Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Women On Top

Candidates Marina Silva and Dilma Rousseff, who appear headed toward a run-off for Brazil's next presidential term. 
In December 2013 Michelle Bachelet defeated Evelyn Matthei to win her second term as Chile's first female president - the first time that a presidential run-off has featured two female candidates, as far as I know.

Chilean Pres. Michelle Bachelet, right, and conservative
candidate Evelyn Matthei during this
year's presidential election, which Bachelet won.
Now, it looks almost certain that Brazil's first female president, Dilma Rousseff, will face a fellow female leftist, Marina Silva, in the second round of that nation's presidential election.

And Argentina, the nation separating Brazil and Chile, is also ruled by a woman, altho Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the political heir of her deceased husband, the former president Néstor Kirchner. (Is this the first-time ever that three contiguous nations were ruled by women?)

And, several Central American and Caribbean nations are also ruled by women.

While women leaders are still a marked minority in Latin America, their numbers seem dramatic for a region in which women have only been able to vote - much less run for office - for less than a century. In Chile and Brazil the first women obtained the vote in the early 1930s and in Argentina in 1949. Colombian women were only given the right to vote in 1954 - ironically, by a dictator.

The three female-headed nations make up 25% of South America's 12 nations - altho much more of
Argentine Pres. Cristina
its population and economy, because Brazil and Argentina are so large. That places the continent ahead on a world scale, since only 21 of the United Nations' 193 nations - or barely more than 10% - are headed by women.

For its part, Colombia has never had a female president. But several women have been seen as contenders in recent elections, and in this year's presidential vote two women - a leftist and a rightist - each won a respectable 15% of the vote.

Why has South America, whose macho, Catholic culture has not traditionally been seen as particularly progressive on women's issues, become something of a leader for female leaders? Part of the answer might just be chance. Three, after all, is a small sample size. And Argentina's Kirchner came to power on the coattails of her husband Nestor, who has since died.

As for Brazil's Rousseff and Chile's Bachelet, it's hard to ignore the fact that both were political dissidents persecuted by their nations' dictatorships. But what THAT means, I'm not sure. After all, most persecuted political dissidents were likely male.

As a minimum, these women's political victories make clear that Latin culture does not throw insurmountable obstacles in the way of women politicians. Now, it's up to these women leaders to leave behind real accomplishments to ease the path for future women politicians.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Doom for the Darien?

Luxurian vegetation in the Darien Gap. (Photo: Naked Man in the Tree)
The Darien Gap (Photo: Wikipedia)
The Darien Gap is one of those archetypal wild places.

A corridor of jungle between Panama and Colombia roamed by guerrillas and narcotraffickers and home to great natural biodiversity, the Darien is the one untamed segment left between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. Bicyclists making the epic tour from one end of the Americas to the other have to get off for this one stretch and take a ferry between the Panamanian and Colombian coasts.

But that may soon change, because of a thirst for money and electricity. Colombia and Panama are planning to build a power line to carry electricity from Colombia, which abounds with hydroelectric power, to Panama and eventually as far north as Mexico.

The economic incentives are clear and immediate, but the environmental and social impacts will come only later.

A native Embera girl in
Panama's Darien Province.
(Photo; Wikipedia)
Chopping a 100-kilometer long corridor thru this legendary jungle will inevitably destroy it. The electrical corridor will not only become a barrier to animal migration, but also an invasion route for illegal farmers, miners and hunters. Deforestation and fires, already taking place, will accelerate and spread out from the power line, driving many native species to extinction. The invasion of construction workers, miners and loggers will bring alcohol, prostitution and fatal diseases to the native Embera-Wounaan and Kuna peoples, who will be decimated.

Plans for the $450 million project are supposed to be finalized next year, and it's projected to start operating in 2018, generating some $250 million in annual income for Colombia.

Deforestation is already going on in the
Darien region.
(Photo: VillalonSantaMaria)
I haven't found specific plans for the cable's route. But, while an undersea route would be much more environmentally sound, an overland route would be much cheaper.

Guess which path the Colombian and Panamanian governments are likely to choose?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Why the SITP is Failing, in 12 Photos

Anybody in there?
In the quiet Teusaquillo neighborhood this afternoon I came upon this long line of blue SITP buses. What was this army of buses doing on a slow Sunday afternoon in this drowsy neighborhood?

As the photos below show, the buses weren't doing much that was useful. Most were completely empty, while a few carried a couple of lonely passengers. This long row, I suspect, contained more buses than passengers.

Another empty bus.
What makes a company send out a fleet of buses even where there are no passengers? The bus owners aren't stupid, so it must be distorted rules and incentives. Are the SITP operators paid for each kilometer their buses travel, rather than the number of passengers they carry? Or, do their contracts require them to cover certain routes, no matter whether or not anybody actually wants to go there?

The SITP is the brainchild of Mayor Petro, and Bogotá badly needs a rationally-designed bus system with clean, efficient vehicles and respectful drivers. But it also needs to be rational and economically sustainable, and the SITP clearly is not that. Petro seems to believe that propaganda and wishful thinking can make things work. But we live in a world of profits and losses, and unless the SITP has the former, it won't last long.

And another empty bus.
Rather than rationalizing the SITP, Petro plans to apply the Pico y Placa rule to the traditonal buses, keeping them off of the road some days every week, thus driving more passengers to the SITP buses. That might work, but making the SITP system more attractive would be a better solution. More sensible, even, would be to take the highly-polluting buses, whether traditional buses, SITPs or TransMillenio vehicles, off of the road. Then, the city would be reducing congestion and also saving our lungs.
Yet another empty bus.

I think I see passengers in this one. Hallelujah!

A single traditional bus does have a few passengers.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The New 'Green' (and Gray) Ave. Septima

Cars occupy Ave. Septima's new 'bus lane.'
Cars compete with buses for space in the bus lane.
Bogotá city governments have often promised to remake Carrera Septima, which is the city's most iconic street, despite its chaos, pollution and daily congestion.

But none of the plans, for a TransMilenio line, light rail or a subway, have materialized. The Petro administration's latest idea, a low-budget plan to add a bus-only lane, is a good one - if the city would only actually implement it. Together with making transport more sustainable, the city also placed 'green' roofs featuring on some of the bus shelters. Unfortunately, the street has few bus shelters.

As far as the bus lane, it's unfortunately business as usual on Ave. Septima's 'bus lane.' City Hall announced this plan a few months ago as part of its new transit policy. And, bus lanes are a quick and cheap way - in principle - to increase road capacity. But on a Friday afternoon near the Parque Nacional and La Javeriana University I saw no sign of police trying to enforce the policy, or of drivers respecting it.

The bus lane also boasts 'green' bus shelters like this one, with living roofs.

Plants grow amongst pebbles on a bus shelter's roof.
La Javeriana University also plans to get in on the act, with this lawn on the roof of one of its new buildings, as in this drawing. 
But many bus stops lack shelters - incomprehensibly in a rainy, chilly city.

And, no matter how green they are painted, not all the buses are actually 'green.' Here, like everywhere, Petro's 'humane' Bogotá does not include breathable air.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hidden Women Revealed!

The controversial 'Mujeres Ocultas' (Hidden Women) exhibition which was opposed by conservative Catholic organizations is on display now in the Museo Santa Clara a block south of Plaza Bolivar. The conservative organizations filed 86 tutelas, or lawsuits, against the exhibition's opening in the museum - which was a church attached to a convent - because of the works' erotic content. The artist, Maria Eugenia Trujillo, mixes and erotic and sacred to represent how women have been 'held in custody, cloistered, forced to submit,' according to the museum.

A museum guide said that each year the Santa Clara selects three outside exhibitions related to the museum's content and history. And Trujillo's work is certainly related. After all, the nuns of this convent were permanently cloistered: once they entered, they never saw the outside world again. Above and at one end of the museum's exhibition hall - once the convent's church - is a dark wooden wall with holes in it. Behind this wall sat the nuns so that they could watch the service while remaining unseen. In 1983, the building became a museum and the Catholic Church officially deconcecrated it, making it a secular place. Altho the artworks on display are all religious, the pieces are considered secular cultural artifacts, a museum guide said.

However, the conservative protesters argued that displaying the erotic material in the one-time Catholic church amounted to a desecration and an attack on their faith. A judge ordered the exhibition temporarily closed, but a Cundinamarca court later ruled that it could go ahead.

Like the subjects of most such controversies, the artworks here are quite tame, tamer than what you see most nights on prime-time television.

A display criticizes the Catholic church as repressing women and reducing them to 'a single function: procreation.

The Santa Clara Museum also contains a permanent display of death portraits of the convent's nuns.

Under the church's alter is a crypt, where prominent people were once buried. Other graves were found under the church's floor. All of these remains were moved to the crypt. Recently, the bones were lent to Universidad de los Andes students, who hope to learn from them about common causes of death hundreds of years ago.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What El Tiempo Forgot to Mention

'Successful debut for Aval on the New York Stock Exchange.' Aval's owner, it just so happens, also owns El Tiempo.
If you read yesterday's El Tiempo you learned that Grupo Aval, the huge Colombian banking group, made a successful initial offering on Wall Street - altho it didn't make quite as big a splash as did Alibaba.

'Wall Street welcomes
Grupo Aval's Shares
But Colombia's leading newspaper neglected to mention that Aval and El Tiempo share the same owner, billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento. The news wasn't necessarily distorted - Reuters and Fox business news also described the offering as successful. But you could question the huge spread Sarmiento's newspaper gave his bank. Other Colombian media also reported the offering, but made it their second or third story. 
The website La Silla Vacia also pointed out that El Tiempo has given much less coverage to other stock offerings, including even that of EcoPetrol, Colombia's national oil company, in 2008. La Silla Vacia also observed that El Tiempo gave flattering attention to a highway project in which Sarmientos has interests.

El Tiempo has the right to splash whatever it wants across its pages, and readers have the right to judge the paper's credibility. But in the United States and other nations it's basic journalistic ethics to mention possible conflicts of interest in reporting. Take, for example, the Washington Post's coverage of Amazon Corp. and its owner Jeff Bezos, who bought the newspaper last year.

When Sarmiento, Colombia's richest man with a fortune of $17 billion, purchased El Tiempo in 2012 he probably saw it mostly as a trophy. But when he did so, he promised that the paper's coverage would not be biased by his business interests. Now, the more that he uses it to blow his own horn, the less respect it'll bring him. 

For its part, El Tiempo's smaller but older rival El Espectador has belonged since 1997 to Colombia's second-richest family, the Santo Domingos. A glance at El Espectador's coverage of one of the family's other prominent properties, La Cerveceria Bavaria, finds a lot of flattering coverage, including the information that Colombia's beer consumption is still relatively low. 

I'll wait with bated breath for El Tiempo to do an exposé on Grupo Aval or one of its banks, or for El Espectador to uncover corruption inside Bavaria.

Latin American journalism, unfortunately, is known for corruption and favoring special interests. The ownership of Colombia's two most important newspapers by its two richest families is a test for whether journalistic ethics can stand up to economic interests, and the results don't look so encouraging.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Procurador's Myths

Eight Myths of Drug Legalization, by the Procuraduria.
Colombia's right-wing Procurador, Alejandro Ordoñez, a notorious figure in leftist circles, recently published a report listing the 'Eight Myths of Drug Legalization.' (In case you didn't know it, Ordoñez fervently opposes drug legalization.)

But many of Ordoñez's 'arguments' seem to be myths themselves.

Take Ordoñez's argument that the War on Drugs has not failed, because consumption of some drugs has declined, as has Colombian production of cocaine and heroin.

Ordoñez's statements are true enough. But while United States consumption of cocaine has decline, European consumption has apparently risen. And, meanwhile, U.S. consumption of synthetic drugs has risen.

Meanwhile, by the measures of price and purity, heroin and cocaine have become more available in recent decades, according to the British Medical Journal, which is probably a more objective and academic source than is Colombia's Procurador.

The price (blue line) of heroin in the U.S. has declined over recent years, while purity (red line) has held steady. (Source: British Medical Journal)
The price (blue line) of cocaine in the U.S. was about the same in 2009 as in 1990, as was the drug's purity (red line). (Source: British Medical Journal)
The British Medical Journal's report concluded that "With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

Ordoñez also points out that drugs can be very bad for you - which is something that nobody, including legalization advocates, disputes. Rather, the advocates of drug decriminalization or legalization argue that, as bad as drugs can be, prohibitionism has made the situation worse.

Ordoñez also attacks the 'myth' that legalization doesn't increase drug consumption. Whether that's a 'myth' or not is itself debatable. After all, experts disagree over whether or not drinking declined during the U.S.'s alcohol Prohibition era. I personally agree with Ordoñez that legalization will probably increase consumption of many drugs, but that's not really the issue. The issue is whether prohibition's huge cost is blood and money is worth whatever decrease in consumption it's accomplished.

Ordoñez also disputes the idea that people arrested for drugs are not overcrowding prisons and busting government budgets (not to mention ruining lots of people's lives). Needless to say, in the U.S. at least, minorities tend to be punished disproportionately for drug crimes.

Here's graph from The Sentencing Project, which opposes harsh sentences for drug crimes.
The number of people imprisoned for drug crimes in the U.S. has boomed over the past decades.
In his sixth 'myth' Ordoñez argues, bizarrely, that legalization will not enable governments to regulated now-prohibited substances. But don't governments now regulate legal drugs such as caffeine, tobacco and alcohol? Not perfectly, of course, but I see tobacco and alcohol paying taxes and being sold with health warnings.

During the U.S.'s alcohol Prohibition era, of course, things changed dramatically, as drinking was done illegally and Mafia violence boomed, thanks to the profits of smuggled alcohol.

Ordoñez's seventh point argues that the War on Drugs can be won. In invite the Sr. Procurador to provide a single example of a drug war victory - at least outside of a tyrannical nation which imposes the death penalty for drug offenses.

Ordoñez's eigth and final 'myth is that 'moral arguments cannot be used in the debate on drug legalization.' Of course they can be used. But secular governments should base their policies not on the religious code of ethics which Ordoñez uses, but on the concrete costs and benefits of its policies.

Drug prohibition has, of course, accomplished some things. It's raised the price of drugs, making them less accessible, and so probably reduced consumption. However, that has come at a huge cost in government expenditures, violence, corruption and ruined lives. Those are costs which must be weighed against drug prohibition's questionable benefits.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Physical Activities Fair in La Nacho

In the National University, students are known more for getting their exercise by hurling objects at the police. But today they were instead doing aerobics and gymnastics in the Plaza del Ché, itself a common site of political protests. What would Ché Guevara think of all this?

Bull-riding under Ché's gaze.
This was the first time I'd seen anybody fencing in Colombia.

Here comes the inflatable shark!
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours