Friday, August 30, 2013

Who Are Los Encapuchados?

Encapuchados in violent action yesterday.
(Photo: El Tiempo)

The encapuchados, literally the 'hooded ones,' appear in many Colombian protests - and turn them violent. Many blame them for turning yesterday's protest in support of campesino farmers from a peaceful march down Ave. Septima into an orgy of violence which left two people dead, a policeman gravely wounded and hundreds injured, according to authorities. In addition, many central Bogotá business were sacked and vandalized.

A woman defends police from hooded attackers
 during yesterday's riots. (Photo: El Tiempo)
I've seen the encapuchados in action several times in the National University: both carrying out guerrilla-style rallies on La Plaza del Che, where they line up in ranks, toss smoke bombs and yell communist slogans, and also throwing rocks and 'papa bombas' (potato bombs) at riot police at the university's gates.

Encapuchados set off rockets in a field in the
National University in Bogotá.
Yesterday, encapuchados hurled chairs and other things they'd looted from stores at the riot police. El Tiempo published dramatic photos of a unarmed, unprotected woman trying to shield the police by standing with upraised arms between them and the rioters. But the masked young men pulled her away to continue pummeling the police. In another incident, on Plaza Bolivar, protesters actually surrounded the police to protect them from violent encapuchados. To the encapuchados, the police represent authority and the establishment. But they are also young men and women of humble origin, many of whom were drafted into the police force or because they had few alternatives. Attacking them is little different from attacking other humble people - exactly the sort of working class folks whom the protesters are supposed to be defending.

If, as many suspect, the encapuchados are acting at the behest of Colombia's guerrillas, then their hypocrisy is even clearer.

Encapuchados lined up on La Plaza del Che
in the National University.
If the encapuchados have any ideology besides anger and violence, it doesn't show. If they have any courage when they're not hidden by masks and armed with bombs and wooden planks, it's hard to recognize.

For a protest movement that's supposed to be non-violent, the encapuchados are a cancer, or a time bomb. They turn peaceful protests ugly, turn public sentiment against the demonstrators and give the government justification to militarize Bogotá and employ force against demonstrations - as Pres. Santos vowed to do last night.

It's no surprise that the mainstream of the protesters, who are legitimately concerned about the livelihood of Colombian farmers, have rejected the encapuchados' violence.

Encapuchados, not yet violent, marching down Ave. Septima in Bogotá during a protest. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Res. 970: Farmer, Do Not Plant Your Own Seeds

A campesino farmer in Huila Department.
reCan he plant his own seeds? (Photo: Diario de Huila)
Update: Resolution 970 has since been annuled by the government.

The protesters who have blockaded many of Colombia's highways and carried out sometimes violente marches in Bogotá and other cities blame free trade agreements for driving down crop prices and pushing peasant farmers to ruin.

The peasants' main complaint is about the importation of cheap, subsidized foods, especially potatoes
'We demand access to property rights.'
and dairy products, from wealthy nations. And it seems to me that they're correct that the questionable benefits of cheap food imports (which often become junk foods which don't exactly benefit consumers) aren't worth destroying Colombia's small farm economia and the many thousands of humble people who survive off of it. When they can't make it in the countryside, those people are forced to move to slums, where they struggle to survive in an urban environment. Other farmers may decide to plant coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine, which doesn't have imports to compete with.

A protester scrawled 'No on 9.70' on this storefront in downtown Bogotá.
But one of the most polemical aspects of Colombian agricultural law, and which many link to free trade agreements, is Resolution 970, issued in 2010 by the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA). Res. 970 became notorious after Telesur, the Venezuelan-run news agency, broadcast a sensational documentary about it called 9.70, now available on YouTube.

Before today's protest march, police line up on
Plaza Bolivar for instructions. The day would be
long and violent for them.
According to the documentary, the Res. 970 prohibits farmers from planting seeds from their own harvests. The documentary featured officials from ICA - backed by riot police - confiscating sacks of rice from farmers in Huila Department and then burning them.

ICA's director called the documentary mistaken and said, variously, that the seeds hadn't passed government quality controls and that the seeds weren't fit for human consumption because they'd been stored in pesticide sacks.

Unionists in today's protest march. 
But respected commentators I read in El Tiempo and El Espectator newspapers and Semana magazine say that Res. 970 does appear to impose draconian restrictions on farmers' use of their own harvests as seed grains. For example, Res. 970 requires farmers to use "only legal seeds" and bans "possessing any seed which does not comply with what's established in the resolution."

A move to require that farmers use only seeds certified by the government is rooted in the Colombian-
US Free Trade Agreement, according to Semana magazine. However, that requirement was annulled by a Colombian Supreme Court decision last year.

The resolution does permit small farmers to plant their own seeds, called criollas, according to Semana - but only on less than five hectares and only for personal consumption.

In El Tiempo, opinion columnist Jorge Orlando Melo called Res. 970 "absurd"  and "ridiculous." Res. 970 fines farmers 10,000 times the monthly minimum wage for planting 'illegal' food crops - much more than the fines for planting coca and marijuana (which should be legal, in any case), writes Melo.

Apparently embarassed by the controversy, ICA officials seem to have reinterpreted their own resolution and now claim that it doesn't actually prohibit that farmers plant seeds from their own harvests, and have introduced modifications to that end.

Whatever the resolution actually says - and it seems to be confusingly written - at least one of its critics' accusations appears to be off the mark. The certified seed requirement isn't much benefit for multinational corporations like Monsanto, since almost all of the seed sold in Colombia, including all the rice seed, is supplied by Colombian companies.

After the protests, riot police shields
painted by protesters' bombs.
Seeds that are genetically modified or improved using other methods certainly can fill a role in Colombia - but they aren't always the best. In many areas, traditional seeds developed by farmers and used by farmers for generations may do best in the climate and soil conditions. In any case, farmers should have the right to plant the seeds they think best and government bureacrats are the last ones to be telling them how to farm.

Today's massive protests turned violent, perhaps mainly because of violent, encapuchados, who attacked police. At least one policeman was seriously injured by a rock blow to his head.

Businesses closed during today's protests, which turned violent.
A cyclist rides on Ave. Septima alongside riot police. 
After the protests, walls covered with scrawled graffiti. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Step Too far on Pedestrianization?

Transmilenio buses on Ave. Jimenez. Are their days numbered?
Pedestrians and passengers outside Museo de Oro station.
If Jimenez is pedestrianized, this station would
likely be closed. 
Banning loud, dangerous and polluting automobiles can do wonders for city centers, and has humanized Ave. Septima.
But ban all motorized traffic from Jimenez Ave., as Mayor Petro reportedly wants to do?

Jimenez Ave., which connects Ave. Septima to various universities, La Candelaria and the city's Eastern Hills, is also known as the Eje Ambiental, or  the Environmental Axis. But the traffic jams and air pollution have made that a misnomer. But eliminating TransMilenio - despite its uncontrolled smog belching - isn't the way to fix that - just the reverse, rather. 

Las Aguas TM station, which would be closed if buses are
banned from Jimenez Ave. This station was recently expanded
with the addition of an underground tunnel connecting it to
the new Universidades Station. 
Such a move would not only deal a blow to the historical center and its universities, but also discourage use of public transit - ultimately increasing traffic jams throughout the city. 

Delivering public bikes on La Septima.
Why not expand the program up Jimenez Ave.?
Pedaling public bikes on Ave. Septima. 
What La Jimenez really needs is a more efficient TM service, with low-emission buses, to discourage private car use. (Unfortunately, TM just postponed its incorporation of low-emission buses until next year.) At the same time, the city should make the common sense move of expanding the bicycle lending program now operating along Ave. Septima by adding stations along the Eje Ambiental into La Candelaria and to Los Andes University. Even so, however, a lot of people won't want to pedal uphill. Public transit is fundamental to the neighborhood, and TM plays a fundamental role on La Jimenez. 

Traffic jam on Jimenez Ave. What good are
cars when they move more slowly than pedestrians?
On the other hand, banning or heavily restricting the use of private cars on La Jimenez and the historical center would make sense. Today, private cars are increasingly congesting the historical center, making it loud, unpleasant, polluted and dangerous for children. Pedestrianizing some of the streets, as planners have proposed repeatedly, would bring the neighborhood a calm and restore some of its historic atmosphere. Motorized vehicles, after all, aren't very colonial. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cacerolazo Comes to Plaza Bolivar

The cacerolazo, a very Latin American form of protest which I believe originated in Argentina, is happening across Colombia, and this evening arrived in Bogotá's Plaza Bolívar. The cacerolazo simply consists of protesters using kitchen utensils to beat pots and pans. By doing so, it elegantly combines protest with emphasis on families' struggle to make ends meet. And that coincides nicely with Colombia's ongoing protests by campesinos who say that subsidized agricultural imports force them to sell their harvests at a loss.

Today's protest also featured the ruana, a poncho-like coat which is a symbol of the Colombian of modest means, even tho it's rarely used in the city. A common saying, that 'The law is only for those who wear ruanas,' means that the wealthy needn't obey the law. Unfortunately, that is too often true.

The protesters mobbed the steps of the Congress building, flooding over the line of riot police posted there, making them appear futile and irrelevent. They chanted 'Multinationals out of Colombia' and 'The people united will not be defeated.' But it wasn't clear how occupying the steps of Congress will change the situation in the countryside.
Wearing the ruana.

Boyaca Department is present!

'When we protest we're delincuents, during elections we're citizens.'

'The campesino has potatoes, the government has balls.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Marching for Conscientious Objection

'I'm an artist and I prefer painting the world with brushes and oils instead of painting Colombia with innocent blood and arms.
These young people protested today against a Colombian institution - Obligatory Military Service - which may be on the way out for several reasons. In theory, military or police service is obligatory for all young men - but not in practice, since it's legal to pay not to do it. As a result, the wealthy pay their way out while the poor do time and risk their lives in remote jungle camps. There are also many other exceptions, including for only children, students and those with disabilities.
'No al fuero militar.' The fuero militar is a military
jurisdiction law protecting soldiers from
charges for rights absues.

In principle, it's also possible to plead conscientious objection - but many young recruits don't know about that right. And, reportedly, it's hard to use in practice. 

At today's rally, speakers protested against the practice of police and military stopping young men in public and demanding proof of having done military service. If they don't have it, it's off to the army. Speakers also portrayed military service as a practice of 'killing innocent campesinos and defending multinational corporations.' 

The military certainly has committed abuses, most notoriously the False Positives killings. But advances by the military against guerrillas have also brought peace calm to parts of the countryside, enabling farmers to return to their land. 

And, some poor families see military service as a positive opportunity for employment, character building and a small income - at the very least, the family has one less mouth to feed. 

'I object.' 
Today's protesters also forgot about the guerrillas' own 'recruitment' practices. The groups are notorious for turning children into guerrilla fighters, sometimes against their will or under fals pretenses, and holding them for decades under threat of death if they try to flee. In the guerrilla ranks, young men are sometimes used as cannon fodder and girls become lovers of senior guerrilla leaders - and are forced to abort when they become pregnant. 

If the ongoing talks between the FARC guerrillas and Colombian government are successfull, the need for a miltary draft may end. That would be the best outcome of all.

And today's small protest march was striking for the quantity of riot police called out - to protect against an inherently anti-violence organization. It's a common response to protests by Bogotá authorities, whether from an excess of caution or a wish to intimidate.

The crowd on Plaza Bolivar.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Two Kinds of Harvests

Campesino:'I farm coffee, rice, corn and cacao...And what do I harvest? Losses.'
FARC Guerrilla: 'I plant terror and death. What do I harvest? Trips to Cuba and seats in the Senate.'
This editorial cartoon in today's El Tiempo captured for me the paradox of Colombia's protests by campesino farmers and other, which coincide with government-FARC guerrilla negotiations in Havana, Cuba. Many believe that the FARC are promoting the protests by the farmers, who complain that subsidized agricultural imports have depressed farm prices so much that they lose money on their harvests.

The cartoon captures the irony that the guerrilla leaders, who claim to be the campesinos' defenders, look to do quite well off of this situation. They're living comfortably, maybe even luxuriously, in Havana during the negotiations. If a deal is reached, the FARC, who have committed countless abuses against campesinos and others, may get seats in Congress.

Go figger.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, August 23, 2013

Can Music Soothe the Savage State?

Screaming at the state today: protesters in front of the Miniatry of Agriculture in Bogotá.
Demonstrators screamed, sang and strummed today in front of the agricultural ministry in to support farmers who are blocking highways across Colombia. Perhaps they hoped that under the tunes' influence the line of riot police would soften and drift away, but it didn't happen.

The campesino farmers, particularly milk and potato producers, are demanding price supports and an end to agricultural imports. Public
What do the riot police think of all this? 
university students are protesting for bigger budgets. Truckers want cheaper diesel fuel. And in El Catatumbo protests continue against the government's erradication of coca leaf plantations.

The demonstrations have in common rejection of the government's neoliberal economic policies, in particular free trade agreements which farmers blame for flooding the country with cheap, often subsidized agricultural goods, including staples such as milk and potatoes.

In the background are the peace negotiations in Havana between the government and the FARC
guerrillas. Some government officials see the hand of the guerrillas behind the protests as a way to pressure the government. In fact, in El Cauca, a guerrilla bastion, posters appeared allegedly from the FARC ordering truckers and other transport vehicles off of the roads during the farmers' strike. Meanwhile, the guerrillas announced a 'pause' in the negotiations to consider the government's proposal to hold a national referendum next year on any peace treaty. Still, the negotiations seem to be progressing well, with both sides showing hope for the talks to succeed. But negotiators will have to keep the pressure on - it's hard to see the negotiations succeeding unless they're wrapped up before next year's presidential elections.

On the other hand, the government and protesting farmers remain far apart, with the government demanding the lifting of the dozens of highway blockades in 15 departments as a prerequisite for talks, and the campesinos demanding an end to agricultural imports.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leftism Done Right

Hugo Chávez: A real leftist?

In 1999, Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela. Soon after, he declared that he was leading his oil-rich country toward a 'socialist revolution' based on something called 'Bolivarianism.'

In the name of leftism, Chavez and his succesor Nicolas Maduro have expropriated property, organized worker collectives and recruited Cuban medics - and sent corruption out of control skyrocketed the homicide rate.

But at the same time, the so-called chavista revolution has failed glaringly to behave revolutionarily on social issues.

Across the globe, pot is becoming legal, abortion rights are expanding and same sex couples are winning legal recognition - but not in the supposedly revolutionary Venezuela, or its allegedly leftist allies Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Two cuddly guys. Mujica and Brazilian
ex-Pres.Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Contrast Venezuela with Uruguay, governed by Pres. José Mujica, an ex-guerrilla with true leftist/revolutionary credentials. (Chavez, in contrast, achieved fame by leading a failed military coup attempt.) In little more than three years, Mujica's government has legalized abortion and gay marriage and is working on legalizing marijuana. But Mujica doesn't call his policies a 'revolution' - just practical policy. He wants marijuana legal in order to take the business away from outlaw gangs which have become inceasingly violent. During a recent interview with Colombia's W Radio, Mujica, in his steady, houghtful way, explained that uruguay's 'drug problem' isn't overdoses, but violence by gangs fighting over the illegal drug business. And drug legalization isn't populist policy in Uruguay - most Uruguayans actually oppose the idea, according to polls.

Even countries ruled by conservative governments, such as Colombia and Great Britain have moved forward on these issues (which should call into question the left-right labels). Guatemala's Pres. Otto Pérez Molina, an ex-military general, in an outspoken advocate of drug legalization - altho he has not changed laws at home.

In the company of gay leaders, Venezuelan
Pres. Nicolas Maduro declares that the
revolution isn't homophobic.
The contrast couldn't be greater with 'revolutionary Venezuela,' where a chavista congressman recently accused opposition politiciansof running a gay/transsexual prostitution ring and said to opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles: “Respond, homosexual, accept the challenge, maricón."

Venezuela's supposedly leftist allies Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua haven't done any better. In fact, in a monumentally cynical move, Nicaragua's then presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, bought the support of the Catholic Church by promising to prohibit all abortions. So much for a moral compass.

Perhaps the contrast between Mujica and Chavez reflects a deeper difference in character. As president, Mujica lives modestly, drives his old car and lives at home on the outskirts of the capital. Chavez, in contrast, spent Venezuela's wealthy lavishly on himself - and by importing military weapons.

What's that all say? Maybe one man has character and the other did not.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours