Sunday, May 30, 2010

Four more years?

So, Santos slammed Mockus and appears headed to be Colombia's next president.

On the most basic level, this indicates that the polls undercounted rural residents, who often don't have telephones.

On another, it shows that, while Mockus may be the Obama of Colombia (an intellectual, outsider, without a political pedigree against a military man), Mockus's message didn't match the time. Obama's vacous 'change' mesage worked because Americans were sick of Bush, tired of a frustrating war and fearful for their jobs. In contrast, Pres. Alvaro Uribe maintains astronomical approval ratings (above 70%), Colombians are happy with his military progress against the guerrillas and the economy is growing, despite unjustifiable poverty rates.

In his pre-vote column in El Tiempo, Santos promised more of Uribe's policies and more jobs in the formal economy. Pretty boring stuff, but that's what many Colombians want - security and food on the table.

In contrast, Mockus's column in today's El Tiempo repeated his vague promise of change, and at his post-vote rally the crowd chanted 'I love life!' What's that supposed to mean? Sure, a not-very-disguised attack on Santos' warmaking. But nothign for a voter to embrace.

To the numbers: Santos got 46.50 % of the vote and Santos 21.5 %. All Santos has to pick up from the also-rans is 4 %, and he's president.

Of the others, German Vargas, of Cambio Radical got just more than 10% of the vote. Nearly all of his support will go to Santos.

Next came Gustavo Petro, of the far-left Polo Democratico with 9%. Some of his voters will support Mockus, but others will abstain in the second round, considering Mockus too centrist.

Noemí Sanín of the Conservative Party got 6%, almost all of which will go to Santos.

Liberal Rafael Pardo's 4.4% of the vote will likely split between Santos and Mockus.

All of which leaves Santos with an additional 18% or so, giving him about 64% in the second round. Or more, if would-be Mockus voters abstain because they conclude their man can't win.

This vote also shows the sad state of Colombia's traditionally powerful Liberal and Conservative parties, who for a century traded the presidency between them. It's good seeing the race open up, and means that in another four or eight years, when hopefully the military situation will have faded into the background, a touchy-feely intellectual like Mockus can win.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Friday, May 28, 2010

Dry End to a Wet Week

Demonstrating either how seriously Colombians take voting- or how scared they are of it - the country banned alchohol sales beginning six p.m. Friday, 48 hours before the vote. Hmmm. Are they afraid that people will become too crazily excited over democracy?

Ironically, this last week was one of the wettest in history, in terms of rain.

Here's a billboard in which Santos plays the Chavez card - without naming the leftist Venezuelan leader. Chavez has warned several times about the consequences of Colombia electing Santos, who pissed off Chavez by bombing a FARC guerrilla camp located in Ecuador.

On Monday, the second round, between Santos and Mockus, will officially begin.

Written by Mike Ceaser

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Jamaican Escobar?

Is 'Christopher 'Dudus' Coke' Jamaican for 'Pablo Escobar'?

When I read about the violence currently tearing apart Kingston's slums between government forces and those of drug trafficker Christopher 'Dudus' Coke it was hard not to think about cocaine king Pablo Escobar, whose forces held much of Colombia in terror during the 1980s.

Both men grew rich by trafficking drugs, both murdered lots of people and both grew popular and powerful by showering money and gifts on the poor.

Both also prove that when something is outlawed, outlaws get rich by trafficking it.

This blog maintained by Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Colombia's economy has grown. Its democracy is functioning, despite corruption and numerous human rights violations. The courts have shown their independence. The cities are becoming more modern and attractive, with hotels popping up like mushrooms.

But, out in the countryside and in the cities' huge slums, the human rights situation continues agonizing.

According to the recent Amnesty International report, almost 300,000 people were forced from their homes last year, the guerrillas continue kidnapping, recruiting children and planting landmines and paramilitaries have murdered human rights activists.

Let it not be forgotten.

Written by Mike Ceaser

Colombia's Candidates

With the election in the final stretch (first round voting is Sunday, the 30th), it looks clear that there'll be a second round between Juan Manuel Santos and Antanas Mockus. For those who don't follow Colombian politics, Santos was Pres. Alvaro Uribe's defense minister and once considered a shoo-in to be the next pres. But Mockus, an ex-Bogotá mayor, has come from nowhere to make the election a real race.

Guys like these call Mockus just too wierd to vote for. The guy got married on an elephant, after all.

Santos is the conservative, who will most likely continue Uribe's aggressive war against the guerrillas and neoliberal economics.

Mockus, popular among the young, urban and educated, was a centrist mayor, but many of his policies on a national level are question marks. He has said, however, that he'll continue many of Uribe's policies, except for trying to normalize relations with Venezuela. Mockus is considered intelligent and not corrupt, but he's eccentric.

In recent days, Mockus has, courageously, said that he'll raise taxes on the wealthy if elected - something else which confirms him as the 'Colombian Obama.' Santos rejected that - even though his political patron Uribe has done exactly that.

Mockus also said that he'll normalize relations with Chavez's Venezuela. The leftist Chavez has made many threats against Colombia, even talking war. There's also lots of evidence that Chavez has supported Colombia's leftist guerrillas.

Unfortunately, the environment has received little attention in this campaign, despite Colombia's huge environmental problems, including deforestation and urban air pollution. In one debate, the candidates did discuss the issue of drug-field fumigation, which causes huge environmental impacts by driving campesinos to chop down forest for drug crops. Several of the candidates did criticize the policy - but (from my reading) none cited environmental reasons. And, Mockus being the Green Party candidate, that's a real disappointment. He took a vague stand on fumigation - to continue, but study it. Santos vowed to continue the policy. Only some of the leftist candidates, who have no chance, said they'd change the policy. Perhaps more emphasis on relieving poverty will mean that fewer campesinos will turn to planting drug crops.

Colombia's tremendous human rights crisis - which seem to be getting worse, even as the economy grows and the country attracts more tourists - haven't gotten a whole lot of attention. In the final debate, Petro said the government needs to support the nation's displaced, but Santos pointed out that this is financially impossible.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Second Thoughts on the Subway

So, today I needed to go to north Bogotá to get some paperwork done - which is becoming its own epic saga.

I might have ridden my bike, but it looked like rain, and arriving soaked probably wouldn't help with the local bureaucrats. So, I went down to catch the bus.

But Seventh Ave. was shut, probably due to some protest march or a parade. It's happens a lot.

My days for getting the visa renewed are running out, so I caught in a cab. But, with Seventh closed and Tenth Ave. choked by endless construction work, the taxi was soon trapped in gridlock. Trancones in all directions.

"Why don't you take Transmilenio?" the driver suggested. But unfortunately TM doesn't go near my destination.

So, I got out and started walking. Now, I was making progess. I discovered that farther north Seventh Ave. was open, and I got into a bus. But I soon realized that I'd never arrive in time. So, out of the bus and into another cab. I made it with about five minutes to spare.

And it wasn't even raining.

I'll spare you the infuriating details of my battle with bureaucrats, who seem to always have yet another document to demand of me. The paperwork here has not reached the Kafkian levels of Bolivia - yet. But they seem to be trying.

In the afternoon, the traffic was again horrendous. The regular buses barely inched along. My patience for gridlock nonexistent, I decided to walk to Transmilenio, which at least does advance. If you manage to squeeze into one of the buses, that is.

The TM stations were packed, and so were the buses. One bus to my neighborhood after another after another passed by, all of them stuffed so full of people that I didn't even try to squeeze in.

Finally, I caught a bus which would take me a little too far south, from where I'd have to take a bus back and transfer again. But when I got to that station, I discovered that its other side was under repair - meaning that no buses stopped there. Tercer Milenio Park, at night isn't the best neighborhood for a gringo to go wandering. And it was raining. So, I got onto another bus and went further sound, then doubled back from there.

The lesson from this epic journey across town is that maybe Bogotá does need a subway. After all, this city is just going to keep on growing and growing. Subway don't eliminate traffic jams, as Caracas, Medellin and London have demonstrated. Still, no matter how jammed up the roads are, subways do keep moving.

However, even under the most optimistic possibilities, a subway won't happen here for another five years or so. City leaders need to take immediate and decisive steps to reduce congestion, particularly by phasing out the old junky buses and imposing a London-style congestion fee.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bogotá's Buses

For those unfamiliar with Bogotá's transit, here are a few photos of the traditional buses and the Transmilenio express buses. You decide which work and which don't.

The Transmilenio system was started a decade ago by Mayor Ricardo Peñalosa. Its buses have dedicated lanes and stations resembling train stations. The system has worked well and been copied by cities the world over. But Bogotá still suffers from thousands of old, inefficient and highly polluting buses - not to mention way too many cars.

Some of Bogotá's ancient buses. Will these damn things ever move? I can tell you from personal experience that these buses start and stop suddenly and unpredictably. And that many of them spout fumes.

And Transmilenio. The Transmilenio system is being expanded, which is a real trauma for the city. But when it's finally finished it'll be worth it.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser of Bogota Bike Tours

The Mayor and the Metro

Samuel Moreno was elected mayor to a great extent on his promise to build a subway system.

That system has not been built or even contracted yet - but it's already being questioned. Two university studies suggested the soil was sufficiently stable for digging tunnels, that the construction could damage buildings overhead, that the trains might not be be fast enough to justify the system, that construction will impact natural areas and that passenger flows will overwhelm some stations.

But the most fundamental question is whether the city has the money to pay for this megaproject.

I can promise you right now that metro construction will go tremendously over-budget and cost way more than expected. Just look at what's happening with the Transmilenio system's expansion: one line was supposed to be finished this November, but is now going to take until mid-2011 - at least. And building a metro system is hugely more complex and expensive.

Bogotá desperately needs to keep expanding its public transit system and phase out the existing chaotic and polluting old private buses. But do Bogotanos really want to live amidst rubble, blocked roads and noise - for many years, maybe even decades?

Is a subway system really a practical, realistic solution, or a boondoggle intended to boost the mayor's legacy and make Bogotanos feel like they've got a world-class city?

I suspect the second. Bogotá should continue to expand the Transmilenio, consider light rail and institute a congestion tax like London's.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser of Bogota Bike Tours

Sunday, May 2, 2010

More on Mockus

I looked over the 'Green party's' 'green' agenda. There's a single bullet point, out of 15, and a vague one at that. Which is a lot less than George W. Bush and Exxon promise for the planet.

So, give them credit for not making wild promises. But let's be clear that the green in the party is a color only.

The guy at Caracas Chronicles suggests that the recent polls which place Mockus substantially ahead undercount the rural population. That might be true, since these folks are much less likely to have telephones. And it's also true that rural folks are less likely to be impressed by a guy who dropped his pants in front of his class and dressed up as Superman - or even to have heard of Mockus. Rural people are also more likely to be grateful to Santos for driving the guerrillas away from their lands.

All in all, the election is still up for grabs.

Who's better for the country is another issue entirely. Santos has accomplished a lot as defense minister by freeing great sections of the country from the persecution by the guerrillas. But the guerrillas have not gone away, in part because they've got huge incomes from drugs and extortion, combined with the fact that Colombia's poverty rate is still a terribly high 43 percent overall and 61 percent in the countryside. And 23 percent of Colombians are indigent. That makes becoming a guerrilla (or a paramilitary or a plain-old narco) a tremendous temptation for a poor kid. (I've spoken to enough ex-guerrillas and ex-kidnappees to know that they don't sign up because they read Das Kapital and decided to overthrow capitalism.) Presumably, Mockus would invest more in social causes, and this could mean fewer kids joining the guerrillas out of desperation.

Or, maybe Santos would hike investments in education, health and other social causes. After all, Nixon got us out of Vietnam and into China.

Speaking of the guerrillas, the other day the FARC issued a statement denouncing the government for human rights violations. And there are many government scandals, the most notorious being the 'false positives' - cases in which poor young men have been kidnapped, murdered and dressed up as guerrillas, apparently by military units trying to get credit for extra kills. It's a terrible, horrific thing, and a real stain on the nation and on presidential candidate Santos, under whose watch these killings took place. But the guerrillas are way behind the curve on this one - Colombia's legal system has been investigating these rights violations for years, and military officials are in prison for it. More than that, the guerrillas have no moral standing for making such denouncements, since murdering civilians is what they do. And no guerrilla court holds them accountable for their innumerable crimes.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours