Thursday, February 28, 2013

Protesting With A Beat

This is much more fun than working!
The 2013 protest season kicked off today with a beat along Ave. Septima. 

Students, handicapped people and users of the state health system all marched thru downtown today in what looks like the beginning a another protest season. Today was a bit different, tho, thanks to this group which performed a costumed dance routine on Jimenez Ave. Their costumes reminded me of the Village People, altho they didn't sing. 
Employees of the National University have been on strike for more than a week demanding raises. Students are supporting them, shutting down the university. In the past, these strikes lasted months. 
Swing those bodies!

We are not the Village People.

Handicapped marchers demand more government services. 

Riot police at the ready. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No More Petro?

Sign here to revoke Mayor Petro!

Opponents of Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro announced this week that they have collected more than the 290,000 signatures required to hold a vote on revoking him from the mayoralty.

This wasn't hard to see coming. From the start, the election of Petro, a one-time leader of the M-19 Guerrillas, was controversial.

The poorly thot out new garbage collection scheme generated lots of discontent, which was compounded by the valorizacion plan, which is to tax particular districts of the city in order to pay for public works in those areas. Inconveniently, however, somebody has to pay for those public works which everybody wants.

While Bogotá's poorest neighborhoods are the areas most in need of new public works, they have the fewest resources to pay for them. Ironically, the anti-Petro campaign says that it has collected many signatures in poor neighborhoods, which makes me wonder whether those signers knew what was good for them.

Ousting Petro could also be a blow to hopes for a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, who are negotiating with the government in Havana, Cuba. After all, the fact that Petro, an ex-lider of the M-19 guerrillas, holds the nation's second-most-important political position provides proof that armed insurrection is not necessary to effect change. Petro's ouster, even at the ballot box, would be seized on by some to claim that the system's rigged.

But Petro may yet survive. If the registraduria decides that opponents collected enough valid signatures, an election will be organized, in which 1.2 million people must vote. More than half of those people would have to vote in favor of revoking Petro. I'm not sure exactly what would follow: a new mayoral election? Or would someone else be designated to complete his term? What about the second-highest vote-getter, Enrique Peñalosa? And, in case of a new election, could Petro run to succeed himself?

Whatever happens, it's a valuable exercise in civi participation. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Enough Already About Colmenares!

Enough already! The neverending parade of stories describing in minutiae the progress (and lack of same) in the legal procedures in the case of the death of Luis Colmenares have got me sick. His body was discovered --ñ years ago below a bridge in el Parque Virrey in north Bogotá. Did he just fall, or was he pushed? Probably, the public will never know for sure. Bogotá suffers thousands of homicides every year, as well as lots more fatal accidents, and most are simply forgotten.

But the death of Colmenares, a popular student at the elite Los Andes University, has fascinated the public, and the media, who have probably noticed that Colmenares case headlines sell newspapers.

Colmenares' death was a tragedy for his family and friends, as is every death. But it's beyond me why this one case has become a real-life reality show, with every new witness, each new arrest, each new lab test result, becoming 'news.' Sure, all of this probably does have some educational value, and it is arguably more important than another futbol game. But there's also a negative side to it. Maybe it produces a false public perception that all deaths are really taken seriously and investigated, when that's far from true. How about the people, especially the children, who get run over regularly by drunk drivers? Each of those killings generates a day or two of public anger, and then gets forgotten. As far as I've heard, the driver gets usually sentenced to a period of home detention, which he may or may not carry out, and then keeps on driving. But those victims, and many others, are important, too. But they get forgotten because whatever Colmenares' latest ex-girlfriend told investigators the other day makes headlines.

Sure, Colmenares' death was a tragedy, but only one of many. It's time to move on.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pencil Mountain Art

The Nee Bex Gallery, in the home of a Frenchman in La Candelaria, is exhibiting these works by an artist from Huila Department, who gives a new twist, or a new point, to Colombia's mountainous geography. The gallery owner told me that the artist, Juan de Dios Vargas, has worked in rural schools with students who suffer from hunger, poverty and violent armed groups.

The pencil mountains may represent students' aspiration - or the difficulty and danger of surviving in Colombia's mountain ranges. They certainly took a lot of work - the artist sharpened the pencils by hand because his pencil sharpeners kept breaking.

A work incorporating one of the children the artist worked with. 

Locations of the pencil topography maps. 

The resident dog, Floyd.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Indians on the Wall in La Candelaria

These images appeared the other night on a wall on Carrera 3 in La Candelaria. A secret message? A curious advocacy for indigenous rights?

The English is imperfect enough to suggest this was the work of a mediocre Colombian high school student, or an unsuccesful poet.

Who photographed me? Do I know that
I'm on a wall in Bogotá?
I visited the website, which is in perfect English and tells the story of a wealthy country citizen who, during a biology test, decided to drop everything and travel the world. The website is full of videos and striking photographs, which are for sale. This is not the work of an indigenous person from the Amazon. What I discovered on Carrera 3 is part of a "temporary street art instalment of world photography."

Is this exploitation of indigenous people, who surely have no idea that their photos are on a wall in Bogotá? A candid camera exercise? A waste of paper? The website says that 20% of photo sales go to a village in Laos. What about an educated native English speaker impersonating a Colombian learning English?

Passers-by weren't paying much attention. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Colombia's Long Coffee Crisis

Coffee farmers march demanding more government aid.
(Photo: El Tiempo)
Production is down and so are prices. Coffee farmers say it costs them more to produce a sack of coffee than they get paid for it. And now their marches have shut down some of Colombia's main highways.

Just-roasted Colombian
arabica coffee beans.
Why is this happening? To start, you don't have to look much further than Colombia's surging exports of coal, petroleum and other raw materials. Those industries have attracted billions in foreign investment, which have in turn raised the value of the Colombian peso, making Colombian products more expensive. Climate change has also hurt production, as has the country's armed conflict, which drives farmers off of their land. 

There are other reasons, of course, including increasing coffee production in other countries, which have pushed Colombia down in the ranks of world coffee production. And Colombia is also in a low-production point in the cyclical process of growing, chopping down and replanting coffee plants, which require several years of growth before their first harvest. So, industry watchers expect Colombian coffee production to rise again.

Pouring tinto, or cheap coffee, on a Bogotá sidewalk.
The beans are more likely to be from Vietnam than Colombia.
But there's also been a more fundamental industrial shift in recent decades. Before about 1990, many agriculturally-dependent nations had things called commodity boards. These tried to control production to prevent overproduction, which could flood the market, collapsing prices. Commodity boards were far from perfect, but by limiting production and buying up and warehousing surpluses, they did help to maintain decent and stable prices for crops such as coffee and cocoa. After commodity boards were eliminated, farmers were on their own to decide how much to plant. Predictably, they produced as much as they could and prices collapsed.

A graph showing historical volatility of coffee prices.

In recent years, prices for some, but far from all, agricultural products have recovered. But other problems continue, particularly price volatibility. Small farmers, who have little savings, quickly get pushed to bankruptcy when the prices of their harvests drop.
Colombian-grown arabica beans
on the left, and imported robusta
beans on right.
In response to the coffee farmers' troubles, the Colombian government has promised to increase subsidies and price supports for farmers. But those policies could increase production beyond demand, depressing prices.

There's another huge error, it seems to me, in Colombia's coffee policies. There are two types of coffee in the world: expensive arabica beans, which are grown at high altitude and receive premium prices on world markets. Arabica is Colombia's specialty, and almost all of its production is exported. The other variety of coffee is called robusta, and is grown at low altitudes and sold cheaply. Most Colombians drink cheap coffee made from robusta beans.

The street vendor sells coffee made with imported beans.
The cafe behind him probably sells coffee made from
Colombian beans.
Understandably, the Colombian government wants to protect the nation's image as a quality coffee producer. But to do that they've gone way too far, by prohibiting the growing of cheap robusta beans. As a result, 90% of the coffee consumed in Colombia is imported - sometimes from as far as way as Vietnam.

Colombian farmers want assistance. The country is importing coffee which it could grow at home. Something doesn't make sense.

Coffee art.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Disappeared or Just Dead?

A tank fires into the Palacio de Justicia on Plaza Bolivar in Nov. 1985. The M-19 guerrillas had taken over the building and were holding the members of the Supreme Court hostage. 
Colombia's defense in an international human rights court has made waves by claiming that nobody was 'disappeared' during the 1985 retaking of the Palacio de Justicia from M-19 guerrillas who had invaded it.

The M-19's November 1985 attack on the Justice Palace and the ensuing retaking by the military remains an open sore in Colombian politics and society. Last year, a court ordered the military to make a Public apology for human rights violations committed by the military. The ruling, which has never been fulfilled, had particular relevance because current Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro was a leader of the M-19 guerrillas. Several other one-time M-19 leaders are now in Congress.

More than 100 people died in the episode, including all but one of the guerrillas, many Justice Palace employees, visitors and 11 of the 12 Supreme Court justices. Some simply disappeared without a trace.

Guerrilla Irma Franco and
cafeteria administrator
Carlos Rodriguez. Both
apparently left the
Justice Palace alive but
were never seen again. 
But a number of people from inside the Justice Palace were reported seen alive outside the building or inside the neighboring Casa del Florero, which the military was using as its command post. Some of those apparent survivors were never seen again or were found dead in the burned building, as if killed in the fired which consumed the building.

Court rulings, public opinion and news reports all seem to agree that the military committed human rights violations, including disappearances, during the counterattack. Other high Colombian officials have acknowledged two cases of disappearances: a guerrilla and the administrator of the building's cafeteria, both of whom were reported seen alive outside the building. That's why the Colombian state's argument last week in a case before the Inter-American Court of Justice surprised many, and suggested that the lawyers were defending accused military officers rather than Colombia as a whole.

The government's lawyer argued that the disappeared had all died in the conflagration which destroyed the Justice Palace building. The fire's cause is still debated. According to some sources, cocaine king Pablo Escobar helped finance the M-19's attack in exchange for the guerrillas promising to destroy incriminating legal documents.

Two military officers have been tried, convicted and given prison terms for crimes committing during the retaking. But the military and conservative political parties ask why the M-19, who started it all, have not had to face justice.

Llamas walk past the rebuilt Justice Palace on Plaza Bolivar.
'A tragic sacrifice by forces of subversion,' who
destroyed evidence against narcotraffickers. 
A plaque on the City Hall building lists the
names of 12 people who were allegedly 'disappeared.' 

A plaque in a sidewalk denounces 25
years of impunity in the cases of
 disappeared people. 
Three memorial plaques on Plaza Bolivar, within yards of the rebuilt Justice Palace, show the continuing polarization over the tragedy. One plaque denounces 'impunity' in the cases of the disappeared. Another, on the City Hall building, lists the name of 12 people who "were disappeared" during the violence. And a third, adjoining plaque, memorializes "the tragic sacrifice by forces of subversion of justices of the Supreme Court...defenders of the law. The palace was destroyed by the flames, as were the files, whose destruction was sought by the assailants."

(The reference to the files refers to allegations that drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar had financed the attack in order to destroy evidence against him.)

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Anime and Santa Fe On The March

Fans of anime, the Japanese fantasy figures, carried out a unique march down Ave. Septima today - and got overwhelmed by rowdy fans of the Santa Fe football team.

Such pretty devils. 

I didn't know that Santa Fe was communist. But it sure makes sense that their great rival, Millonarios, are capitalists.

A man who gave his skin for Santa Fe. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours