Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Sugar Conspiracy

There's no escaping: Selling junk food on La Septima.
We spend lots of time looking for supposed conspiracies: The Freemasons; The Bilderburg group; the Bush family and 9-11, the Kennedy assassination; the shooting of Colombian politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, and on an on.

But they all lack a key ingredient: Evidence.

Yet, the opposite is true of one deadly conspiracy staring us in the face: Big sugar.

It's bad when millions of people get addicted to a substance which can wreck their health. It's even
Junk food and sedentarianism
mean more obesity.
worse when that substance's producers have so much economic and political power that they fight for their right to push it on us.

Sugar's been in the news recently: A recent study found that more than half of Colombians are either overweight or obese - a result of consuming more and more sugary and other junk foods, as well as an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. And research increasingly points to it causing illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

The sugar epidemic cuts short countless lives every year. But even tho sugar harms many more people than do heroin, cocaine or even alcohol, it's advertised constantly and the government does almost nothing about that. Why is that?

Perhaps that's because Big Sugar has so much economic and political power.

Soft drink ads outside a
store in Bogotá.
Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years the percent of children suffering acute malnutrition shot up from 0.9% to 2.3%. That could be because children as switching from a traditional diet high in fruits and vegetables to a diet high in processed, sugary foods. The malnutrition was particularly high among indigenous children, whose bodies are not prepared for the sweet, processed food diet they adopt when they come into contact with Western culture.

Soft drink workers protest a proposed tax.
When several Colombian NGOs recently tried to educate consumers about sugar's damages, and a sugar tax was proposed, sugar producers fought back, as detailed in the New York Times. After the Educar Consumidores foundation prepared a television ad linking sugary drinks to obesity and diabetes, soda maker Postobon sued and got the ad removed from television, because it was supposedly 'scientifically imprecise' - and even got a judge to prohibit Educar officials from speaking publicly about the link between sugar and diabetes, according to the Times.  I wonder whether media ever asked soft drink companies to prove their ads' messages that sugary drinks will make you happy and popular, or tobacco makers' messages that smoking would make you sexy. (The Constitutional Court later reversed the judge's ruling.)

A lonely sight: An anti-sugar billboard.
Ironically, it was the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce, supposedly a consumer-protection agency, which got the health ad banned.

Educar's director was also hit with criminal charges for a humorous blog post about sugar, and the
organization's staff reported harrasment, including computer and cellphone problems they suspected were caused by spyware. None of the problems were proven to be linked to the sugary food makers, who deny any wrongdoing.

But what Big Sugar unquestionably did do was flood Colombia's Congress with nearly 100 lobbyists to fight against a proposed sugar tax, an unprecedented political onslaught.

Meanwhile, reports Semana magazine, another NGO, Red Papaz, created a series of ads criticizing
Obesity in Colombian children
has increased in recent years,
and children get fatter
as they get older.
advertising directed at children and urging parents to consider the health impacts of sugary foods. The ads were rejected by some media companies, which claimed that they lacked scientific evidence. (Again, it would be interesting to see how much evidence they seek when companies claim that their car or clothing or deoderant will make you sexy, beautiful or a great athlete.)

"The private stations won't show our commercial," the director of Red Papaz said. "We understand that this is obviously due to industry interests."

The sugar industry doesn't lack influence in media or government. The same conglomerate which owns Postobón also owns RCN Television and radio, and an industry lawyer once headed the nation's consumer protection agency.

Despite its huge size and influence, the sugar industry tries to make us believe that it's the defender of the little guy, such as the corner shopkeeper, who makes part of his income by selling candy, sugary drinks and other vices, such as cigarettes. However, it's a deceptive argument. If Colombians were persuaded to stop paying money to sicken themselves, they'd still spend that money - but maybe on better things, such as clothing, soccer balls and schoolbooks, not to mention fruits and vegetables.

My advice to Big Sugar is not to worry. Fast foods and junk foods and their advertising are so prevalent that we can't escape. And Red Papaz's campaign is sadly insignificant and poorly designed.

I happened to spot a Red Papaz ad link on The New York Times' website. How many Colombians,
Big cola, big calories.
particularly overweight Colombian children, read the Times? I also spotted one anti-sugar billboard high above Calle 26. In contrast, nearly every store features posters pushing candy and soft drinks, along crowded Carrera Septima, young people wearing billboards hand out flyers for McDonald's treats, and seemingly every corner in Bogotá hosts a street vendor hawking candies and cigarettes.

With saturating advertising like that, health education doesn't stand a chance.

Afterthought: All of this is actually an argument in favor of prohibitionism. Prohibitionism hasn't stopped the consumption of drugs, sex or alcohol - but it does at least clamp down on the advertising of such 'vices.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Night of the Little Candles

Tonight was the annual Noche de las Velitas (the Night of the Little Candles) in La Candelaria, the symbolic beginning of the Christmas season.

The beginning of the consumer Christmas season, of course, started more than a month ago.

A bit surprisingly, this sweet and innocent tradition has a sinister past involving close mindedness and violence. In 1854, Pope Pius IX issued an Encyclical declaring that the Virgin Mary was "immaculate," or untouched by original sin.

Pius's supporters celebrated his decree with a candle-light march, beginning the 'little candles' tradition.

All this says a lot, of course, about what the Catholic Church values in women, and its hostility to a fundamental biological function. But Pius went further. To ensure that no future Pope - or anybody else - would ever call into question Mary's immaculatedness, Pius ordered that anybody who expressed doubt about Mary's immaculatedness be prohibited from speaking, and that all literature doing that be banned. To doubly ensure the certainty of his theology, Pius also ordered that anybody who persisted in questioning the immaculatedness, receive multiple "mortal blows," reports Semana magazine.

Isn't it a lucky thing that religious institutions are no longer in charge of most educational and research institutions?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dangerous Art in Egipto

Three Kings, a symbol of Egipto. By K-no. Delix, of Bogotá.
Ark, from Bogotá
Recently, Fundación Colectivo Atempo painted one of the Egipto neighborhood's narrow, winding streets as part of the La Re Pública Cultural Circuit, an annual cultural event. They had painted one house in the neighborhood, which prompted neighbors to ask them to decorate theirs as well.

The works make the neighborhood colorful and evocative. Unfortunately, however, they are out of bounds for most of us, both foreigners and Colombians, because of the neighborhood's violent crime problem. Stories abound of foreigners wandering into Egipto to photograph the view and returning without cameras, money, even their clothing.

A few months ago, a foreigner walked up there and got stabbed and robbed, apparently by the same gang of drug addicts who hung around watching the grafiteros paint their street. The police don't appear to have done anything, as seems to be usually the case.

An old man, by Onírica, from Bogotá
When I went up to photograph the painters working (Bogotá Bike Tours paid for some of the supplies, as did Bogotá Graffiti Tour, which also helped coordinate the event) the local gang gathered around me, the only non-Colombian around, asking me to buy them beer and other goodies. If the grafiteros hadn't been present, no doubt the knives would have come out.

Colectivo Atempo (Bogotá) ft Raw (UK)

The hand of God, by Almiron, from Argentina.

A face, by Feck, from Mexico.

By DJ LU, from Bogotá

Colectivo Atempo (Bogotá) and ft. Raw (UK)

La Wife, from Argentina, with the local gang nearby.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Beginning of the End for Coffee?

Production in peril. Coffee may be on the way out.
Is this the beginning of the end of Colombian coffee? That's the suggestion of the Australia-based Climate Institute, which reports that Colombian coffee production will suffer greviously 2050, while the world's wild coffee could be extinct by 2080.

Sacks of Colombian coffee ready to be shipped. 
The Climate Institute is undoubtedly correct that the planet is warming and that will cause devastation in crops around the world, particularly in tropical regions such as Colombia - where coffee now grows best.

Coffee won't end, however. Researchers will develop new varieties, new growing techniques and plant the crop in new regions further north and south. In fact, they're alread planting coffee in southern California.

But those measures won't prevent huge dislocations: What will happen to the millions of small farmers and others who depend on coffee now? They will not be able to migrate to any new coffee-growing regions, because other people already live there. Moving uphill to cooler climes won't solve their problems, either, since mountains shrink towards their peaks. And, as coffee shifts to the north and south, that will mean huge environmental impacts as land is deforested for new plantations.

All these changes will mean a more expensive mug of Starbucks. But that will be the least of our
Colombian coffee employs more than a half-million families,
or 2.7 million people.
problems. Because, if a warming climate alters coffee cultivation, it will also change farming of other more critical food crops. And that could mean famine, migrations, epidemics and other human and natural catastrophes.

Coffee alone supports more than two million people in Colombia, and tens of millions across the globe.

The Climate Institute's advice to drinkers is to purchase carbon neutral or sustainably grown coffee. But that doesn't address the climate change gases generated by coffee's shipment across the world from tropical to wealthy nations. And the coffee economy's impact is only a drop in the barrel compared to the global economy's climate change change gases.

All of which means that to save coffee - as well as many other crops and innumerable wild species - we'll have to fundamentally change the world's economy - fast - and that's not likely to happen in time.

Colombia will suffer badly from global warming. The country is already losing its glaciers, and the city of Cartagena may be transformed into an island, among many other impacts. But none of that has slowed Colombia's own enthusiastic contribution to climate change: Colombians are buying cars and traveling by airplane at a frenzied pace; gasoline and other fuels receive huge subsidies; deforestation is charging along; and the government aims to pull all the oil, gas and coal it can out of the ground.

Colombia is a victim, but also perpetrator of its own suffering.
The climate institute predicts dire consequences for Colombia from global warming.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, December 4, 2017

When is a Massacre Not a Massacre?

A newspaper announces deaths and injuries in labor conflicts
in the banana region. (Photo: Radio Nacional)
The 1928 massacre of workers of the United Fruit Company was one of the signal events in Colombian history, retold in song, painting and in Gabriel García Marquéz's most famous novel, and the event which launched politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán to fame - and tragedy.

However, bizzarely, nobody's sure exactly what happened in Ciénaga, Magdalena on that 5 and 6 of
Banana workers of the era.
December 1928.

The event burst into the news recently when conservative Senator María Fernanda Cabal claimed that it was the workers who attacked the soldiers that day.

"The confrontation did happen," she said on W Radio. "But what turned into a myth is the idea that the massacre was committed by the Army against unarmed workers. That's a lie: The workers were armed by the International Socialists, and they attacked by security forces."

"During that massacre, more soldiers than workers died," she added to the El Espectador newspaper.

That's exactly the reverse of the story I have learned, in which the striking banana workers had gathered in the town's plaza. Unbeknownst to them, the army had machine guns set up on the plaza's corners, from which they poured a murderous fire upon the strikers.

February 1929 letter by the U.S.
ambassador citing a fruit company
 executive's statement that
1,000 banana workers were
killed by soldiers.
Cabal's comments were met with an avalanche of ridicule and criticism, including a statement by 76 political science graduates from the University of Los Andes, of which she is an alumni.

The statement said that Cabal "discredits the profession" and "offends not only the dignity of the victims, but also the nation's historical memory."

Cabal is correct that the events of that day are unclear - but her accusations against the workers - based on a vision of great communist conspiracy - appear groundless.

Cabal first aims her criticism at novelist Marquéz, who made the masssacre a key event in 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' the novel which earned him the Nobel Prize.

In that novel, the soldiers kill 3,000 workers. But Marquéz was always clear that he had written fiction, and exaggerated the number of dead to fit the dramatic proportions of his novel. He said that before writing he had first researched the event, but could not determine how many died.

"To say that all of that (drama) took place for just 3, 7 or 17 deaths...So I decided that they were 3,000 deaths, because was what was required for the proportions of the book I was writing," he said later.

But fiction became fact. The 3,000-deaths number was even repeated in Colombia's Congress - to Marquézes' objections.

In support of her argument, Senator Cabal also cited a book by Eduardo Mackenzie called 'Las FARC, Fracaso de un Terrorismo.' However, the pages which Cabal posted on Facebook argued only that no thorough investigation of the events was done, but did not support her argument that the workers massacred soldiers.

Perhaps the most concrete number came from the U.S. ambassador in Colombia, who sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department saying that a United Fruit Company official had told him that 1,000 workers were killed in the massacre. It's a suspiciously round number, but it doesn't seem likely that the either the company or the embassy would exaggerate the number of dead when they themselves were implicated in the killings.

We'll never be certain exactly what happened in Cienaga on that warm day in 1928. However, it is undisputed that the banana workers were badly exploited, at least by today's standards, by the fruit company. For example, they had to work Sundays, did not receive compensation for injuries, were paid not with tokens instead of money, and could only spend the tokens at the company's high-priced stores. And, with low banana prices, conditions had worsened, triggering the strike.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, December 1, 2017

Sexual Violence as a Weapon in Colombia's Conflict

Sexual abuses have been in the news not only because of the endless parade of headline-making sex crimes, often targeting children, but also because of revelations of wholesale sexual attacks being used as a weapon of war by Colombia's various armed groups. 

A recent report by the Centro de Memoria titled 'The War Written on the Body' counted more than 15,000 sexual attacks amidst Colombia's armed conflict, committed by armed groups of all types, including the official military. That number, of course was surely a huge undercount, since most such crimes are never reported.

The report included testimonies by women and girls recounting attacks by armed groups, often as punishment for supposed disobedience. One woman, for example, had helped her children escape from being recruited as FARC fighters, for which misdeed the guerrillas gang raped her. Other women were targeted with attacks as warnings to or punishment against their husbands, for example for not paying protection money to the armed groups. 

One FARC leader, Raul Reyes, who was killed in 2008 by a Colombian military bombing of his camp in Ecuador, kept an escort of female guerrillas, some as young as 10 or 11, whom he sexually abused.

A graph shows numbers of reported cases of sexual abuse
related to Colombia's armed conflict. Cases
peaked in 2002 and 2014.
A young girl recruited by the guerrillas described in the Centro Memoria's report how the guerrillas arranged newly arrived girls up in two rows: the virgins on one side, the rest on the other. The virgins were given to the guerrilla commanders for their recreation, while lower-echelon guerrillas had to make do with the others.

Female guerrillas who became pregnant were usually forced to have abortions or had their newborns taken from them.

A conservative politician calls for
life sentences for child abusers.
Sex crimes are also in the news because some conservative politicians are advocating for capital punishment or life in prison for child rapists. That has many asking why the demobilized guerrillas - many of whom committed sex crimes, as well as murder, kidnapping and forced displacement - should get off with little more than a symbolic punishment, and even be allowed to hold political office.

And I also wonder why the wave of accusations (almost all of them certainly true) of sexual misbehavior against prominent men in the U.S. has not spread to other places, particularly Latin America. After all, in a nation like Colombia where many men feel entitled to make sexual comments to women on the street, and where machismo culture is strong, is it credible that much worse things don't happen in the privacy of offices and studios?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Memories of El Bronx

Chiri, left, and Juan Carlos point to a detail of their model of El Bronx.

Looking out of the window of
a Bronx rented room.
For most Bogotanos, the name 'El Bronx' represents misery, addiction, depravement and addiction. But, for three young men who lived years there as criminals and addicts, the place also represents joys, friendship and pleasure.

The three young men recounted their experiences recently in Bogotá's Museo Nacional, where they also displayed a scale reproduction of the three streets which for nearly 15 years were home for thousands of thieves, drug dealers, crack addicts, prostitutes and myriad other criminals, just a few blocks from City Hall and the Presidential Palace.
Drugs for sale.
The model was complete with a stabbing, lots of bags of drugs and the streets' many other criminal activities, but also normal activities such as a woman preparing food and children playing with a dog.

Juan Carlos, 19, who lived in the Bronx for six years and Chiri, 22, who lived there for a decade, were both addicted to basuco, a cheap, dirty form of crack cocaine, and supported themselves by robbery. Chiri recounted how he belonged to a gang which stole car parts on the neighboring Carrera 10.

"I'd ask the driver for a handout," he said, "and then bang! the rear-view mirror's gone!" He made a motion of ripping the mirror off of the car.

But El Bronx, which was ruled by several criminal kingpins, each of whom controlled a sector of the
A Bronx corner.
streets, had its own organization and rules. For example, thievery was prohibited inside - except when the prize was big and one had permission from one of the kingpins.

"You could come and go safely," one of the young men told me. "Fresco."

"Nobody stole just a few hundred thousand pesos. It had to be millions."

The neighboring small businesses, which sell bedwear and hardware were safe, the men explained, because they paid protection money. In fact, El Bronx's bosses prohibited stealing within a several block radius, as Chiri learned when he stole a bicycle on the neighboring Los Martires Plaza. The bike's owner chased him into El Bronx, where one of the bosses learned of Chiri's misdeed and sentenced him to being hit 25 times with a wooden board. Chiri took it in stride.

A stabbing in the street.
"I just said 'let's get it over with,' Chiri recalled. "I wanted someone who would do it fast."

But he'd gotten off easy. When Mayor Enrique Peñalosa sent in thousands of police to clear out El Bronx a bit more than a year ago, they found cemeteries and torture chambers, used to punish those who didn't pay their drug debts. I asked the young men about the stories that the penalty for failing to pay was death and they shrugged their shoulders.

"Isn't it that way everywhere?" they asked me. "How about your country?"

I told them that this was beyond my personal experience.

Another unpardonable sin in El Bronx was spying - or even giving the appearance of doing so. For
example, outsiders came in to buy drugs or stolen items, but couldn't dilly dally. If they didn't come, buy and leave, they were suspect and could be punished.

"The Bronx wasn't a shopping mall," Juan Carlos said.

Both boys entered El Bronx because of their drug habits. "It's just a short step from (doing drugs on) the corner, to living in the street," they said, and added, "There are no social classes in El Bronx. Everybody's the same, everybody's an addict."

In contrast, young girls and women addicts ended up trading sex for drugs in El Bronx - and many became prisoners. After months of witnessing the Bronx's crimes, the kingpins would not let them leave for fear they'd rat on them.

Children play with a dog, lower left, near scavenged materials to be sold.
Bazuco, or crack, was the ubiquitous drug there, but marijuana, heroin, psychedelics and alchohol were also popular. Juan Carlos recalled multi-day alchohol and heroin binges. "Boy, I was flying," he said.

The entrance to the old Bronx.
Not all the Bronx residents were criminals and addicts. There were also working families, they said, who lived there because it was cheap: a room cost as little as $5,000 pesos per night, and you could pay in cash by the night.

But, amidst the horrors, the boys also experienced solidarity, when other Bronx residents shared food and loaned money to each other.
Quiet and empty: El Bronx today.

Now, they are living in a rehabilitation center, working with other addicts, and have started a hip hop band called 'Free Soul.'

El Bronx replaced the nearby El Cartucho neighborhood, which was bulldozed and replaced by the Tercel Milenio Park in the early 2000s. The ex-Bronx residents agreed that the problems of addiction and crime won't go away, but urged more support for addicts. That wasn't the case with the thousands who had inhabited El Bronx, many of whom ended up on the street. Juan Carlos and Chiri said there are about 150 recovering addicts in their rehabilitation residence.

The young men made one other point: To its residents, their home was not 'El Bronx,' but 'La L,' named for the L shape made by the two original streets invaded by addicts and criminals driven out of El Cartucho. "El Bronx is a place in New York," they pointed out.

Evidently, they think the original Bronx's reputation reflects badly on them. (Little do they know that New York's Bronx is being gentrified.)

As for Bogotá's Bronx, the city has plans to turn the neighborhood into an arts and education district. We'll see whether that ever happens. So far, it's still vacant.

I asked Juan Carlos whether he regretted his years living in El Bronx.

"No," he replied, "if I hadn't been there, then I wouldn't be here today."

This was the last week the event and exhibition were to be held in the Museo Nacional, but it will move on to the Centro de Memoria and IDArtes.

It's worth seeing, even if your Spanish is less than perfect, like mine. I probably understood less than half of what was said, but I comprehended enough to appreciate the tragedy, suffering and humanity of El Bronx, and why it's a good thing that it's gone - until another one appears.


Battle in El Bronx

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Stiudents' Strange Ceremony

This strange ceremony, mixing chicha, fire, a monster and indigenous dancing, was staged yesterday evening by dance and art students from the Antonio Nariño University, as part of their year-end project.

What it meant was not clear, and left open to interpretation, a student named Brayan told me. But it also had something to do with the injustice of the 1948 assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán on a nearby sidewalk, Brayan said.

The police, however, evidently did not recognize the artistic genius in the event, rather seeing it as more of a public nuisance, located between two TransMilenio lanes and in the middle of busy Carrera Septima - not to mention the smoke billowing into Bogotá's already-noxious air. The cops hurried the students away, and later fined their teacher under the Nuevo Codigo de Policia.

That all seemed wrong to Brayan.

"It's just an art project," he protested. "It's not like we were here burning things all day long."

Evidently, artistic smoke is not bad for you like regular smoke.

But Brayan saw an elegance in the episode. "We were memorializing injustice," he observed, "and now we've been met by injustice."

Brayan was collecting donations in a hat to pay his teacher's fine.

Certainly, in their zeal for public order and protecting our air, the police might think about going a few blocks north or west and citing the vehicles belching black smoke all day long.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Carification of La Candelaria

An apartment building goiing up with a parking garage.
A new kind of apartment building is popping up in La Candelaria: Ones with car parking incorporated. 

That might sound nice and convenient, but it means worse traffic congestion, more pollution and even worse health for the neighborhood. 

Until now, the minority who owned cars parked them in commercial lots and paid for the privilege.
A new apartment complex with parking garage:
Makes an ugly contrast with the neighborhood's
historic homes.
But incorporated parking changes the dynamics and economics. Now, by acquiring an apartment, you're paying for a parking space whether you want it or not. That means that those who don't own cars, subsidize those who do (as happens with all 'free' parking.) It also sends a signal: 'You should own a car, and use it for transport.'
The convenience of having a car at hand means that many residents will use them, even to go two blocks to buy some beers. That means even worse traffic jams, and less exercise for residents. It also hurts the local economy, since residents with cars are more likely to go across town to shop in some supermarket, rather than supporting a local shop. 

And, of course, more driving means less exercise and all the harm that causes. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours