Friday, February 27, 2015

Venezuela Vs. Colombia's Media
Disparaging - but a coup? (From Semana magazine)
Maduro says that paramilitaries
infiltrate from Colombia.
His popularity at 20%, his nation's economy in collapse, and his democratic credentials increasingly questioned, Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro is fighting back - against the Colombian media.

When Semana magazine cartoonist Vladdo published a cartoon portraying Venezuela's coat of arms with a sickly horse, empty cornucopia and empty branches, Maduro was ready.

"I reject the campaign of manipulation, lies and hate in Colombia against Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, against Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution," Maduro thundered over a national 'cadena' (chain), when all Venezuelan radio and television stations are required to carry his speeches.

Madura offensive against
the Colombian press.
Whether Vladdo's portrayal is accurate or not - and it sure seems true that Venezuelan shelves are empty and its people discouraged - the context is revealing. Maduro attacked Colombian media by enslaving (literally 'chaining) a Venezuelan media which has already been tamed by official threats, intimidation and lawsuits.

Over the past several years, the Venezuelan government has progressively taken away broadcasting licenses and bought out critical broadcasters and newspapers. Surviving independent papers struggle to obtain paper to print on. And the famed opposition opinion paper Tal Cual, run by old leftist Teodoro Petkoff, it switching from being a daily to a weekly under the burden of government lawsuits, lack of advertising and lack of newsprint.

So it's not surprising that Maduro, used to a pliant and passive media back home, would object to a critical one next door.

At the same time, of course, everything Colombian provides Maduro with a convenient target to attack. In that respect, Maduro's use of the term 'Santanderean oligarchy' is also telling. Maduro was referring to Colombian revolutionary hero and president Francisco de Paula Santander, who broke with Simon Bolivar after independence and is famous for telling Colombians that 'Weapons have given you independence, but laws will give you liberty.' In contrast to Santander, after independence Bolivar wanted to discard the Constitution and make himself lifetime president - much as the Chavez-Maduro dynasty, whch has ruled for 16 years, has done in Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fired for Truth-Telling?

Yohir Akerman, ex-columnist. 
For years, Yohir Akerman wrote often polemical columns for Medellin's El Colombiano newspaper - columns often critical of religion and even of the newspaper's other columnists.

But when Akerman dared to suggest that the Good Lord could be - horrors of horrors - mistaken, he got ousted from the paper.

Akerman's latest and last column arose from the recent flap over the Universidad de la Sabana's opinion on the issue of adoption by same-sex couples. Sabana University, an elite private school located in north Bogotá, was founded by Opus Dei, the extremely conservative Catholic group. Predictably, the university's medical school recommended against permitting gay adoption. However, it went on to opine that homosexuals could be considered mentally ill, a position long since rejected by the medical establishment. The retrograde view on gay people brought the university so much criticism
that it issued a retraction.

In his newspaper columns, Akerman quoted Old Testament verses prescribing the
El Colombiano
death penalty - often by stoning - for adulterers, rebellious children, women who are not virgins at marriage and other 'wrongdoers.' He also also cited Bible verses endorsing slavery.

"All of these concepts are in the Bible," Akerman concluded, "and as history has demonstrated on these subjects, god was mistaken."

The newspaper appended this convoluted message to the column: 'Note from the directors: This newspaper promotes debate from respect and good arguments. We consider that this column strays from those principles. For the author, not publishing the column would mean his resignation. We publish it and accept his resignation.'

The directors did not explain why quoting the Bible constituted a lack or respect or good argument.

The Bible: Infallible?
Semana magazine quotes Akerman as saying that the paper's director criticized him particularly for not capitalizing the word 'god' and for asserting that God was mistaken.

In Sabana University's defense, it's not explicitly clear that its criticism of same-sex adoption was based on religious ideas. In fact, it doesn't seem unreasonable that growing up in a heterosexual family, which has been the norm for much of human and pre-human evolution, would be better for kids. But it also seems obvious that a loving, supportive family of any type is much better than an abusive one or being warehoused in an orphanage.

And the studies I've seen show that children of same-sex couples tend to out-perform those of heterosexual couples for a simple reason having little to do with the parents' gender or sexual orientation: they have highly-motivated parents who had to make lots of effort to have kids. In contrast, we all know that many heterosexual couples become parents by mistake.

For its part, Akerman's column seems to fall well within the spectrum of reasonable commentary. After all, he primarily quoted the Bible rather than attacking it.

Rather than summarily ousting Akerman, El Colombiano's editors might explain why the Bible is unerring, and therefore that death by stoning is a reasonable punishment for a range of moral 'lapses.'

But while they're at it, El Colombiano might also find itself endorsing a Christian version of the barbaric Islamic State.

As for the court, it ruled that, for now, same-sex couples could adopt only when the child was the biological offspring of one member of the couple, but that the legislature should regulate the issue.

Perhaps such an incremental decision is best in a highly-Catholic nation. In the U.S., when courts made rulings on controversial issues such as racial segregation and abortion it's led to years of conflict. Some things are best decided by the more democratic legislature.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, February 21, 2015

That Mysterious Smog

Here's the view of central Bogotá these days in the morning from the high end of La Candelaria. Smog causes thousands of premature deaths every year in Bogotá alone, but authorities do nothing about it.

According to this blog's secret sources in City Hall, the Petro administration has hired top scientists to clear up the mystery of where this deadly smoke is coming from, in order to finally do something about it. Apparently, these scientists need another 10 or 15 years at least for the job, because pollution sources such as cars, trucks, buses and industry are very difficult to identify, much less sanction, when they have lots of political influence.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cleaning Up the Emerald Industry?

Taking a stand. Emerald dealers march yesterday on Plaza Rosario.
Emerald traders examine loose emeralds
 on the sidewalk by Carrera Septima and Jimenez Ave.,
the city's informal emerald market. 
Bogotá's emerald industry workers protested yesterday against a law which they fear will force them out of business or into illegality.

The law requires emerald workers, all the way from informal miners to exporters, to register and issue receipts and, of course, pay taxes. It also requires certificates of origin on all emeralds stating where they were mined.

The government says the law is intended to formalize an industry historically characterized by illegal and informal mines, as well as relationships with smugglers, drug traffickers, paramilitaries and other illegal groups. Many emerald mines have also historically been dangerous and have illegally employed children. In addition, the big emerald miners, popularly known as 'czars', have sometimes waged violent war among themselves, killing thousands.

Ready to formalize? Emerald miners toil amidst
head and mud. (Photo from: Pacifista)
Many observers have also noted that, despite the huge mines in Muzo and other places, the industry pays few taxes.

But is this law realistic? Are its demands practicable? If not, it will just transform many emerald workers from being being just informal to being outright illegal.

Emeralds in a window of the Emerald Trade Center on Jimenez Ave.
Loose emeralds for sale. 
The Emerald Trade Ceneter on Jimenez Ave. in La Candelaria.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Early Sign of Easter

All those people with crosses daubed onto their foreheads were commemorating Ash Wednesday, the symbolic start of the run-up to the Easter holiday. It's one of the few times when many people are identifiable by their religion, which is usually Catholic here.

The cross is supposed to be created using ashes of last year's palm fronds, representing the fact that we will all be dust one day.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Stupid Solution

Jaime Garzón's mural today.
And back when it was complete.
The mural on Calle 26 of assassinated comedian Jaime Garzón has become one of Bogotá's most iconic. And now it's missing a chunk.

It turns out that the owner of one of the homes behind the mural had objected to the backside of her rear wall being painted over - even tho she could not see it. The woman went to court, and won. Yesterday, a city painter eliminated the offending art from the backside of her rear wall.

I hope she's satisfied now that a corner of the offending mural of the martyred comic, who was shot near here in August 1999, has been eliminated. Perhaps her home feels more comfortable. Unfortunately, the thousands of people who pass the mural every will miss something too.

I hope she's happy. A note on the painted-over wall prohibits painting here. But isn't that what blank walls are for?
This absurd solution, which benefits nobody and hurts many, might have appealed to a comedian such as Garzón. In contrast, the woman who sued apparently lacks all sense of humor.

Now, why doesn't someone sue the city to make it do something with the huge empty lot in front of the mural? Homes and businesses here were demolished during construction of the 26th Street TransMilenio line a few years ago, but the empty lots are still there being nothing more than empty lots.

And where are the complaints about the trashy field?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tough Times for EcoPetrol

A sick iguana?
The price of its main product has plummeted, its reserves are declining, and it's embroiled in a corruption scandal.

These are tough times for Colombia's national oil company, EcoPetrol.

Any company would be devastated if the value of its principle product suddenly dropped by more than half. But the plummeting world oil price comes at an already difficult time for EcoPetrol, which, along with associated private companies, pumps the great majority of Colombia's oil. And oil until recently generated most of Colombia's export revenue.

Colombia's oil reserves - the petroleum underground which could be profitably drilled - is shrinking because of scarce new discoveries. And the plummeting oil price has caused EcoPetrol to slash its exploration budget, meaning that even less new oil will likely be found.

Colombian oil potential during the 1990s.
Things are no longer so rosy.
At the same time, the emblematic Colombian company is embroiled in a mushrooming bribery scandal. Executives of a United States oil services company, PetroTiger, allegedly paid bribes to an EcoPetrol executive's wife in an attempt to obtain valuable contracts.

PetroTiger's founders have been indicted in a U.S. federal court. One of them, as well as a company lawyer, have plead guilty, but the other founder is fighting the charges.

However, the PetroTiger affair may be only the tip of a corruption iceberg inside EcoPetrol, according to news reports.

EcoPetrol's stock value, which had soared about 5,000 pesos in 2013, has dropped to around 2,000 pesos.

The national oil company's troubles have major implications for Colombia's economy, which will lose several points of GDP, as well as its peace process, which requires huge investments to demobilize guerrilla fighters and compensate victims.

Colombia will muddle thru this economic hit, (altho neighbor Venezuela may not be so lucky). But the episode contains valuable - and obvious - lessons, such as 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket,' and 'Develop a diversified economy not based on exporting raw materials.'

That way, Colombia might save its economy - and its environment as well.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, February 13, 2015

My Home is My Prison?

Send them home? Crowded inmates in
prison in Santa Marta. (Photo: El Espectador)
Home confinement, or 'casa por carcel,' is a sensible policy for reducing crowding in Colombia's packed prisons and making punishment more humane for non-violent criminals not likely to re-offend.

However, in at least some recent cases, it's turned into a get-out-of-jail free ticket used by the rich and well-connected to avoid punishment.

At its best, home confinement is a troubled system in Colombia. According to a recent report in El Tiempo, the police are so short-handed that they can visit criminals' homes only once a month or so to make sure they're actually staying there. So, instead, they often just call home telephone numbers - a dubious strategy since relatives' voices may sound similar. (And how many of those convicts turn out to be at home, but just can't come to the phone due to sudden cases of severe constipation?)

The prison system does have several thousand ankle bracelets. But these evidently can be violated, and El Tiempo reports cases in which police have discovered bracelets on the ankles of pet dogs.

And then there are the dubious legal claims about supposed medical problems and being fathers of families, with which vicious criminals have won home detention from suspiciously cooperative judges.

Convicted narcotrafficker and money launderer Marco Antonio Gil, el 'Papero, is now doing time in his luxurious apartment in north Bogotá.
Several recent cases have brought attention to how the policy can be abused:

One is of Inocencio Meléndez, an ex-subdirector of Bogotá's Urban Development Institute (IDU), now in home detention serving a seven-year sentence for corruption. On December 25, two agents of the National Prisons Institute (INPEC) visited his house and rang the doorbell twice without response. The recorded a violation, but Meléndez claims he was there the whole time sleeping. His loyal doorman supports his version of events.

Another is the case of narcotrafficker Marco Antonio Gil, el 'Papero,' who was captured in 2013 and confessed to narcotrafficking, money laundering and illegal enrichment. According to authorities, Gil had been trafficking drugs since the early 1980s. For all that, he was sentenced to only six years in prison. And after serving less than two years and receiving credit for helping in the prison kitchen and doing cleaning work, this week Gil was released to 'serve' the rest of his time in his luxurious apartment in north Bogotá.

Ernesto Manzanera in court. 
But the case which has generated the most ire recently is that of Ernesto Manzanera, 24, a co-pilot with Avianca who according to police was speeding down Bogotá's Autopista Norte early in the morning of Aug. 2 when he slammed into the rear of a car carrying the Carmen family, who were rushing their father to the hospital. All four members of the Carmen family were killed. Manzanera fled the scene in a taxi and turned himself in to police only 12 hours later, when any evidence of drugs or alcohol would have been gone from his system.

Despite the killings and Manzanera's subsequent behavior, judges have awarded him home detention while he awaits trial.

Like so many things in Colombia, the law seems to apply only to 'los de ruana' (the poor people).

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Talking Truth to Turkey

Turkish Pres. Erdoğan and Pres. Santos talk trade yesterday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Bogotá yesterday to met with Pres. Santos to talk about trade and fighting terrorism.

Those are important matters, naturally. And if Santos really wants to curry the Turkish government's favor, perhaps he should start by changing Colombia's name.

That's because Erdogan recently claimed that Muslims discovered America before Christopher Columbus did in 1492.

A pre-Columbian Muslim map supposedly showing America.
"Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus," Erdogan said, according to the Washington Post. "Muslim sailors arrived in America from 1178. Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast."

While it is certainly possible that Muslim Arabs or Africans reached America before Columbus, there's no solid evidence for it, and they certainly did not spread Islam thru the New World. Supporters of the Islamic discovery theory point to a line in Columbus's log referring to sighting a 'Mosque' on the Cuban coast. But no evidence of a pre-Columbian mosque has ever been found, and serious historians generally believe that Columbus used the word to describe a geographical outcropping.

If people from the Old World had really made sustained contact with New World residents, they would surely have left physical, cultural and even genetic evidence. After all, one of the first things different peoples do upon meeting is have sex.

Of course, one European nation, the Vikings, did visit America before Columbus - and we have archaeological evidence of their short-lived settlement on Newfoundland. Archaeologists do also believe that Polynesians visited South America's western coast before Columbus, based on evidence in languages and chicken DNA. If Arabs, Africans, Greeks, Romans or Chinese had really made trading visits to the Americas, we'd find evidence such as Old World products in pre-Columbian graves. And it would have made no sense for the visitors not to have carried home crops such as corn and potatoes which quickly spread across the world after Columbus's voyage, or not to have left behind technology such as the wheel and compass.

But the strongest evidence of lack of significant pre-Columbian contact is the medical one. After the Spanish arrival in the Americas, indigenous Americans died by the millions from new diseases. Some historians estimate that new diseases killed 90% of indigenous Americans. If the Old World and New World peoples had had previous contact, then the Americans would have had immune protection to things like chicken pox.

Erdogan's historical fantasies might not matter any more than do those of people who deny Darwinian evolution. Unfortunately, however, in both cases those who contradict science and history in these cases are also prone to contradict fact about more important issues. Deniers of evolution also tend to reject evidence of global warming, which happens to be about the biggest threat to Earth's well-being. Erdogan does appear to accept global warming. But he does not appear to value free speech and fair elections, which is why he's taking Turkey away from its tradition of secularism and democracy.

In any case, Erdogan's resentment against the Catholicized version of history is perhaps understandable. After all, the Spaniards had just ousted the last Moslems from Spain and proclaimed that the Americas were their reward for cleansing Spain of Jews and Moslems.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Missing Piece of TransMilenio

Trash and faded buildings on Plaza San Victorino, which is bordered by three TransMilenio stations.
Despite what its critics say, Bogotá's TransMilenio express bus system does move millions of people across the city relatively quickly and cheaply. If the system's buses are often overcrowded, it's also true that TransMilenio is way behind its intended expansion. 

But one thing which TransMilenio has not done is bring economic and cultural renaissance to the neighborhoods around many stations, as these scenes attest.

Bogotá's dream of building a subway depends heavily for financing on taxing projected increases in value of real estate neighboring the stations. However, the evident lack of property appreciation around TransMilenio stations makes one wonder whether a subway will have much of an effect, either. 

Of course, the city might do something about this, by subsidizing or providing tax breaks for renovations and new transit-oriented businesses and apartments near bus and, perhaps someday, subway stations.

Naturally, a more pleasant, safer-feeling environment around transit stations encourages more people to use the service.
Faded apartment/office buildings overlook the new San Victorino TransMilenio station on Carrera 10. They've shown no signs of rejuvenation since the station's opening.
Carrera 10, near the big, new Bicentenario TransMilenio station, is lined with pawn shops.
And roamed by prostitutes.
The busy Ave. Jimenez station hasn't done much to bring life to the adjoining Los Martires Plaza. 
Tagged walls face the Centro Memoria station on Calle 26.
An exit from the Bicentenario station leads to the notorious San Bernardino neighborhood.

Perhaps an exception: This apartment tower was just completed beside the Ciudad Universitaria station on Calle 26.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, February 7, 2015

One Less for the Conspiracists?

The grave of Carlos Pizarro in Bogotá's Cementerio Central. His remains were exhumed last November. 
Nearly every prominent killing committed in Colombia has given birth to conspiracy theories:

Was Jorge Eliecer Gaitán killed by the CIA or the KGB rather than a crazy man with a Gaitán

Was Luis Carlos Galán's killing planned by the police who were supposed to be protecting him?
Tiles on Pizarro's tomb thank him for favors received.

Was Pablo Escobar shot down by a United States government agent rather than the Colombian search squad usually credited for his killing?

The grim list of possible conspiracies - some of which are probably true - goes on and on.

But it might be one shorter now. Last November, investigators dug up and examined the skeleton of Carlos Pizarro, the M-19 guerrilla-leader-turned-presidential-candidate shot down in 1990 on board a Bogotá-Barranquilla airline flight. According to the official story, the assassin, Gerardo Gutiérrez Uribe alias "Jerry", had hidden a sub-machine gun inside the plane's bathroom, with which he shot Pizarro 15 times. Pizarro's bodyguards immediately shot down the gunman.

Altho fingers first pointed toward Pablo Escobar, confessions and other evidence have since shown that the killing was ordered by right-wing paramilitaries led by Carlos Castaño.

Carlos Pizarro
But suspicions still swirled around the episode. Was the government involved in the murder? Had one of Pizarro's bodyguards actually killed the leftist leader and then shot the supposed gunman as a cover-up?

Mistakes in the investigation fed the conspiracy theories. Experts failed to carry out ballistic tests on Pizarro's corpse. And, a few years ago, police melted down the sub-machine gun during a routine clean-up.

However, examination of Pizarro's exhumed remains, as well as those of the gunman, seem to show that the gunman did in fact shoot Pizarro. On the other hand, a bullet hole located strangely in the back of the gunman's skull supports eyewitness testimony that Pizarro's bodyguards shot the gunman dead as he lay face-down on the plane's floor begging for mercy.

Was the gunman executed to prevent him from talking about possible government involvement in Pizarro's killing? We may never know for certain. Conspiracy theorists - get working!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Car-Free Day: The Good, the Bad and the Futile

Jimenez Avenue in La Candelaria was crowded with pedestrians this afternoon. Bogotá's brilliant mayor suspended bus service on the avenue between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Today's Car-Free Day saw a big turn-out of cyclists, a bit less pollution and proof that, yes, you really can travel across town without traveling alone in a huge, polluting, gas-guzzling machine.

Cyclists on Carrera Septima. Its bike lane was packed. Hopefully, a few of these people will pedal again tomorrow.
The day's most dramatic change was not the air quality, which reportedly improved by only 5%, or even the traffic which actually moved, but the boom in bicycling. Carrera Septima's bike lane was actually crowded, and even suffered momentary traffic jams. 

Hopefully, some of these folks will pedal again tomorrow. 

Bumper-to-bumper bicycles on Carrera Septima.
But, today, as every day, those vehicles called 'rolling chimneys' belched on, unconcerned about being sanctioned.

A bus leaves behind a river of smoke on Carrera 10.
A TransMilenio bus, the 'pride' of Bogotá, pours out smoke.
Traffic was light in La Candelaria, so it actually moved.
Here's a nearby stretch of Carrera 3 yesterday, experiencing its normal traffic jam.
The TransMilenio system carried 13% more passengers than on a normal day.
And the SITP system's passengers rose 23%, yet this bus was still mostly empty.
Great news on Car-Free Day! Last year set a record for new car sales, and this year's already outpacing it!
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours