cost overruns by the Nule clan, who had the original contract for the Transmilenio line to the airport. As a result, authorities recently seized the mayor's income and assets. Predictably, his approval rating was recently pegged at 18%. But Moreno's refused to resign.

But, for all the possible corruption and bad planning involved in these road projects, they had to be done, and so it's partially unfair for Moreno to get all of the flack. Perhaps, when the projects finally get wrapped up - and if Moreno stays out of prison - he'll be remembered positively for moving the city ahead - albeit painfully.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Incense Season!

One of Colombia's more colorful and odiferous traditions is the burning of incense at year's end. The burning is supposed to cleanse your home of evil spirits and bring health, happiness and money during the following year.
It's a mixture of herbs and colorful stones. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Colorful and Controversial Street Vendors

The pre-Christmas scene in San Victorino. Vendors, who are illegaly using public space, spread their wares on plastic sheets, so they can gather them up and flee when police arrive. 
Bogotá's always full of street vendors, but during the holiday season they really pack the city's streets and plazas. Generally, they are selling illegaly - but the police enforcement of public space laws are very selective and unpredictable. One day, they don't bother the vendors, the next they sweep through. They clear the vendors off of one plaza and leave them undisturbed across the street. It's strange and quizzical. Half measures? Corruption?

One thing is certain. Street vending provides work and income for many unemployed, low-skilled Colombians, including the millions of people displaced by the armed conflict. 

Storm troopers marching across Plaza San Victorino. That morning, the vendors had staged a demonstration. 
This food vendor got caught. In the distance, you can see his fleeing companions.
Many street vendors are indigenous immigrants from Ecuador, and some called the police sweeps persecution of immigrants.
These women used their time for Bible study. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Renewable Colombia?

The Jepirachi windfarm on the La Guajira peninsula
Colombia's record-breaking flooding coincided with the Cancun conference on global warming, providing a great excuse to talk about Colombia's potential as a renewable energy producer.

Two long coasts mean wave, tidal current and possibly even wind energy, lots of sunlight (although lots of clouds), lots of biomass and even volcanic activity, Colombia has little excuse not to exploit its huge renewable energy potential.

A recent report by Colombia's Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Inter-American Development Bank found that Colombia had potential for more than 46 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, including 25 GW of small hydroelectric projects and 21 GW of windpower, as well as solar, biomass and geothermal. (How much is a gigawatt? Enough to power 750,000 homes in the U.S., and many more in Colombia.) Right now, Colombia produces a tiny 1.5% of its energy from renewable sources and hopes to expand that only to 3.5% by 2015 and 6.5% by 2020. (The Colombian government defines only small hydro projects as 'renewable,' while in fact 80% of its electrical generating capacity is hydropower.)

There's lots of good reasons why Colombia could be a pioneer in renewable energy, use it to replace fossil fuels and provide reliable power to remote regions where the power grid doesn't reach. Colombia could even start exporting renewable energy technology. South Africa appears to be doing that. It's also in Colombia's interests: government officials have blamed this year's disastrous floods on global warming, and warming is predicted to melt Colombia's glaciers and destroy much of its wetlands.

The development bank report recommended that Colombia institute policies to promote renewable energy generation, such as guaranteeing markets and stable prices.

Instead, however, Colombia is going full bore for old-fashioned fossil fuel exploitation, meaning oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are not only terrible for the environment; in the long term, they could undermine the nation's economy, institutionalizing corruption, economic instability and even authoritarianism, as has happened in many big petroleum exporters, including neighboring Venezuela.

A concrete example: the other day I talked to a Mexican textile trader who used to import cloth from Colombia. But Colombia's peso has risen so much that it's cheaper to import from India and China. (Why Mexico can't competitively make its own textiles is another issue.) The peso's rise is in great degree due to investment in the fossil fuel extraction sector. So, the jobs-scarce fossil fuel industry is hurting the jobs-instensive textiles industry. Not only that, but resource extraction industries are also notorious for generating corruption and financing outlaw organizations. A case in point is Occidental Petroleum's Caño Limon pipeline near the Venezuelan border, which used to be bombed regularly by the ELN guerrillas whenever they weren't satisfied with their protection payments. More oil, coal and natural gas exports might just make Colombia into another Venezuela, which exports petroleum and imports everything else.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Son of the Plains Solves Your Problems

 El Hijo del Llano, the Son of the Plains, is one of many seers, palm readers and psychic healers who do a flourishing business in Bogotá. In a short walk through downtown you're likely to be handed several sheets of flimsy paper advertising the services of colorfully-named men and women who will harness the supernatural to solve your problems in love, money or health.

I saw this particular guy at work at the intersection of Jimenez Ave. and Seventh Ave., right in the center of downtown Bogotá. Inside the circle of people, the seer had laid out several tools of his magical trade, alongside a black cross. Throughout Latin America, folks beliefs have mixed with and been adopted by Catholicism, a phenomenon called syncretism.

El Hijo del Llano promises help in finding treasure and eliminating enemies and evil spirits, and guarantees the  return of the loved one, 'tied up, humiliated and subservient to your will.'

He had quite a crowd gathered amidst the downtown buildings. 

Flatter your audience, appeared to be one of his principles. He kept addressing the considerable crowd gathered around him as 'Serious men and serious women.' 

The first step was to ask for money 'loans,' which he stuck into a glass filled with water. I could not understand the spiritual significance of the step, nor did the loans appear likely to be repaid. 

Bills dropped into his glass. 

Next came the offer of guidance for problems of health, love and money, and the bills emerged from pockets and purses, although some most likely belonged to confederates. Nevertheless, more kept appearing, and the Hijo del Llano collected them all (notice the wad in his right hand) - as donations, of course, since he doesn't charge for his services. In exchange, he provided lottery numbers, predictions and hope. 

Call the Hijo del Llano at: 283-6937

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas on Plaza Bolívar

Santa was a work posing for photos.
On Christmas Day, when few people work, bogotanos stroll across Plaza Bolívar, where there are lots of things to see, including Santa Claus and an ice skating rink.
Posing in front of the nativity scene

This old woman was sitting alone on the cathedral steps.

These 'Beings of Pece' continued their perpetual demonstration.
The ice skating rink has been a huge hit. Get in free with receipts from Nestle's
A few blocks away, this man was yelling about 'imperialism and  marijuana.' Guess the 'dosis minima' repeal doesn't apply to lunatics. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Martyrs' Plaza

Plaza de los Martires, a scene of human degeneracy
Plaza de los Martires, in central Bogotá just a few blocks northwest of the Plaza Bolivar, sort of personifies the tragedies Colombia has seen.

During Colombia's decade of revolution from Spain in 1810-20, this area, then on the city's edge, was the scene of key battles. During Spain's short-lived reconquest of Colombia (1815-19), the Spaniards executed revolutionaries here, the most famous of them probably the young seamstress Policarpa Salavarrieta, now on the 10,000 peso note. Later, Colombians fought each other here during the first of the country's many civil wars.

'It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.'
In the mid-1800s, the government decided to build a monument in the area to the nation's martyrs. After the War of the Thousand Days ended, the Iglesia del Voto Nacional was built on the plaza's western side.

The century-old church shows its age. 
The National University's medical school was located on the plaza's south side, and the plaza was for many years the city's main market area, until this shifted south to Abastos and west to Paloquemao. The departure of the markets left many empty buildings, which were occupied by the homeless and drug addicts, who still populate the neighborhood. The old university building is now the police recruitment headquarters and used by the Presidential Guard, and the church has seen better days. The neighboring blocks contain many hardware and grain stores. On the plaza's east side is a Transmilenio line. On the plaza's western side, bicitaxis line up to carry people to the nearby Sanandresitos shopping centers.

Charity workers distribute food to homeless. The beggars broke into fights every few minutes. 
Waiting for handouts. 
Got some!
Los Martires has a terrible reputation because of the population of homeless people and drug addicts. That was intensified by the 2004-5 clearing of the infamous El Cartucho neighborhood, located just southeast of Los Martires, and replaced by Tercer Milenio Park. Some of El Cartucho's resident drug addicts and small-time criminals shifted to Los Martires, and in particularly the streets called 'El Bronx' or 'La Ele.'
This woman had fallen ill and was helped by paramedics. 
'It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country,' but the monument, renovated in 2008, doesn't show it. 
Few people, except perhaps the police and soldiers, come to the plaza to do homage to the martyrs buried here. For most bogotanos, it's a place to avoid. Perhaps as the city advances in its renovation of the city center, more businesses will move in and the drug addicts will move elsewhere.

Meanwhile, however, the human wreckage wandering across the plaza and sleeping on its grass seems to represent Colombia's martrydom - to the War on Drugs, to the many civil wars, which helped nobody and left so many lives devastated.

Lost cause? This plaque boasts about the city's 2008 renovation of the plaza. 
The area also preserves reminders of a lost dignity.

A horse cart rolls home thru, with the church in the background.
This building, on the plaza's corner, once was grand.
A Los Martires street today
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours