Friday, January 30, 2015

The Colombian Antarctic?

The Colombian ship ARC 20 de Julio among Antarctic icebergs.
The Colombian scientific ship ARC 20 de Julio arrival in Antarctica made waves back home.

Malpelo Island: Colombia's gateway to Antarctica?
But is anybody asking what in the world Colombian scientists are doing on the white continent? Can Colombians, experienced in tropical research, really contribute anything amid snow and ice, where scientists from the United States, Britain, Russia and other nations have been carrying out studies for decades?

Looking toward Antarctica? A booby bird
on Colombia's Malpel Island.
The expedition's website's slogan is 'In search of our own white south.' Does this mean that Colombia is buying into the bizarre 1956 'Teoria da Defrontação' dreamed up by Brazilians desperate for a way to claim a piece of the southern continent. The Teoria holds that any South American nation with territory with an ocean sightline to Antarctica can claim at least a sliver of the continent. Colombia's tiny, uninhabited Malpelo Island just barely meets that criteria. No matter that it's thousands of
Malpelo Island. Withinsight of Antarctica?
miles away, north of the Equator and that no flake of snow has ever fallen on Malpelo, some might see it as justifying a claim on Antarctica.

Needless to say, Brazil's Teoria da Defrontação has not gotten much international legal traction. Antarctica remains a scientific reserve, belonging to nobody.

And it's hard to believe that these researchers couldn't have done lots more valuable science if they'd stayed home and visited Colombia's Amazon, one of the world's most biodiverse places, and one where many or most of the plant and animal species have never been studied.
Colombian jungle. Full of unstudied biodiversity.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How Quickly Friendship Fades

Side-by-side, but far apart. Presidents Santos and Maduro last year.
In 2010, Pres. Santos angered conservatives by calling Venezuela's then-Pres. Hugo Chávez "my new best friend." After all, Chávez led a nation which had apparently financed Colombian guerrillas and even threatened Colombia with war just a few years before. But Santos wanted both Venezuela's trade and its support in peace negotiations he hoped to start with the FARC guerrillas.

My, how things change.

Today, those negotiations appear to be on the road to success; Cuba, the negotiations' host, is making friends with the United States, reducing Venezuela's leverage. And Venezuela's economy is in a tailspin, nullifying its political and economic influence.

Visits prohibited? Leopold Lopez turns himself
in to police in Feb. 2014.
That's why Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally found the backbone to criticize Caracas's latest disrespect for human rights, when it denied Colombian ex-Pres. Andrés Pastrana, accompanied by ex-presidents of Chile and Mexico, the right to visit an imprisoned Venezuelan opposition politician.

That politician, Leopoldo Lopez, was mayor of part of Caracas and later become a leading presidential contender. But in 2004 the Venezuelan government banned Lopez from politics using a dubious ruling which has been criticized by multiple human rights organizations. Then, last February, Lopez was arrested on a grab-bag of dubious charges such as 'instigation of delinquency, damage to public property, incitement to riot, homicide, and terrorism', based on Lopez's support of anti-government protests, some of which had turned violent. In most democracies, it would seem, supporting protests is a civil right and those who had committed violence would be prosecuted.

Many human rights advocates have called Lopez's detention politically motivated, and see it as another sign of Venezuela's increasing authoritarianism.

That Lopez is really a political prisoner, even a hostage, became clear a few weeks ago, when Venezuelan Pres. Maduro offered to exchange him for a Puerto Rican independence activist imprisoned in the U.S. Maduro's proposal also erased any doubts that Venezuela's courts are anything but puppets of the president.

And, under both Venezuelan law and international norms, a prisoner has a right to receive visitors.

Maduro accused Colombian ex-Pres. Pastrana and the other two conservative ex-leaders of promoting a coup and being financed by narcotrafficking money. Such wild, baseless, slanderous charges are par for the course for the Venezuelan government, but Colombia has traditionally stayed mute about Venezuela's trampling of its own democracy. This time, however, Colombia's foreign ministry responded by demanding respect for its ex-president, but went on to express hope that Lopez would "recover his liberty as soon as possible."

Opining on Venezuela's internal affairs was certain to ruffle feathers, and it did. Maduro called it a setback for relations. Colombia should not care. As things are going in Venezuela, repression appears likely to grow much worse before things improve, and Colombia and other neighbors will be .morally bankrupt if they do not criticize the situation.

A frightening case in point is this week's resolution issued by Venezuela's Ministry of Defense authorizing the military to "use potentially mortal force, whether with firearms or other ppotntially mortal avoid disorders, support the legitimate authority and reject all aggression, confronting it immediately with the necessary means."

That's a terrifying resolution, because it enables an authoritarian government to employ deadly violence against its own people on just about any pretext. After all, the people carrying the firearms will be deciding whether the 'disorders' and 'aggression' require the use of deadly force.

"The only interpretation one can make is that it's an attempt to intimidate the population and impede them from protesting," Roberto Briceño León, coordinator of the Venezuela Observatory of Violence, said on a Caracas radio program.

Tourists Go Home?

Loving Venezuela? Or loving to escape from it?
Can't help mentioning this. Marketing a nation with one of the world's highest homicide rates and severe shortages of basic goods to tourists must be quite a challenge. So, give the Venezuelans points for trying.

But one of their latest campaigns may have backfired. It shows a young, foreign-looking man being enthusiastically embraced by a woman.

'We love Venezuela because we receive foreigners like one of our own,' boasts the accompanying text.

Inconveniently, however, it turns out that the young man is Miami Herald correspondent Jim Wyss, and the picture was taken when he returned home from Venezuela last November after being detained for 48 hours and interrogated by military intelligence officers.

After Wyss recognized himself in the photo, Venezuela's tourism ministry removed the pic from its website.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Good and Bad Sexploitation?

 A step up for Colombian women? The new Miss Universe, Colombian Paulina Vega, in all her glory.
The El Espectador and El Tiempo newspapers sold out early yesterday, thanks to the crowning of Paulina Vega as Miss Universe.

Should Colombians be proud that this young woman from Barranquilla was crowned the prettiest
Tabloids celebrate Colombia's
Miss Universe victory.
woman on Earth? Should Colombians cheer that their women are honored for their looks and curves, rather than their brains and abilities?

In response to a question about what women could learn from men, Vega opined that many men do believe in gender equity, and that women could learn that from men. Admittedly, beauty queens are not known for their intellectual depth, but that response strikes me as remarkably off base. Presumably, women should by nature believe more strongly in gender equity and not need to learn that from men. And, by perpetuating shallow, stereotypical images of women, is Vega doing anything to reduce such gender inequity?
Evidently, Colombia's got a ways to go to reduce inequity. The 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index ranked Colombia 38th out of 108 nations surveyed, but behind most of the other Latin American nations. In 2013, the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index ranked Colombia 91st out of 186 nations. And gender violence - most notoriously acid attacks - remains a huge problem here.

And what about the contrast between the celebration of Vega's victory and the (very justified) outrage over the recent Miss Tanguita, or Little Miss Thong, beauty contest held in the town of Barbosa, featuring 6 to 10-year-old girls.

A step forward for girls? A Little Miss Tanga contestant parades before a drunken crowd.
While a world of difference exists between children and adults exhibiting their bodies, the two contests promote the same values of beauty and sexuality. If Little Miss Thong is damaging because of the way it exploits young girls and celebrates the wrong values, can Miss Universe be so different?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bogotá's Public Bikes - Stuck in Park

A delivery cyclist rides beside traffic in the Santa Fe neighborhood. Is Bogotá ready for public bikes?
On Friday, Bogotá suspended for at least the third time bidding for a public bicycles program.

Bicyclist fill the street during the Sunday Ciclovia.
Cycling isn't so popular the rest of the week.
The program's non-start is not only a failure of the public bikes program, but another decline in Bogotá's status as a cycling leader.

Creating a public bikes program has been a long-time dream for sustainable transport advocates here. A few years ago, they even tried out a pilot programs, which revealed interest in the service. Since then, there have been repeated plans and predictions.

However, despite repeated promises, no public bikes have hit the streets. (The District Institute for Sports and Recreation, the IDRD, does lend bikes in a few spots in the city, but their program is limited and not designed for transport. Go figger.)

Public bikes on Jimenez Ave. They are to be used only on specific
streets and are not intended for transport. (Go figger.)
Over the past few weeks, Bogotá put a planned public bicycles system, consisting of some 1,500
bikes, out for bid. However, only two consortia made offers: One of them has little apparent experience in anything; the second's experience is principally in garbage collection, and its owner has a history of corruption problems and recently supplied defective garbage trucks to Bogotá.

To City Hall's credit, it did not sign a contract with either company. But why can't Bogotá, a big city with a growing economy, manage to set up an economically-sustainable public bikes program? After all, metropolises including Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; Mexico City and even archrival Medellin all have public bicycles.

A cyclist wearing a pollution mask. Dirty air makes
cycling unpleasant - and even bad for you.
Is it because Mayor Petro, a one-time leftist guerrilla leader, suffers particular challenges in working with private businesses? Or do potential bidders, particularly operators of public bike programs in other cities, feel that Bogotá's crime, weather or vehicular chaos doom such a program to failure here?

Once upon a time, more than a decade ago, Bogotá was seen as a leader in the developing world in the promotion of bicycling. But in the last dozen years cities, Bogotá's bike lane network has been neglected, public bikes have not materialized and other cities around the region have made strides in cycling.

Sadly, the Colombian capital's inability to get its act together and make public bikes a reality may be symptomatic of a loss of drive and ingenuity from the days when Bogotá was celebrated as a leader in urban renewal.

'Latin America's best cycle paths network.' But other cities are building.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, January 23, 2015

W.W.1 in Colombia: The Battle for the Transmitter

The battle scene today: Cerro de la Popa outside of
Cartagena still has transmitters on it.
(Photo from El Sol newspaper.)
The First World War, which raged one hundred years ago across Europe, never reached Latin America. Unlike the bigger, bloodier Second World War, during the first war no sea battles were fought off of South America and almost all of the Latin nations remained neutral.

The Transocean newspaper supported neutrality and
opposed Colombia entering the war on the Allied side.
Here, an admiring photo of  German military leaders.
(Photo taken in an exhibition in the
Claustro de San Agustin museum.)

However, the epic struggle of the Allied Powers: England, France, Russia and later the United States against the Central Powers: Germany and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, did send shock waves across this continent, including Colombia.

At the war's start, Colombia found itself in a tug-of-war between the two sides' sympathizers. But many Colombians apparently favored the Germans, thanks to prominent German-Colombian businessmen, including Leo Kopp, founder of the Cerveceria Bavaria and strong trade ties. Also, in that era England was the world's great lending nation, and, naturally, there's always resentment against bankers. Thirdly, in 1915 Colombia was still smarting from its loss of Panama, engineered by U.S. Pres. Teddy Roosevelt. So, the natural association of the U.S. and Great Britain also pushed sympathies toward the Central Powers.

Normally, wars mean boom years for natural resource suppliers such as Colombia. However, at the start of the First World War (then known as The Great War), Britain used its fleet to blockade Germany, cutting South America off from one of its biggest customers. Also, with the war's start, credit and therefore trade dried up.

'Defending neutrality.' Colombian politicians opposed
entering the war on the Allied side.
Most likely, Germany's invasion of tiny, neutral Belgium and Geman massacres of civilians in Belgium and France, hardened feelings toward the Central Powers. Eventually, the United States' entry into the war on the side of England increased pressure to side with the allies. But Colombia stayed neutral.

But Colombia did experience at least one conflict between Allied and Central Powers forces, altho not a violent one. In 1909, Colombia had given a 50-year lease of 5,000 hectares in Urabá Department to a German colonization company, the Casa Albingia, which promised to build a huge banana growing and exporting operation there. The Germans set to work preparing land and laying down railroad tracks - as well as constructing a wireless telegraph transmitter on the Cerro de la Popa in Cartagena.

The German operations worried the Americans for economic reasons - they were a rival to the American-owned United Fruit Co., which would play its own notorious role in Colombian history - and they worried the English for strategic reasons: The German wireless station could transmit and pick-up messages from all over the world. Also, Germany had a steamship, the Oscar, nearby equipped with wireless gear capable of monitoring messages from the Panama Canal region.

English and U.S. pressure resulted in the Oscar being brought into port and its wireless gear dismantled. An international oversight team was installed in the Cerro de la Popa. And the Casa Albingia packed up its belongings, laid off its approximately 1,000 employees and departed Colombia. The battle of the transmitter was a clear Allied victory, but in Europe the war would drag on until 1918 and kill some 10 million people.

The First World War's economic devastation caused a huge shift in global political and economic influence from Great Britain to the United States, and its slaughter reduced Latin Americans' admiration for Europe, which many had admired as a land of art and culture.

The Allies, of course, won the war, and Colombia eventually patched up relations with the U.S. The German banana planting operation was never resumed.

Source: Duelo entre Alemanes y Gringos

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Crime and Punishment

Ignoring the police, pedestrians attack a supposed thief today on Calle 13 and Ave. Caracas.
When a criminal gets caught red handed on Bogotá's streets, he doesn't have only the police to fear: Passers-by also take the law - or, rather, street justice, into their own hands.

The guy WAS guilty. After a few more
kicks, he produced a gold-colored
chain he'd grabbed.
Without justifying lynching, one can still try to understand people's attitude. Reports of many crimes, including muggings and robberies and even homicide, rose last year, El Tiempo reported here and here. That's paradoxical with a growing economy, which presumably would have more people working legitimate jobs. The police suggest that crimes did not rise, but that reporting did. Or, the three-month judicial strike, which left many accused criminals on the street, may also have influenced things.

What is certain is a general anxiety about crime, and a common belief that even when criminals are arrested, they're freed the next day. So, some people try to apply punishment with their own hands. Literally.

This happened on Carrera Septima the other day. But the police's motives for grabbing the youth weren't clear. One observer thot he'd stolen a bike that was nearby. Others speculated that one or both of the young women present had accused him of attacking her, and then repented.

'Let my man go!'
'He's my man, too!'
But these cops had no intention of freeing the youth.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Forget the Peace Dividend?

No budget worries in peacetime? Colombian soldiers in training.
In yet another move to buy the military's support for a likely peace deal with the guerrillas, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas tells the Wall Street Journal that post-peace treaty Colombia will not cut defense spending.

That makes no strategic sense, of course, since Colombia faces no significant foreign threats (and less than ever, with Venezuela's soldiers patrolling supermarkets). But it does make sense for a government determined to keep military leaders backing the peace negotiations which would make them less relevant. Colombia has already been criticized by human rights advocates for broadening military courts' jurisdiction for crimes committed by soldiers.

No new hi-tech toys, please.
Not cutting back South America's second-largest military budget (after only that of the much-larger Brazil) also makes no sense when Colombia is scrambling to stretch its budget in the face of plummeting world oil prices. Does it really make sense to pay soldiers rather than, say, doctors, schoolteachers or construction workers on Bogotá's much-dreamed-of metro system?

Besides all of that, peace will bring tens of billions of dollars of its own costs, including rural investment and integrating ex-fighters into society.

Last year, Colombia spent 3.4% of its gross domestic product on the military, actually an increase from the previous year. That's apparently not including the huge police force, which often carries out military-like functions. In contrast, Venezuela spent 1.2% of its GDP on its military, Brazil 1.4% and Ecuador 3%. Argentina spent 0.7% and tiny Uruguay 1.9%. None of those nations got invaded, so what's Colombia worried about? (All numbers come from The World Bank.)

The $15 billion which Colombia budgets for defense is about the same that it spends on its educational system, which badly needs a boost.

Of course, Colombia will get other important benefits from any peace deal, including reduced violence, expanded government control of remote parts of the country, a better international image and an estimated 2% increase in economic growth. Pres. Santos has also said that he will end obligatory military service for young men. That would end a patently unjust system, since the wealth pay their way out of service.

But if Colombia intends to maintain its military budget after the armed conflict ends, please God don't let them blow the money on useless hi-tech toys like fighter jets and submarines. In peacetime, Colombian soldiers can play a useful role patrolling against illegal mining and logging, not to mention protecting neighborhoods from the criminal gangs which will continue trafficking Colombian cocaine.

In the same WSJ interview, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said as much. Hopefully, the government will match its words with pesos.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Disaster Repeats in Venezuela

Coming again soon? 1989 'Caracazo' riots in Caracas, Venezuela.
Venezuelans wait for hours outside a supermarket.
The supermarket shelves are bare - and yet customers sleep overnight outside stores hoping to find something to buy. Inflation is nearing three digits. Civil rights are being suffocated. And things will only get worse.

Government arrogance and incompetence has turned Venezuela into an economic and political disaster area, causing great hardship for Venezuela's 24 million people. And if Venezuela implodes, it'll mean great hardship for Colombia as well.

Last year, Venezuela already boasted the world's highest inflation rate, and widespread shortages of basic goods like coffee, milk, diapers and toilet paper. Then, the price of petroleum, which provides 95% of Venezuela's foreign revenue, nosedived. Today, Venezuela looks increasingly likely to default on payments to both international lenders and to Venezuelans themselves.

Empty shelves in a Venezuelan supermarket.
Pres. Maduro, whose public support is below 28% percent and dropping, has no solutions. His recent begging trip to China and the Middle East produced scant results, and he appears to lack confidence to apply the hard medicine the economy needs to staunch the financial hemorrhaging - devaluing the currency, lifting price controls and eliminating gasoline subsidies, among other measures - because he knows they'd fuel protests. But the alternative - letting things get worse and worse - is setting the stage for a monumental economic implosion and social explosion.

Paralyzed, Maduro has already postponed his annual state-of-the-nation speech twice, because he has nothing to offer.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez, fears making necessary economic adjustments for another reason: Because they would call into question the legitimacy of his so-called 'socialist revolution.' Chavismo traces its roots to the 1989 Caracazo - huge riots triggered by government removal of subsidies on gasoline and other goods. Thousands of people were killed, some by government forces. The discontent fueled the movement which swept Chavez to the presidency a decade later.

Today, Maduro's government is setting the nation up to repeat 1989's catastrophe - but on a larger scale. Gasoline is even more heavily subsidized, and the country is almost completely dependent on oil income, which is dropping precipitously. (Of course, when it all comes crashing down, Maduro & Co. will blame the disaster they created on the United States and neoliberalism.)

When Venezuela implodes, the victims will include Colombia. Venezuela is historically Colombia's second-largest trade partner after the U.S., but a collapsed economy doesn't buy much stuff. And Venezuelan refugees will rush across the border, fleeing lawlessness and desperate for livelihoods. Amid the chaos, narcotrafficking and other crimes will flourish.

Is there a way for Caracas to avoid this calamity? It's hard to see it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, January 19, 2015

One Last Chance for Terror Victims

During the 1990s, the Nigerian government brutally repressed residents of the Ogoni Niger River Delta who were protesting against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company's efforts to drill for oil in the region.

The details of who did what on whose orders in that far away place and time may now determine whether victims of Colombian paramilitaries receive compensation from the Chiquita banana company in United States courts.

Victims of the Nigerian repression sued Shell, an Anglo-Dutch multinational, in U.S. courts, using a 1789 statue known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. The victims accused Shell of being behind the Nigerian government repression. But a U.S. court ruled that the case did not fall under U.S. jurisdiction because the events had occurred outside of the U.S. and the defendant was also a foreign company.

Relatives cry at the funeral of victims of a 1998 paramilitary
massacre in the oil town of Barranabermeja.
The ruling was important, because it limited the jurisdiction of the Tort Claims Act by creating a
presumption that the statute did not apply extraterritorially.

The ruling dealt a blow to Colombian victims of illegal armed groups who claim that U.S. companies, including Coca Cola, Drummond Coal Co. and Chiquita banana, promoted and financed rights violations and should compensate victims in Colombia.

So far, in part because of the ruling in the Nigerian case, the Colombian plaintiffs have lost. However, the strongest of those cases, against Chiquita banana, is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paramilitary fighters pose for a photographer.
In the Chiquita case, the wrong seems almost undeniable. The company has admitted that between 1997 and 2004 it handed over $1.7 million to outlawed Colombian paramilitary groups, labeled terrorists by the U.S. and Colombian governments. (Previously, it had made payments to leftist guerrillas while they controlled the region around its banana plantations.) Chiquita paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government, but nothing to the victims in Colombia. Chiquita also proceeded to sell its Colombian plantations. While Chiquita was paying off the paramilitaries, those groups murdered and robbed peasants and drove them off of their lands.

The paramilitaries' victims allege that Chiquita bears responsibility for the crimes committed by the illegal groups it helped finance. Chiquita disagrees. As a Chiquita spokesman told journalists: 'Chiquita has great sympathy for the Colombians who suffered at the hands of these Colombian armed groups, but the responsibility for the violent crimes committed in that country belongs to the perpetrators, not to the innocent people and companies they extorted.'

Chiquita no longer has banana farms in Colombia,
according to this image from its website.
Chiquita argues that it had no choice but to pay off the illegal groups in order to protect its employees from kidnapping and murder. But of course Chiquita did have a choice: to leave Colombia, as it ultimately did. Those suing Chiquita allege that the company paid off the paramilitaries in return for benefits such as repressing union activists.

Not all recent rulings in Alien Tort Act cases have gone against plaintiffs. In one, a district court ruled that Ugandan member of a sexual minority group could sue a U.S. citizen who had allegedly encouraged Ugandan officials to persecute sexual minorities in that nation. But that case may be different because, among other reasons, the defendant is a person, not a corporation. Another key issue may be whether any decisions to support abuses were made in the U.S. or overseas.

The victims' chances in U.S. courts appear slim. But they have few other options for compensation. Since Chiquita sold its Colombian plantations, there are no assets they can sue for here, where the atrocities were committed.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, January 16, 2015

Calle 26: Street of Theatre

You'll feel a little less bored these days while stuck in the usual traffic jam on Calle 26, thanks to these two pairs of street performers working consecutive stoplights. (The daredevils also entertain the occasional bike tourist.)

These two guys are from Brazil, as their jerseys suggest.

Street theatre is difficult and tiring work. The performers have to fit their whole act into the brief minutes of the stoplights' cycle and leave enough time to hustle for coins.

Now it's time to ask for tips before the cars move.

 One intersection east, this Colombo-Argentinian couple was juggling....

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Homeless Man and the Monument

On Los Martires Plaza today I noticed these tell-tale clothes on the monument to Colombian patriots executed by the Spaniards during the revolutionary era.

Soon, the clothes' owner appeared: A homeless man who's apparently taken up residence in the monument. Remember that this is an extremely important monument, hallowed ground immortalizing the people who gave their lives to make an independent Colombia possible. But now it's an illegal homeless residence.

 The police and soldiers nearby don't appear to care....

The Iglesia del Voto Nacional, built in gratitude after the end of the Thousand Days War, is being repaired and renovated.

On the plaza today, homeless men listened to an evangelical service and then received lunch. How sincere is their faith?

A homeless drug addict on the plaza.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours