Monday, June 28, 2010


It's hormiga culona season!

Those are ants collected in Santander Province, near the Venezuelan border, which are sold in little plastic bags costing a few thousand pesos. They were a traditional food of the Guanes indigenous people, providing proteins for their diet, and are now a popular novelty food. They taste crunchy and salty, and even have their own web site.

The ants are also a bit risque. Hormigas culonas means 'big-butt ants.' And some say they're aphrosidiacs. Go find out for yourself.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours.

National Priorities!

Watching the Supreme Court at Work?

This is the scene these days in the Plaza Bolivar, Colombia's seat of government. The building in the background is the Palace of Justice, which receives little spectator interest, despite huge decisions, such as the recent one nixing Pres. Uribe's hopes for a third-consecutive term.

But now that they've set up a big-screen TV in front of it, broadcasting the World Cup, the Justice Palace appears to have an audience.

Perhaps the last time that it got so much attention was when the M-19 guerrillas invaded the building in 1985.

Soccer's definitely the number one sport in Colombia. But Colombia, with 45 million people, didn't make the World Cup this year, while Paraguay, with 5 million people, and Uruguay, with 2 million, did. What makes Colombia such an underperformer?

(Incidentally, the big screen also shows propaganda for the city government.)

Written by Mike, of Bogota Bike Tours and Rentals.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gay Rights March

Today, June 27, Bogota gays held their pride march. As in other years, it was colorful, flamboyant, and noisy, and undoubtedly offensive to some people.

But the annual event receives the city's endorsement, and Bogotá's leftist mayors have traditionally participated.

Bogotá, incidentally, has a gay neighborhood, Chapinero, and laws which are surprisingly progressive for a traditionally conservative, very Catholic nation: Same-sex couples can register civil unions, inherit from each other and receive each other's pensions.

Even more paradoxical, perhaps, is the fact that Colombia's supposedly revolutionary neighbors, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia, haven't taken such progressive steps.

Colombia's most prominent organization advocating for rights for sexual minorities is Colombia Diversa.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Chavez, the movie II

Subtitle: A Chance to Vent About Hugo Chavez...

Oliver Stone joins a lamentably-long list of entertainment world personalities turned long-distance political analysts who from their studios in California, romanticize Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez as a wonderful, dramatic, romantic figure. They're welcome to their opinions, altho the reality is that Chavez is running Venezuela into the ground (and I lived in Caracas for several years).

Stone says Colombia gets a free pass on human rights issues, despite its very troubled record. I guess Stone doesn't know how to do a search in the Washington Post for its recent stories about
the 'false positives' scandal, the alleged criminal tied of Pres. Uribe's brother.... and others.

But a fundamental difference between Colombia and Venezuela is that Colombia has generally respected and accepted international institutions' critiques. Not always, but often. Even Colombia's own courts have condemned its military officials. Try looking for that in Venezuela, where judges who don't follow the line get jailed themselves.

Case in point is the recent condemnation of the Colombian government by an Organization of American States court for the 1994 assassination of Senator Manuel Cepeda, a far-left senator. Cepeda's killing was part of the mass killings of leaders of the Union Patriotica political party, which was linked to the FARC guerrillas.

Colombian courts had previously condemned two state officials for the killings, and recognized the state's responsibility.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Still Coca Country?

Have you ever pushed in the side of a balloon?

What happens? It bulges out someplace else.

Many observers, including The Economist magazine, say that South America's coca leaf crop is like a balloon. When erradication pressure reduces acreage in one area, more gets planted in another.

Years ago, coca was grown only in Bolivia and Peru. Governments chopped down and pulled out
the crop in those countries - and what happened? Colombia became the biggest coca leaf grower, as it has been at least until recently.

A just-released survey of coca leaf plantings by the United Nations Office on Drugs reports that Colombian acreage declined 16% between 2007 and 2008, and 60% over the past decade. But production in Peru rose 55% over the past decade. Production in Bolivia has also risen slightly. So, Colombia may have lost its first-place position among coca leaf producers. Here's a NY Times video on coca erradication in Peru.

Regional production has declined by about 5%, but that's not much to crow about, especially considering the billions of dollars spent on the drug war, and the countless lives ended and ruined.

Some people call it all futile.

On the other hand, the War on Drugs has accomplished one thing: it's raised the price of drugs on the street, and therefore undoubtedly discouraged some people from becoming drug
consumers. That is a good thing.

However, by squeezing the supply of drugs, the war pumps up prices on the supply end, enriching drug traffickers and increasing their incentive to supply more chemicals and invent new ways to smuggle them. Should drug control efforts be focused on the supply or the demand end?

In Colombia, the drug trade has long enriched vicious guerrilla, paramilitary and plain old narcotraffickers. In Peru today the drug trade is giving new life to their own vicious rebels, the Shining Path Maoists.

The drug war also means millions of people imprisoned, most of them impoverished drug 'mules,' while the kingpins
generally stay rich and comfortable. Many other people are caught in the crossfire between the outlaw groups which traffic drugs, because as long as drugs are outlawed, outlaw groups will be the ones getting rich off of them.

The drug war's ultimate goal must not be to erradicate crops in South America or fill prisons worldwide with people engaged in the consensual conduct of selling substances to people who want to buy them. The war's goal is to protect the well-being of people who might otherwise become users or addicts.

Unfortunately, that might not be happening. While coca leaf erradication in South America may limit the amount of cocaine reaching the strees of the U.S. and Europe, those same potential drug consumers have access to lots of other chemicals, including vicious synthetic ones like methamphetamines. If the erradication were squeezing the supply, street prices would rise,
but that is evidently not happening.

If the U.S. and Latin American nations are spending untold riches to ruin the lives of innumerable people in Latin America and enriching outlaw organizations in order to keep cocaine products off of the street, only to push them into methamphetamine addiction - then we're accomplishing nothing.

Finally, if this drug erradication campaign is really pressuring the supply, then I wish someone would explain to me why they haven't started planting coca leaf in Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, or even Africa or Asia. Are the narcos practicing self-restraint? Do the appropriate soil and climate conditions stop at the borders?

Throw in the towel? Decriminalize drugs? It's worth serious consideration.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Colombia and the Material Support Law

The United States Supreme Court just reaffirmed a draconian law prohibiting support - of any kind at all - for groups considered terrorists by the U.S. government.

What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. In the day when U.S. administrations considered South African apartheid an acceptable evil and when Chile's Pinochet dictatorship was a strong U.S. ally, groups using violent means against those governments could have been labeled terrorists. These particular cases involved people who had given human rights advice to Kurdish rebel groups, and the Kurds are clearly an oppressed people deserving a homeland. The last time that I researched this, I found that the law also brands as terrorist collaborators people who give any kind of support, even a glass of water or a night's lodging, to anyone who has risen up in arms against a government recognized by the US - no matter how criminal that other government. So, anybody who helps the armed groups resisting the oppressive government of Burma, which renamed the country Myanmar, are also branded by this law.

What's the connection to Colombia? Large parts of Colombia's territory are controlled by armed groups like the FARC, ELN and Paramilitaries, which are very justifiably classified as terrorists by the U.S. And many of the innocent civilians who live in those areas are forced under threats to help those groups by washing their clothes, repairing things, providing food and lodging...anything. Thus, millions of poor Colombians are considered guerrilla collaborators and banned from the United States.

It's a very unjust situation.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Santos is 'El Man.'

So it's Santos, as we all knew and expected, altho not by quite this margin. Such an overwhelming margin makes it a bit scary.

In his acceptance speech, which I'm listening to now, he sounds a lot like Uribe - squared.

We hear a lot about 'work, work, work.' And about how the judicial branch, which was about the only branch of government that stood up to Uribe. Does that mean 'impartiality,' or 'You better do what I want!'?

In his acceptance speech, a candidate who has just won by such an overwhelming margin, one might expect, perhaps, humility, empathy, flexibility. In his hour of victory, he might throw a bone to the guerrillas, whose backs are already against the wall, and make some offer of peace talks. He might also address his most glaring weakness - the terrible human rights violations which occurred under his watch, particularly the 'False Positives' scandal. But I'm not hearing any of that.

Even so, another four years of Uribismo might be good for Colombia, if the guerrillas are finally defeated - although that's not likely. But Santos can afford to mention his mistakes and aim to atone for them. If not, Colombians might just get fed up with more Uribismo pretty quickly.

Still, one thing is clear: many (altho not necessarily most) Colombians support Santos (abstention was way over 50 %) and they don't want Mockus, whose second-round voting was little above his first. Mockus didn't even win in Bogotá, where he was mayor and had lots of support. Santos also represents the establishment - he's related to the current vice president and belongs to the family which owns the El Tiempo newspaper.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

To the FARC

The other day's rescue of a group of police officers and a soldier held hostage for 12 years by the FARC guerrillas was yet another sign of the group's severe degeneration (and thankful) decline. The guerrillas had kept these men chained by their necks to trees.

Open letter to the FARC:

Give it up, you guys - it's over. You've lost. And your 'ideology' is bankrupt.

You say you're leading a revolution for the poor -

But for years, you guys have been a major reason why Colombia has the world's second-largest number of displaced people. You kill and maim many, many people every year - most of them poor campesinos. (And I've talked to many of your victims. People who lost husbands and sons and daughters to your violence, and many peasant families terrorized out of their homes by you.)

Even many of your members, who are generally poor people themselves, feel trapped inside the guerrilla.

You say that the Colombian state has committed terrible injustices, and that is true

but, you the FARC are no solution to that. Not with the wholesale killings and forced displacements of civilians you've committed. Not judging by the way that you finance yourselves by trafficking drugs, which poison and enslave poor people worldwide. Not judging by the way you kidnap children and plant landmines. Who gets maimed or killed by those landmines you leave behind? Some kid out looking for his lost goat. A poor kid.

You are doing terrible things to the people you claim to be fighting for, while that evil bourgeoisie government you denounce is - however imperfectly and corruptly - building roads, schools and hospitals.

And, while it's no justification, many of the state's abuses were spurred or rationalized by the existence of you guerrillas. 'No guerrillas' would mean 'no paramilitaries.' 'No guerrillas' would mean 'no False Positives.' That fact doesn't remove any of the moral responsibility from the government, but it's still a fact. In the rest of Latin America there are no guerrillas and therefore no paramilitaries, either. That's no coincidence.

Your fellow revolutionaries across the continent have all pretty much either died or seen reason and turned in their arms and carried on the fight from parliament and even the presidential palace. You guys are only hanging on in the jungles because your evil imperialist enemies have kept drugs banned - and thus tossed these huge profits into your bloody hands.

But, even if you guys were the heroic Marxist warriors you seem to think you are. And even if Marxism hadn't led nations into nightmares like Stalinism and North Korea, you should still give up. Because, face it, after more than a half-century of fighting, killing, dying and suffering, you're further than ever from siezing power. Colombia's got a stable government, a growing (capitalist) economy and is even becoming a tourist destination. You're irrelevent. And the recent, successful rescues of those people whom you've cruelly held hostage in the jungle only increase your irrelevence and demonstrate your weakness.

Far from having any chance of installing a communist government here, you're why Colombia is one of the few nations in Latin America to have a conservative president (and why Colombians are about to elect another conservative president).

You'd gain much more relevance by following the M-19's footsteps and entering politics.

Give it up. End the horror and the suffering.



Saturday, June 12, 2010

1985 Comes Back to Haunt

In 1985, the M-19 guerrilla group stormed the Justice Palace, on Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar, and took the whole Supreme Court hostage.

The military counterattacked, actually parking tanks on the plaza and firing into the building. In the end, the building was destroyed and about 100 people died, including guerrillas, building employees and all but one of the Supreme Court justices. Some of the dead had apparently been brought out alive by soldiers from the palace and executed in the neighboring Casa del Florero (House of the Flower Pot), because the military suspected them of having collaborated with the guerrillas. Apparently, too, cocaine king Pablo Escobar helped to finance the attack.

The episode has become known as the Holocaust of the Justice Palace, and its legacy continues haunting Colombia in various ways. A few years after the attack, the M-19 demobilized and became a political party. Today, some ex-leaders of the M-19 are in Congress, and one, Gustavo Petro, ran for president on the Polo Democratico party's ticket.

That was an ironic turn-around. Then, a few days ago, a court sentenced Alfonzo Plazas Vega, the general who had commanded the palace's retaking to 30 years in prison for the extra-judicial executions.

That's a huge turn-around for the country: The guerrillas who took the palace now in Congress, and the general who drove them out in prison.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Campaign Update

So, one by one, Colombia's center and center-right parties have been climbing onto Santos' ship. Does the Liberal Party (or at least the bulk of it), historically the rival and opponent of the Conservative Party, really support the principles of a candidate who is apparently further right than the Conservatives?

Not likely.

Rather, the Liberals and everyone else want to be on the winner's side.

That's understandable for parties in decadence, but it's also sad.

As for the candidates, Mockus has finally begun beating on the ethics drum. Unfortunately, after ignoring years of falsos positivos, chuzadas and innumerable other scandals, it's clear that Colombians are more interested in security than human rights.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Monday, June 7, 2010

The City Paper's View of Bogotá Transit

A writer for The City Paper, Bogotá's English-language monthly, has published his take on the Colombian capital's traffic troubles. But, unfortunately, in the best tradition of expatriates, his perspective is far removed from the reality of most bogotanos.

Most of David Noto's commentary - which is not on their website - discusses efforts to expand the city's avenues. But expanding road space is only a sop to car owners, and in any case only relieves congestion for a short while - until more motorists fill up the roads, making congestion and pollution worse than ever. In Bogotá, unlike most of the countries we native English speakers hail from, cars move only a small minority of commuters - but, even here, cars occupy the great majority of road space. So, Noto is looking at things from the perspective of the small minority who do the most to worsen the city's congestion, and asking how we can improve things for them - if only futiley and temporarily.

Just look at the United States, which has paved over tremendous areas of its surface and turned its cities into broiling urban jungles, but where traffic congestion just keeps getting worse. Also because of its addiction to the private car, America's oil addiction has become a national concern and filled the Gulf of Mexico with gook.

Does Colombia want to go down the same expensive, environmentally-destructive road, when real solutions are staring at it in the face?

In fact, Noto's commentary does end with compliments for Bogotá's widely admired and imitated Transmilenio express bus system, which begs the question of why he didn't start out by supporting the mayor's efforts to expand this system. Noto might also have endorsed a congestion-tax similar to the one which has dramatically reduced traffic jams and pollution there.

But, instead, Noto wrote from the perspective of the minority auto addict, a mindset which will set Bogotá on the same destructive route which the United States has already taken.

Should this city really continue taking money and space away from schools, parks and housing in order to build more roads, which cars will soon fill up, anyway?

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

Friday, June 4, 2010

Who'll Stop the Cigarrette?

Colombia is finally taking real steps against cigarette smoking - or trying to.

A recent law requires graphic symbols on cigarette packages, which will add to or replace the existing very weak warning, which says only 'Smoking is damaging to health'. One of the new symbols, which have already begun appearing on packages, shows a cigarette curved downward to represent impotence. Bogotá also recently passed an anti-indoor smoking law, which is being respected to a surprsing degree, even by many bars. The law will also further restrict advertising and ban sales of loose cigarettes - which get kids hooked. (Tobacco interests tried defending the habit as a civil right!)

Cigarettes for 5 cents each in the public university.

Loose smokes, peanuts and candy for sale together on a Bogota sidewalk.

Colombia has a particularly ugly history in relation to tobacco. Media investigations about a decade ago documented how Philip Morris and British American Tobacco sold huge quantities of cigarettes to shady companies on the Durch Island of Aruba, which then smuggled them into Colombia. The smuggling was apparently used by Colombia's outlaw guerrillas and paramilitaries to launder their drug money - yet another connection between tobacco and terrorism.

Have a free Marlboro today. You'll pay for it forever. 
Colombia still has a long way to go. I still see attractive young kids handing out cigarette 'samples' to young people on streets near universities. And they don't ask for proof that the recipients are of smoking age. And, the Mustang brand still sponsors a professional soccer tournament - something which I'd thought was illegal.

And the question, as always, will be enforcement. Particularly destructive are the loose cigarette sales by informal street vendors. Those are favorites for high school and college kids, who, according to a recent study, can get hooked by smoking just one cigarette per month! Kids usually don't have the cash to buy a whole box, and anyway they don't want mom to discover that box in their jacket pocket. So, loose smoke sales are a convenient way for them to get hooked.

Single cigarette sales are supposed to be banned by the new law, but I'm waiting to see them try to enforce this. The best way, by having kids try to buy, doesn't seem to be in the Colombian police's toolbox.

Smoking reportedly causes 400 deaths per year in Bogotá - a number which surely doesn't include deaths by second-hand smoke. Even so, that's many more people who are killed in the city by terrorism. Yet, the United States government sends billions of dollars down here to combat terrorism, while US companies continue pushing tobacco products on young Colombians.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours.