Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Petro's Brave Transit Plan

Paying every minute: Traffic jams now cost Bogotanos millions in lost time, fuel and pollution. 
If there's an urban problem which causes more suffering for more people than traffic congestion, I haven't seen it: you name it: stress, lost time, sedenterianism, air pollution - even hearing damage - traffic jams cause them.

Build it and they'll fill it up:
a congested ten-lane 'freeway' in California. 
But, there also may not exist a problem with more vested interests: construction companies which want government gravy to build subways and freeways; car owners who want to be able to drive anywhere anytime; car dealers and importers who want to sell more machines - no matter the impacts on the community.

That's why most cities have tried to build their way out of traffic jams - usually unsuccesfully. That's because there's money there for everyone, even tho new roads take many years to build and soon fill up with more cars.

So, give Mayor-elect Gustavo Petro lots of points for planning to attack traffic problems by limiting demand, rather than feeding the traffic monster.

I can already hear the shrieks about Petro's plan to create urban tolls to charge drivers for the impacts they cause. Motorists, after all, don't want to pay for something they believe they've been getting for free.

A private car gobbles up much more road space than does a bus passenger. 
But car drivers don't realize that they are paying to congest the roads: in time lost in traffic jams, extra fuel burnt, in stress and even in lung damage from breathing in pollution generated by those traffic jams. 

Worse, neighbors, pedestrians, bicyclists and bus passengers also suffer lots of these impacts - even tho they don't cause them. 

By spurring commuters to reconsider unecessary trips or switch from cars to bicycles or buses, congestion pricing will reduce all of these problems - just as it has in highly-liveable cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore. Congestion charges will also generate money for public transit, so that Bogotá can improve its bus system and actually pay for its dreamed-of subway system.

This cyclist is the only one moving.
Even those who continue driving cars into the city center will benefit, because they won't waste hours in traffic jams. 

Encouragingly for Petro, London Mayor 'Red' Ken Livingstone, who created London's pioneering congestion charge won reelection - and his conservative successor Boris Johnson has continued the system. In Stockholm, Sweden, support for the congestion charge jumped from 25% to over 50% after a trial run. Traffic in Stockholm's city center was cut 20%. After London implemented its charge, traffic speed jumped 30% and travel times dropped 14%. That means millions of dollars (or pounds sterling) in saving for the economy.

Read about other cities' experiences with congestion pricing here.

Watch a video here.

How do I escape from this?

I've only moved a block since noon!

I wish I were walking!
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Displaced People's Stories

Displaced people organizing on Plaza Bolivar. 
Their spouses were kidnapped or murdered. Their land and livestock was stolen. They were threatened with death.

Today, I talked to several of the displaced people who've been demonstrating daily in Plaza Bolivar, demanding that the government give them land and other benefits.

No merry Christmas for the displaced. 
The abuses committed by Colombia's outlaw armed groups have been in the news recently in the wake of Saturday's killing by FARC guerrillas of three kidnapped police officers and one soldier, whom the guerrillas had held in the jungle for more than a decade.

But the displaced people's stories are also terrible - yet much less visible. And Colombia has several million displaced people - perhaps more than any other country.

A 51-year-old woman said that someone had given her family a piece of farmland in Tolima Department. Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups roamed the area, fighting each other. The paramilitaries controlled her region, and required residents to pay them a monthly 'protection fee,' called a vacuna. In 2005, the woman said, paramilitaries showed up and ordered her family to leave within eight days. The woman believes that the person who she said gave them the land had hired the paramilitaries.

"We had to leave right away, because otherwise those people will kill you," she said.

Previously, the woman said, she'd panicked after learning that some paramilitaries had taken photos of her daughter, 13, in school. The woman sent the girl to live in Bogotá.

"I sent her away overnight, because they were going to prostitute her," the woman said.

Many of the armed groups in Colombia's long conflict have used violence against women as a weapon.

The woman also described a rein of terror by the paramilitaries. When people broke the paramilitaries' 'law,' she said, the 'paras' would drag them thru the streets and then rub salt into their wounds. They murdered others: "They forced them to dig a hole in the jungle, and that was their grave," she recalled.

Another woman, from Los Llanos, said she fled to Bogotá four years ago with her husband and three children after guerrillas threatened them. She said that her family had refused to collaborate with the guerrillas by spying for them on local military patrols.
A woman shows a photo of her kidnapped husband. 

"They displaced us, because otherwise they would have killed us," she said.

They believed they'd find safety in Bogotá. But here in the capital the woman's husband was murdered - by guerrillas, she believes.

"We were the guerrillas' military objective," she says.

A woman showed me a photo of her husband, who she said was kidnapped a dozen years ago by guerrillas from their town outside of Medellin. The guerrillas demanded an impossibly large ransom, she said. Initially, she learned that her husband was alive from another kidnappee who had been chained to him. But since then she has heard nothing more, and doesn't know whether he's still alive.

This man, a Colombian, was on the plaza with this
cover about the Occupy protests. Colombia's displaced
people are the bottom one percent of
the bottom one percent. 
A man from the Sierra Nevada Mountains near La Guajira said that late one night 11 years ago members of Colombia's smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, came to his village, killing, stealing and driving the people out.

"It was because we didn't pay them a tax," he said.

"They came at midnight and ordered us out. I lost my farm, my cattle and everything else. And they killed my brother."

He once tried to return to the land, he said, but fled because the guerrillas would have killed him.

Now, he believes, the guerrillas are growing drug croops on the community's land.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Another Blow for Bogotá's Rivers

Around noon today, this truck rolled down an embankment into the Rio del Arzobispo, which flows thru the Parque Nacional and the Teusaquillo neighborhood. It's one of Bogotá's few rivers which is not hidden in a pipeline. But, like all of Bogotá's long-suffering waterways, it's smelly and polluted.
A repoter informs the world about the event. 

The fall of this half century-old truck (its driver was bruised by okay) was only the most dramatic of the many abuses against Bogotá's rivers. Many poor hillside neighborhoods lack sewage pipelines, so their waste goes right into the neighborhood rivers, which carry it into the highly polluted Rio Bogotá. The city has created repeated plans to clean up the rivers, but they get postponed and pushed back.

Ironically, on the neighboring sidewalk, someone had erected this tree carrying memorial cards for victims of traffic accidents. 
Bogotá's transit fatality rate would drop if authorities would actually enforce mechanical maintenance laws. Even more importantly, authorities should enforce laws against pollution, which must harm many more people than transit accidents.

Cards memorializing victims. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, November 28, 2011

The FARC's Countless Unseen Crimes

Displaced people who are protesting these days in Plaza Bolivar, demanding land and other benefits. The man on the right told me that he was driven from his land by guerrillas. 
The FARC guerrillas have gotten much deserved condemnation from politicians on both the left and the right and the United Nations for Saturday's cold-blooded murders of four kidnapped soldiers and policemen.

But, vicious as their murders of hostages are, the guerrillas' attacks on anonymous peasants far outnumber them, yet receive much less attention. During my years as a journalist and resident of Colombia I've spoken to many victims of the guerrillas (as well as people victimized by paramilitaries and even the nation's military), whose stories often include the murders of relatives, being driven from their homes and lands and children and husbands being taken away by force to be made into guerrilla fighters.

I'll never forget a Colombian woman whom I interviewed in an Ecuadorian border town where she'd taken refuge. The woman had owned a restaurant in a small Colombian town. One day, a group of strangers showed up and ate. They didn't pay, but returned the next day and the next. In her small town, the woman was used to giving credit, but she finally asked the men to pay up.

"We won't pay," she recalled the men telling her, "we are guerrillas and we are taking your restaurant - and your sons."

When I met the woman, she had had to abandon her home and business and had no idea of the fate of her two sons.

I also remember the woman and her daughters who came to the doorway of Bogotá Bike Tours begging one day. The woman said that guerrillas had taken away her husband and later came back for her sons, forcing her to flee with her daughters to the city, where they lived like refugees.

Another woman whom I met in Ecuador told me that the guerrillas had held her and others captive in their town, where they forced residents to work for them, washing clothes and doing other tasks. I also got the impression that the guerrillas committed sexual violations against the women, altho the woman didn't say so outright. She finally escaped to Ecuador, where I met her when she was appealing for assistance from the Catholic Church.

In her book about her years kidnapped by the guerrillas, one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt wrote that the guerrillas forced indigenous people to hand over a proportion of their children to become guerrilla fighters. So much for solidarity with the poor.

Read more about the guerrillas' rights violations, which also include kidnapping, violence against women, planting landmines (which mostly kill civilians), displacing peasants and on and on here, here or here.

In a normal nation, such crimes would fill weeks of headlines. But in a nation which has suffered decades of armed conflict and where the victims are overwelmingly poor and uneducated, the outrages have become routine and almost unnoticed - except to their victims.

In the face of mountains of horrors committed against Colombia's humblest people, some self-styled human rights defenders insist on defending the guerrillas, based, I suppose, on the guerrillas' romantic, idealistic pronouncements about social justice. The guerrillas may be good at repeating slogans, but their crimes, especially the ones which don't make headlines, completely discredit their pretentions. Leftists who sympathize with such an organization violate their own principles.

The guerrillas' abuses against Colombia's humblest people give the lie to their pretentions about being the 'army of the people.'

The FARC's defenders argue that the guerrillas' paramilitary enemies have committed horrific rights abuses, and that so has the country's military (altho Colombia's courts have prosecuted many military officials and ordered reparations paid). But that's all irrelevent to the reality that the FARC are a vicious, unprinicipled, drug-dealing organization which long ago lost all its moral capital.

The FARC even carry a moral responsibility for crimes committed by other Colombian armed groups, as horrific as those are as well. That's because those crimes came as a predictable- and also totally unjustifiable - reaction to the guerrilla violence.

The FARC's friends, in their safe, air-conditioned offices, often from nations where human rights are prized, probably could not conceive of the violations the guerrillas commit against the most defenseless Colombians - and they don't bother to find out.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The FARCs' Apologists Emerge Again

Barbarity! headlines El Espectador.
Yesterday's cold-blooded murders of three policemen and a soldier whom the FARC guerrillas had held prisoner in the jungle for more than a decade provided yet more proof of the guerrillas' moral bankruptcy.

(The guerrillas had, apparently, met a military force in the jungle, and, fearing that the kidnappees could be rescued, they murdered them.)

However, some of the responses to the tragedy revealed the distorted and duplitious attitudes this long and futile conflict has produced.

Luis Alberto Erazo, the sole survivor. 
Take the relatives of the four men whom the FARC had kidnapped, held in chains in the jungle for as long as 14 years, subjecting them to hunger, forced marches and jungle diseases, until the day they ordered them to lie down and shot them point-blank in the head or the back. (One man managed to escape.) The relatives' response: To blame the government, for 'not being capable of making peace with the guerrillas'.

The response is not rational, but is at least understandable coming from people shaken by tragedy and grief. Less concienciable are groups like Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz, who - probably sincerely and with good intentions - have already used this tragedy to call on the government to give up its military activities and negotiate with the guerrillas. That would amount to a unilateral retreat before a group which has, once again, demonstrated its barbarity.

In its statement about the murders, Colombianos y Colombianas refrained from blaming the guerrillas and called for the creation of a "new ethical force to end this bleeding."

FARC hostages in a jungle cage. 
Any such 'ethical force' needs to begin with the guerrillas, who have committed countless human rights violations including kidnapping, murder, forced abortions, planting landmines, recruiting child soldiers...and on and on. This isn't the FARC's first mass murder of kidnappees, either. In 2007, the guerrillas shot point-blank 11 city councilmen from the city of Cali whom they'd held prisoner in the jungle for five years. The guerrillas blamed the deaths on cross-fire, but evidence soon proved they'd been murdered.

The burden is now, more than ever, on the FARC to cease their murderous, fratricidal and totally futile drug-financed war, stop their violence against the military and civilians and immediately release all their hostages. 

These killings also show the level of either terror or brainwashing of the FARC guerrilla fighters. After all, these guerrillas had lived together in the jungle for months or years with these kidnappees, sharing with them bad food, wet marches, boredom and, probably even conversations and chess games. And yet, when ordered to, they didn't hesitate to cold bloodedly murder these men who had become their companions.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Snapshots from Belen: History, Poverty and Architecture.

An old woman walks past a weathered building in Bogotá's Belen neighborhood. 
The Belen neighborhood is La Candelaria's southern neighbor and its poorer cousin. Like La Candelaria, known as Bogotá's historic center, Belen contains many elegant old buildings - altho many are in decay. But the city's efforts to rejuvenate Belen, which is both poor and troubled by crime, have demolished many old buildings to build dramatic, modern structures such as the archives of Bogotá and Colombia. The government also tried to lure in middle class residents with the Nuevo Santa Fe apartment complex, built in the mid-1980s.

A residential street in Belen. 
The city also recently slashed an avenue thru the heart of Belen, dividing the neighborhood in two. Belen was once contiguous to La Candelaria, until the city bulldozed Calles 7 and 8 to create the avenue connecting the Circunvular Ave. with the Presidential Palace. 

Amidst the history and architecture is a neighorhood with lots of poverty and questions about its future. Will the city continue its renovation projects until the old community is gone? Will La Candelaria's tourism industry and university community spread into Belen and price out its current residents?

Belen means Bethlehem. Like Egipto, Las Cruces, La Candelaria and other central Bogota neighborhoods founded by the Spanish, its name is Biblically inspired.

Carpentry shops on Calle 8.

Entrance to the Archivo de la Nacion, the National Archive, designed by architect Rogelio Salmona

The Archivo de la Nacion's side view. 
A mural showing a woman holding a caged child.
Nectorio in his carpentry shop on Calle 7.
Part of the El Nuevo Santa Fe apartment complex, also designed by Rogelio Salmona
An older couple taking a rest in front of the Nuevo Santa Fe apartments.
Children playing futsal. 

The Archivo de Bogota, a graceful building which occupies a whole block and is a favorite of skateboarders and young cyclists.

A beggar stands in front of the preserved facade of an art-deco-style building. The building was demolisehd and replaced with a government ministry.  

A decaying building, covered with tents. 

Fronts of crumbling buildings. 

A handsome doorway. 

An old doorway shows its age. 

La Iglesia de Belen. 

A very old church, whose name I don't know. 
For years, this sign has promised that nice apartments will be built on this empty lot across the street from the Archivo de Bogota. 
Another empty lot with an old billboard promising new apartments. 

The San Agustin Church, across the street from the Presidential Palace, the Palacio de Nariño. 
A doorway. 

A stairway in the Archivo de la Nacion, with the Nuevo Santa Fe apartments behind. 

A handsome old building, probably owned by the government. 

A wall of the Archivo de la Nacion. 

A once-elegant home, now worn. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours