Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Newsflash: Colombia Will Not Fumigate Tobacco!

Tobacco plants wait for harvest
 - and for erradication planes?
Colombia has rejected a World Health Organization plan to limit tobacco farmland in order to reduce tobacco consumption, El Tiempo reports.

Fighting tobacco use is of course fundamental for protecting public health. I recently read about a study which found that, after smoking was prohibited in the workplace, heart attacks dropped 33%! Can you imagine a greater benefit for public health, particularly when second-hand smoke seriously damages the health of non-smokers.

But trying to limit tobacco farming suggests troubling parallels to another less-than-successful anti-drug campaign: the one against coca leaf and cocaine. As Colombia has aggressively erradicated coca leaf acreage, they've just planted more in Peru and Bolivia.

Sure, like cocaine production, tobacco processing is band for the environment (just as tobacco use is bad for people). But helicopters fumigating excess tobacco fields and tobacco farmers responding by chopping down forest to plant illicit tobacco fields would be even worse. Soon after, I imagine, illegally-grown tobacco will be smuggled across the border into Venezuela and loaded onto small planes for illicit flights overseas. Sound familiar?

Rather, the best policy is to discourage tobacco use, as many WHO-promoted policies aim to do. Unfortunately, except for restricting indoor smoking and tobacco advertising, Colombia hasn't bothered to enforce its anti-tobacco laws (at least in Bogotá). Children can still easily buy cigarettes and street vendors openly and illegaly sell cigarettes by the stick. Both crimes could be controlled with sting operations, but the police don't bother. I've also seen large cigarette displays in stores which violate the spirit of the new anti-tobacco law, if perhaps not its letter.

Another disturbing thing noted in El Tiempo's article is Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo's argument that, even if it wanted to, Colombia could not limit tobacco production because of obligations assumed in its free trade agreements. Of course, this is really just an excuse to earn money: Colombia's FTA with the United States allows it to export 4,200 metric tons annually of the stuff. (Keep that in mind you anti-drug warriors.)

But, taking the minister at his word, is it really possible that Colombia's free trade agreements prevent it from protecting its people's health? That's unthinkable - or should be.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Judicial Workers' Protest

The marchers' float gave the protest a touch of carnaval. 

Judicial employees have been protesting for the last weeks, demanding pay raises. So have students of the SENA, the government trades school, who fear that a tax reform will slash the institution's funding. The government insists that won't happen.

The judicial workers' strike has shut down the courts, creating a backlog of tens of thousands of cases.

Judicial workers came from Soacha, in south Bogotá.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Drug Legalization? The FARC Should be Careful What They Wish For

The risks of the illegal drug industry:
An alleged narcotrafficker being escorted
to detention.
During the preliminaries to the FARC-government peace talks, the guerrillas have expressed support for legalizing drugs - a position also favored by some in Colombia's government.

And the idea is a good one for multiple reasons - but probably not for the guerrillas.

The guerrilla argue that legalizing drugs would reduce their profit margins and make trafficking less desireable. That's true - but only partially.

Another price to be paid by the illegal-drugs
industry:co Drug-related killings in Monterrey, Mexico. 
An ounce of Colombian cocaine or heroin - much of which is controlled by the FARC - sold on the streets of New York or London does produce huge profits compared to legal products such as coffee or flowers.

But that huge financial difference is balanced by the great costs which legal products don't carry: The drug cargoes run big risks of being discovered and confisticated; drug traffickers themselves are often arrested and imprisoned by authorities; and drug traffickers know they might be attacked and killed by police or rivals in the drug trade. Drug traffickers, like all good businessmen, figure in those business costs.

FARC guerrillas, who make much of their
income from the illegal drugs trade.
Are they ready to change into business suits?
Legalizing drugs wouldn't cut their demand, just as the demand for alcohol didn't dry up after Prohibition ended in the United States. In fact, with risks and social stigma reduced, demand could very well grow. And, since drug traffickers would no longer carry costs such as violence and confistication, prices would drop. That WOULD slash the huge profits - but, then, traffickers would no longer have to worry about prison or violent death, either.

Of course, the legalized drug industry would have to pay a substantial new cost: taxes. (Which is why decriminalization would benefit the Colombian state: More revenue for the government and less for criminal groups. That sounds like a good deal to me.)
The new style legalized drug industry?
Business suits and tax payments.

Instead of disappearing, a new class of businesspeople would take over the drug trade. The high-risk, live-fast-die-young personality types would be replaced by powerpoint-wielding men and women calculating quarterly profit margins and depreciation rates.

And those don't sound like the FARC guerrillas.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, October 29, 2012

Colombia's UNESCO Heritage Sites

Comical figures for carnaval parades.
The National Museum in Bogotá has an exhibit about Colombia's 14 UNESCO-designated cultural sites and manifistations. These range from concrete places, such as Cartagena's historical fortifications and Mompox's historical center, and immaterial ones such as carnavales and indigenous peoples' traditional knowledge.

Notably absent from the list, of course, is Bogotá's historical center, La Candelaria. A friend told me it was under consdiration, until the UNESCO representative noticed some mushroom-shaped apartments which look more like Miami condominiums than something appropriate for a historical center. And now, with the invasion of chain stores and restaurants, the neighborhood's hopes for such a status are probably gone.

A piece of culture brought be German immigrants, now an important component of Colombian music. 

Sleeping it off post-carnaval.

A mix of indigenous and imported musical instruments. 

A carnaval song.
Photographing fish, another part of Colombia's heritage.
Coffee sacks. The coffee region is also on the UNESCO list. 

Funeral urns at Tierra Adentro. 

The Palenque people, who have preserved African words and traditions. 
The monuments at San Agustin.

Traditional Wayuu dress.

Cannonballs which defended Cartagena from English, Dutch and  French attackers. 

A champan being pushed up the Magdalena River. African slaves provided the muscle-power for much of Colombia's early development, but received little credit or compensation.
Stone and tools used to build Cartagena.
A child who dives for tourists' coins in Cartagena. 


By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis and Colombia

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khruschev buddy up.
(Photo: Boston University)
A half-century ago, humanity came to the verge of armageddon when the United States discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. After several tense weeks, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev reached an agreement and backed away from the abyss.

But, during those tense weeks Cuban dictator Fidel Castro asked the Soviets to shoot at U.S. spyplanes, which could likely have triggered nuclear war, as recounted in this story in the New York Times.

Castro, a revolutionary accustomed to dramatic acts and gestures, favored military action against the U.S. Castro, who was still angry about the attempted U.S. invasion of Cuba, also resented not being consulted by Moscow. Castro was motivated by anger and desire for vengeance. Cuba was an important country, he believed, and would not accept being treated as a non-factor. If proving Cuba's importance meant burning millions of people, including Cubans, to ashes, so be it. In contrast, both the U.S. and Soviet leaders were much more rational actors: they wanted to further their interests, but knew that nuclear war would be bad for everybody.

“This is insane; Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him!” Khruschev reportedly told his advisors.

Fortunately for the world - and particularly for the millions of Cubans and Americans who would have surely been blown to bits or fried by nuclear storms - the Soviets removed their missiles, and in exchange the U.S. removed its own nuclear missiles from Turkey and also promised never again to invade the communist island.

(Reportedly, Colombia had offered its support for a U.S. invasion of the island to remove the missiles.)

Fidel Castro and bearded comrades celebrate the 
revolution's victory.
The world gave a sigh of relief. But the Soviets' support and the U.S. assurance that it would never again invade Cuba, as it had disastrously in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, gave Castro cover to try to foment Communism across the hemisphere. In 1968, Che Guevara died in Bolivia trying to ignite a Cuban-style revolution there. Castro also financed and trained armed insurgencies across Central and South America, including Colombia's ELN guerrillas. In recent years, however, Cuba has assisted with as-yet-unsuccesful peace negotations between the Colombian government and the ELN and FARC guerrillas.

A U-2 spy plane photo shows Soviet missile silos in Cuba.
(Photo: Smithsonian Museum)
Meanwhile, the United States and now-geriatric revolutionary Cuba, only 90 miles apart, still maintain one of the world's last remaining Cold War hostilities.

Today, Latin America's only situation even distantly resembling the 1962 Cuba is Venezuela, a leftist nation hostile to the U.S. which has during recent years purchased billions of dollars of mostly Russian military weapons. But those are conventional weapons, and Venezuela presents no military threat to the U.S., altho its armamanets are potentially worrisome to its neighbors, Colombia and Guyana.

A bit like Cuba a half century ago, Venezuela is a source of tensions between Moscow and Washington, still vying for influence.

The Soviet missiles have ended up achieving their original goal: preserving the Communist revolution on the U.S.'s doorstep. But in the meantime their builders, the Soviet empire, has crumbled, leaving Cuba as a sort of museum piece for a failed system. However, in the guerrillas which still afflict Colombia, Colombia continues to feel the the missile crisis' consequences.

So, for Colombia, the missile Crisis leaves mixed messages. By preserving revolutionary Cuba, the missiles contributed to Colombia's ongoing troubles. However, the communist island could now contribute to peace in Colombia.

And, the crisis' greatest lesson for Colombia is that determined and cautious leaders can resolve the most difficult crisis without firing a shot.

But are Colombia's guerrillas rational actors? For that matter, is the government?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Monster March on Seventh Ave.

The undead are back!

I didn't spot Peter Pan or Goldilocks and the Seven Dwarves. Most of the costumes were ghoulish, gruesome and grim, and in lots of cases disturbingly remindful of Colombia's violent history. Is this very different from other countries?

Elvira, mistress of the dark, makes an appearance - or two. 

Bounty hunters return with their catch.

Everybody click. 
Actually, gas masks aren't such an unusual dresswear in polluted Bogota.

A tophat and convict crossing paths. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours