Friday, January 28, 2011

The Man Who Made the Green Men

Jorge Olave and a tangle of figures to be placed in La Plaza del Chorro. 
Jorge Olave must be the least-known Bogotá artist with the best-known work. He's the creator of the famous 'green men (and women),' who stand on La Candelaria's eaves, rooftops and balconies.

The rooftop figures were created during the 1990s, each modeled after somebody who lived in or near La Candelaria. (The single exception is the fisherwoman outside his studio on Carrera 3 between 14th and 15th Sts. Below it is his daughter Laura's graffiti T-shirt shop.)

A damaged figure, now at rest in the studio.
Over the years, many of the green figures have been damaged by the rain, wind and sun. Olave is now in the process of obtaining financing from La Candelaria's local City Hall to create a new set of figures, these to be placed in La Plaza del Chorro, where Bogotá was founded.

The new figures are to include a graffiti artist, a woman reading, a businessman and La Loca Margarita, a legendary crazy woman who once roamed La Candelaria.
At work in the studio.
See Olave's satirical display on local officials here.

Olave shows off his plan for La Plaza del Chorro. 
The fisherwoman's legs hang in the studio's window.

Laura's graffiti t-shirt shop. 
Here are several green men waiting to be placed on La Candelaria eaves and rooftops.

Cell phone man.

That's a spray paint can he's tossing!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Homicides: Declining, But Still Way Too High!

Murder numbers drop (Graph from El Tiempo)
Colombian authorities congratulated themselves recently that a historic drop in homicides - a decline to nearly half since 2002, even though Colombia's population has increased.  

Nevertheless, the murder rate of about 33 per 100,000 people is still horrible. The United States murder rate is only 5 per 100,000 , Brazil's is 22 per 100,000 and even Mexico, in the throes of a drug-fueled wave of violence, has a murder rate of only about 14 per 100,000. Venezuel is in a different class, with 49 murders per 100,000 people. 

(Then, there are sane nations, such as Chile, Canada, Australia, Japan and most of Europe, where the murder rate is just a few per 100,000 . Most of those countries, incidentally, restrict gun possession.)

In recent weeks, murders have generated headlines because of the murder of two vacationing Universidad de los Andes students, who because of their cameras may have been mistaken for spies by an illegal armed group. And the killing of two Catholic priests in Bogotá. Ordinarily, most murder vicitms are poor and anonymous.

Why Colombia's murder rate is so astronomically high is a mystery to me. The nation's armed conflict might contribute a few thousand killings. Is there a streak of violence in Colombian culture? Anyway, let's hope it continues declining.

For the record, the great majority of murders in Colombia and elsewhere are committed during drug disputes, domestic conflicts, etc, rather than crimes against people not looking for trouble.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tribute to a Dictator

Rojas Pinilla's Colorful Tomb
The other day, these women dressed up Colombian dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's tomb in Bogotá's Central Cemetery to commemorate the anniversary of his Jan. 17, 1975 death.

Rojas' five-year reign from 1953 to '57 was Colombia's last all-out dictatorship, although several authoritarian but democratically-elected governments have followed.

Rojas played a contradictory and paradoxical role in Colombian history. A hero from the war against Peru, his dictatorship is remembered quite positively, including naturally by these women, who talked about Rojas' public works projects but dismissed my suggestion that Rojas' government had violated human rights. Of course, context also counts. Rojas took command with a coup amidst a near civil war called La Violencia between the Liberal and Conservative political parties.

Rojas managed to stabilize the country, built great public works projects and gave women the vote, for which he is remembered positively. However, during his government the seeds were planted for Colombia's ongoing guerrilla insurrection.

Plaque on Seventh Ave. in Bogotá
commemorating students massacred by
the government in 1954. 
I had to search hard to find mention of the Rojas dictatorship's dark side: discrimination against non-Catholics, shuttering of newspapers, repression of the country's traditional labor unions, massacres of university students and even of bullfighting fans who had booed his daughter.

After being forced from power in 1957, Rojas fled Colombia - to either Spain or the Dominican Republic, historians aren't certain. But he returned, converted into a leftist populist, and ran for president in 1970. The official results gave Rojas' conservative opponent, Misael Pastrana Borrero, a narrow victory, but Rojas' supporters claimed fraud.

Those fraud claims gave rise to the M-19 guerrillas, who would play a prominent role in Colombia from the 1970s through the '90s.

In yet another strange twist of history, current leftist Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno Rojas is Dictator Rojas Pinilla's grandson.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rebirth of the Teatro Faenza

Teatro Faenza, on 22nd Street between Carreras 5 and 7
If anything could represent the rise, decline and ongoing renaissance of downtown Bogotá, and even the nation in general, it's the Teatro FaenzaBuilt in 1924 on the site of a porcelain factory which used a technique imported from Faenza, Italy, the Faenza was Bogotá's first movie theatre. However, during the 1950s the beautiful art noveau building sank into decadence and spent a half century as a gay porno theatre - although that didn't prevent the government from designating the building as a national monument in 1975.

A face. 
But being a national monument did nothing to rescue the Faenza, which in 2002 shut down completely. It took the neighboring Universidad Central, which purchased the shuttered theatre in 2004 and began renovations. Originally, the theatre was supposed to reopen in 2009, a deadline which has come and long gone. However, the university continues working, however slowly.

The Faenza's rebirth is part of the renaissance of central Bogotá, which also includes the new Transmilenio lines, several planned office/apartment/hotel towers, the planned Colombian/Spanish Cultural Center (which has not advanced, probably due to Spain's economic troubles) and other projects.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Check out the detail!
Amazingly, the restorers were able to find the original molds used to make the building's decorations.

In March 2012 they finally turned on the Faenza Theatre's lights. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

La Rouchians in Bogotá!

The problem is usury - let's return to production!
Mark this in the bizarro category.

In the United States, Lyndon LaRouche is a political freak who always runs for president and never gets anywhere. He appears to believe that the British royal family's out to get him, that we should colonize Mars and that global warming is a lie.

Study music and English at the
LaRouche academy!
LaRouche's solution for Colombia? The Glass-Steagall Act, which no Colombians have ever heard of.

LaRouche is a conspiracy thinker whose fanatical movement resembles more a cult than a political party. Weird as he is, at least he is from the U.S. But, what is LaRouche's movement doing in Colombia, where he has no connection and people have much more pressing things to think about than colonizing mars?

Yet LaRouche's followers are here, denouncing usury and announcing the collapse of the world's financial institutions, which supposedly is already upon us. I've previously met LaRouchians distributing propaganda on Bogotá streets, and when I tried to tell them what an irrelevent weirdo their leader is, they just waved me off with a smug smile and a 'You just don't understand.' Sure.

It all says something about something about people's gullibility and willingness to join groups.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jairo, the Marimba Man

I met Jairo while he was playing his home-made marimba for coins from passerbys in El Virrey Park in north Bogotá.
Hear the marimba!

For its part, El Virrey Park is a narrow green corridor running along 88th St. It's popular with dog walkers, joggers and neighboring office workers who enjoy eating lunch outdoors.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tour

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taking a Courageous Stand Against...Leaves

As evil as cocaine and heroin?
In their indefatigable battle against cocaine, Colombia and the United States are standing together against...  coca leaf chewing.

A Bolivian miner chews away (Life Magazine).
The 1961 United Nations convention on narcotics prohibits, right alongside of cocaine, heroin and other dangerous, highly-addictive substances, the chewing of coca leaves. Yet, for millenia, millions of indigenous South Americans and others have chewed coca leaves with no apparent damage besides stained teeth. Coca chewers say the leaves repress hunger and increase energy, enabling people to work long shifts in mines or hike all day across the Bolivian or Peruvian altiplano. Advocates also claim that the leaves are medicine for many ills, including diabetes, stomach ailments and even cancer.

Who knows? But, at the very least, they're not bad for you.

A leafy Evo Morales
Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales, a one-time coca leaf farmer, who still heads his nation's coca farmers' union, has been promoting the use of coca leaves to make legal, healthy products like foods, as well as legalizing the practice of chewing. Now, he's proposed ending the United Nations prohibition against coca leaf chewing - and only Colombia and the United States have so far lined up against him.

Across Colombia coca tea, soft drinks and bags of leaves are sold openly, marketed by indigenous groups, making one wonder why the government believes that chewing the leaves is so terrible. Colombian officials haven't explained their position. For its part, the U.S. government made a confusing statement about Bolivia's proposed amendment creating "ambiguity" about controls on coca leaf. That's hard to understand, since coca leaves' drug alkaloid content is about one percent, meaning they have about as much in common with cocaine as grapes do with wine. You could eat coca leaves all day long, and you'd get a stomach ache but you wouldn't get high.

Selling Evil? Coca leaves, tea and other stuff for sale
in a Bogotá flea market. 
Which brings up the issue of respect towards indigenous peoples' traditions. The War on Drugs has produced tremendous damage, suffering and expense. And one of those casualties is the United States' image in Latin America, where many see their northern neighbor as a meddler which tramples traditions and local interests in pursuit of expanding its power. This sort of culturally insensitive attitude won't do either the U.S.'s or Colombia's image any good in the region.

Is it conceivable that a few leaves will be exported and then turned into cocaine overseas? Well, just barely. But, the authorities have  lost the drug control battle, anyway, so it's time to try something different.

That's the brunt of this Boston Globe article about Portugal's decriminalization of drug consumption (but not sales) and investment in rehabilitation, which appears to have decreased drugs' social costs in disease, crime and addiction, but also increased experimentation with drugs. Coincidentally, U.S. anti-drug czar Gil Kerlikowske just visited Colombia - and told El Tiempo newspaper that the U.S. won't reconsider its opposition to drug legalization, because 'that's been studied for many years, and nobody's found a legalization system that's been succesfull on any level.' I wonder what Mr. Kerlikowske thinks about the decision to end drug prohibition? Here's a response in El Tiempo and an editorial which argue that prohibition has failed so manifestly that it's stupid not to try something else.

What is undisputable is that every coca leaf which is chewed or consumed in tea, wine or medicine is one fewer leaf that becomes cocaine or crack. The Colombian and United States government should pull off their ideological blinders and back every initiative to pull this base ingredient out of the illegal drug market.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hip Bogotá: La Macarena

La Macarena is a small, fashionable neighborhood located just north of La Candelaria. La Macarena's commercial area consists of mostly two streets, Carreras Quarta and Quinta, with about two dozen cafes, bars and restaurants and art galleries. To the north is La Perseverancia, site of an annual Chicha festival, but an impoverished, dangerous area the rest of the year. La Macarena was recently profiled by The New York Times as something of a 'Bogotá Greenwich Village.' I haven't noticed many similarities, or heard of any anti-establishment movements being born there. Rather, La Macarena has the reputation as a hangout for artsy types and telenovela stars.

What the neighborhood does have is a variety of ethnic restaurants. That's unusual for Bogotá, which lacks the ethnic immigrant neighborhoods many other big Latin American cities have.

A fancy bar that would like to be in Europe.

A woman who earns a few coins watching parked cars.
Spanish restaurant Gaudi 
La Jugueteria restaurant, which is decorated inside with toys. 

A look up one of the streets, toward the city's Eastern Hills.
Vasquez y Caballo restaurant
Sweets for sale in La Chocolatera (Tel: 282-1738)

The Peregrino flower shop/art gallery (Carrera 5 No. 26b-52 Tel: 283-3845)

Copernicus, in Independence Park, below La Macarena.

To La Macarena's south is the affluent, leafy Bosque Izquierdo residential neighborhood.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Telenovela Trouble!

More than love on the screen.
The on-again off-again conflicts between Colombia and Venezuela have hit a new arena: The telenovelas!

Telenovelas, high-octane soap operas, are popular in both countries and all across the continent. In this case, a Colombian telenovela named Chepe Fortuna was declared obscene by Venezuela's telecom authority, Conatel. That may very well be true. But, what the soap also has are characters named 'Colombia' and 'Venezuela' and a pet dog named 'Huguito.' I haven't seen this soap opera (or any others). But in all likelihood, it lacks any literary interest or even a discernable plot. But it's also most likely that the Venezuelan government didn't ban it for any of those reasons, but because of a perceived disrespect for Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez, who has repeatedly charged that forces in Colombia want to overthrow him. In fact, a character in the show asks: "What will Venezuela do without Huguito?"

So much for the Venezuelan revolution's sense of humor.

Perhaps in the next episode Colombia and Venezuela will fall in love.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bogotá's Centenial Urn

The Centennial Urn
In July, 1910, Colombia's centennial year, Bogotá officials filled a safe with documents and closed it for 100 years. Last July they opened it - after a bit of panic over not finding the keys. The urn, with its documents, all but one of them unsurprising, is on display in the Archivo de Bogotá until at least the end of January.
Old Documents: Simon Bolívar, medical and legal journals, a Catholic magazine.
The old documents are predictable for an era that worshipped the establishment and the church. They also found photos, a map of the city - and, a surprise: a note from a city official pleading that those in charge in 2010 take care of his descendents - which Mayor Samuel Moreno promised to do. An urn created today would be much less reverent. Here's a note a modern visitor had contributed. 
A modern note: 'This nation lives in war. The USA uses us and is a shit!'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Fiddling While Bogotá Waits

Waiting for a solution
Bogotá has, for many years, had a policy called Pico y Placa which prohibits vehicles from driving in the city two days of each week, according to the last digit on the license plate.

The system successfully reduced traffic congestion -  in the short term. In the longer term, however, the policy is counterproductive, because it encourages the purchase of second cars with different license plate numbers by those who can afford to. A glance at the city's tremendous traffic jams shows patently that Pico y Placa has failed.

This week is particularly dramatic, because the city government suspended Pico y Placa during the holidays, when many people leave the city. However, while the city started back up on the 11th, the suspension extends until the 15th, condemning us to a week of really infernal traffic jams.

Last year, the city government expanded the restriction to 14 hours per day because of the traffic problems generated by roadwork. That change is scheduled to expire Feb. 15 - when the road projects were supposed to  be wrapped up. However, those projects are way behind, and so city hall is talking about extending the 14-hour  Pico y Placa - an inevitable decision. More broadly, officials may add Saturdays to the Pico y Placa rotation, banning cars from the streets three out of every six days.
Bogotá needs more bikes, fewer cars.

But does anybody realy believe that will make more than an incremental reduction in traffic congestion? Particularly when 140,000 cars and 40,000 motorcycles were registered in Bogotá last year?

What Bogotá needs is a congestion charge, the only solution which will take cars off of the road, while also generating income for public transit.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Egipto's Celebration of the Three Kings (Fiesta de los Reyes Magos)

Not sophisticated fun, but fun.
Normally, the Egipto neighborhood, above La Candelaria, where tourists do not dare wander, is known for poverty and social troubles. But for a few days in early January, Egipto becomes a center of attencion as it celebrates the Festival of the Three Kings who came to visit the newborn Jesus.

Thousands of people fill the street, to listen to music, eat cholestrol-packed foods, drink beer and chicha and play street games. Oh, yes, there's also religion - an impressive parade, a mass and the burning of the devil at the festival's close. This year, unfortunately, I caught the festival, but not much of the religion. (Most of the other partyers, didn't appear to be looking for religion, either.) See Bogotá Bike Tours' visit here.

Here's a shot, from a previous year, of the kings and other royalty assembled on the church's steps. Local men dressed as Roman gladiators also lined the steps. Then came the mass. The Egipto neighborhood, with one of the city's oldest churches, appears to be quite Catholic - at least on this day, anyway.

And below are some of this year's royalty, in all their pageantry.

Young royals.
Lots of chicha, a traditional drink made of fermented corn.
Ready to cut the beef.
Doña Rosa and friend in the Mercado de Egipto
The view downhill from Egipto
Bike Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours