Monday, July 31, 2017

Adiós to Venezuela's Democracy

Maduro and followers celebrate their 'victory' in rigged voting in Sunday's election.
During the 1970s and '80s, when military coups installed right-wing dictatorships across much of South America, Venezuela maintained a democracy, if a very imperfect one. Now, ironically, democracy has brought a leftist dictatorship to Venezuela.

Perhaps the best evidence of Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro's anti-democratic intentions is the fact that he never permitted regional elections supposed to be held late last year - and which his party was sure to lose. Maduro claimed that the country, which has the world's largest oil reserves, lacked the money to pay for elections, and called democracy a luxury for the elites.

Yet, miraculously, Maduro had no trouble finding the money for Sunday's constitutional assembly - which he made sure he'd win.

The Maduro government has also packed the Supreme Court, done all it could to negate the results of unfavorable elections, shuttered hostile media, imprisoned political opponents - and even briefly dissolved the opposition-dominated National Assembly.

But none of the Venezuelan government's anti-democratic measures have come close to Sunday's election of a constitutional assembly, manipulated to ensure a pro-government majority, despite Maduro's extreme unpopularity. The assembly has apparently unlimited powers to rewrite the country's constitution and remake its government.

The voting for the assembly representatives included manipulations such as giving rural voters - who have remained loyal to Maduro - disproportional representation, while reducing representation for city dwellers, who overwhelmingly reject Maduro. (Come to think of it, that arrangement is a lot like the United States' unfair and illogical Electoral College - which gave us president Trump.) And the voting system also gave pro-Maduro social organizations preponderant weight in the voting.

Government workers were ordered to vote or lose their jobs. Even so, media observers reported that voter turnout was light.

What's more, many experts say that Maduro lacked the authority to call this vote without first holding a popular referendum. But Maduro knew he'd lose any such referendum.

The Venezuelan opposition boycotted the vote in order to not give it legitimacy. As a result, Maduro's victory will be close to 100%, whether votes are counted fairly or not.

The new Constitutional Assembly's powers aren't defined, and may be unlimited. Expect Maduro to order his minions to eliminate the country's hostile National Assembly and to remove the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, a courageous politician who stood on principle in the face of the government's violations of human rights and trampling of its own Constitution.

Ortega charged that Venezuela was turning into a dictatorship.

In fact, immediately after the vote, Maduro called for removing National Assembly legislators' legal immunity and for replacing Ortega. Two prominent opposition leaders were quickly arrested.

The travesty will continue as long as Venezuela's armed forces - the police and military - continue backing Maduro, and so far they show no signs of wavering.

Already, the governments of Colombia, Mexico and Panama have said they will not recognize the voting's results. But if not, how will they deal with a government they consider illegitimate?

The U.S. and other nations have threatened the Maduro government with sanctions for holding the assembly vote. But don't expect the Trump administration to make the single move which could topple Maduro - cutting off oil sales to the United States. That's because doing so would hurt too many big corporations and lose Trump popularity among drivers.

Maduro and Trump, two incompetent, populist leaders, are also co-dependent.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Facelift for the Plaza del Chorro

The Plaza's newly-unvealed fountain.
After several dry years, the Plaza del Chorro's fountain is flowing again. The city spent 600 million pesos for some five-months work resurfacing the spot where Bogotá was supposedly founded in 1538, repairing the decorations and improving access for disabled people. 
Workers repairing the plaza's fountain.
To lots of us, the plaza seemed just fine already. The facelift is fine, but each of us will have to decide whether the 600 million pesos were well spent. Perhaps were can survey the pot smokers and chicha drinkers who gather in the evenings, and the police who drive them away each night for having too much fun.

The plaza was named after Quevedo, the chapel's priest, who came for water there in the early 1800s. Centuries before that, it was said to be the summer resting place for the leader of the Muisca Indians, called the Zipa - until the Spanish drove them out and founded Bogotá, a distortion of the indigenous name 'Bacatá.'

Until recently, at least, lots more beer and chicha flowed on the plaza than did water. We'll see for how long the fountain operates this time around.

Loading a letter after the inauguration event.

A historic view of the plaza.

Kicking the hacky sack around on the plaza.

A storyteller at work in the chapel doorway.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Unkindest Cuts

Deforestation in Colombia is set to accelerate with planned budget cuts.
Nobody can dispute that Colombia has huge environmental challenges: Deforestation has accelerated by 44% over the last few years, to 20 hectares erased every hour; illegal drug crops are invading national parks; and the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas commits the government to stop the advance of the agricultural frontier.

So, what's the government's response?

From Semana magazine: 'The cuts which the environmental
sector will be subjected to in 2018.'
To slash the budgets of an array of environmental entities, including the Instituto Humboldt, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) and even the National Parks, from 632 billion pesos to 232 billion, or by 63%. That's according to a preliminary budget seen by Semana magazine. Such cuts make Donald Trump's war on the environment appear downright gentle. (I'm not clear on the relationship of these budgets to that of the environmental ministry.)

Incredibly, Minister of the Environment Luis Gilberto Murillo doesn't seem troubled by this financial massacre. "The budget isn't the only indicator of the environmental sector's resources," he said. "Resources are being mobilized like never before."

If only he'd explain where those resources are coming from.

The drastic budget cut - and the lack of an outcry over it - reflects the low priority environmental causes receive here. Minister Murillo may be sharp, capable and sincere, but before this job he had no discernable environmental experience. One suspects he's there in order to have an Afro-Colombian face in the cabinet. His predecessor had been a toy company executive.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Venezuelan Opposition's Moment

A selfie with the crowd in back, as Venezuelans voted today on Plaza Bolivar.
'The people decide!
Colombia has filled during recent years with Venezuelan political and economic refugees, and today they showed their strength. Thousands filled Plaza Bolivar for a plebiscite designed to weaken Venezuela's increasingly hapless, corrupt and authoritarian government.

The opposition's positions will win overwhelmingly - and the government will ignore it and continue
with carreening toward dictatorship. On July 30, the government plans to hold a vote vote to elect an assembly to rewrite the nation's Constitution. But the voting system and representation were designed by the Venezuelan government to guarantee itself a majority.

The people decide!, on three
questions designed to
weaken the government.
Interestingly, the Maduro government has recently suspended regional elections it was sure to lose, arguing that with oil prices low it could not afford to hold the vote. However, it did miraculously find the money to hold the constitutional assembly vote it plans to wind.

The government in Caracas has also used its packed Supreme Court to nullify all decisions taken by parliament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the opposition.

Today's ballot, designed and promoted by the MUD opposition coalition to Venezuelan Pres. Nicolás Maduro, contained three questions:

- Do you reject the constitutional assembly planned by Nicolas Maduro without the previous approval of the Venezuelan people?

- Do you demand that the armed forces and all public functionaries obey the 1999 Constitution and back the decisions of the National Assembly.

'Gochos united in Bogotá.' Gochos are people
born in the Venezuelan state of Tachira.
- Do you approve of the public authorities and the creation of a national union government and the holding of free and transparent elections to restore the constitutional order.

Many observers believe that in Venezuela power ultimately rests with the military. Opposition leaders argue that the government has violated the 1999 Constitution, written under the leadership of the now-deceased Hugo Chavez and would like the military to refuse to obey the government.

.Whatever happens in Venezuela: Continued crisis, outright dictatorship, revolution or civil war, it will mean huge impacts on Colombia, in terms of trade and immigration.

In a celebratory mood, Venezuelans oppositionists line up to vote on Plaza Bolivar.

Painting Venezuelan flags.

A Venezuelan exile's sign: 'Maduro, it's your fault that my children miss their grandparents.'

Venezuelan government opponents pack the Plaza Bolivar.
Venezuelans walk to vote.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, July 7, 2017

Maria, a Sesquicentennial Celebration

Perhaps it's appropriate that Jorge Isaacs was recently removed from the 50,000-peso bill and replaced with fellow novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

A scene from Isaacs' novel 'Maria.'
After all, Isaacs' signature novel, Maria, represents a past era and a past mindset. It's a romantic, sentimental novel, set near Cali on a plantation ironically named El Paraiso worked by slaves, and resembling his family's own hacienda.

Altho Maria, published in 1867, the story of a love affair between two cousins, was produced repeatedly on the theatre stage, television and in movies, it seems that few people read it anymore, perhaps because its sentimental romanticism is so 19th-century. Today, it's all about magical realism.

Nevertheless, this being the novel's 150th anniversary, it's receiving a bit of attention, including an exhibition in the Biblioteca Nacional in Bogotá, which calls the novel:

'the foundational novel of Colombian literature for its representation of relations between different
A plantation scene on the El Paraiso plantation.
social classes, the protagonism of the landscape, the reflections about the transformation of the colonial and plantation world, the ideas of a 'nation', and the era's political tensions.'

But appreciating those aspects requires a familiarity with 19-century Colombian society, which few have today.

Isaacs himself, who lived from 1837 to 1895, was an extraordinary character who lived a life which might have come from a Garcia Marquez novel: The son of a Colombian mother and a Jewish-Jamaican immigrant, Isaacs' failures in business caused him to turn to politics, literature and the military. He was at times a soldier, politician, road engineer, explorer, educational planner, and would-be coup leader in Antioquia Department. And, despite his idealized portrait of plantation life, Isaacs campaigned to end slavery, which he called 'a cancer.'

He left behind a book of poems and his novel Maria, a bestseller in its day translated into 31 languages.

Reading a modern version of Isaacs' 'Nueva Era' newspaper.

The art deco National Library, in Bogotá.               

A character in Maria is attacked by a crocodile.

A portrait of Maria.

A modern version of Isaacs' newspaper, the Nueva Era.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 3, 2017

'Money for the FARC, Hunger for the Victims.'

'Money for the FARC, hunger for the victims.'
These folks protested the other day against the peace accord, which includes stipends and other forms of support for the demobilized FARC guerrillas. According to some analysis, the guerrillas will even be able to control much of their ill-gotten money.

There's also something funny about these protesters' signs: They look very professional for something made by displaced victims of the guerrillas - as tho someone else (Uribistas???) were funding this group.

But, putting all of that aside, as well as the argument that a very imperfect peace deal was the best deal possible, the guerrillas did victimize many innocent people, most of them humble ones - and they deserve to be remembered.

'Alan Jara, humanize the unit of victims.'
Jara, an ex-governor who was once kidnapped by the FARC, heads the government's program to help victims of the conflict. 

'The state perpetuates the suffering of the victims.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Plastic Everywhere, and No Solution in Sight

Before the plastic bag tax: Carrying plastic bags (probably full of more plastic bags) home from the supermarket.
After the bag tax: the more things change, the more they stay the same: Carrying plastic bags (probably full of more plastic bags) home from the supermarket.

Sackss of plastic bags and other trash in the Plaza San Victorino.
Nobody doubts that plastic bags are a problem. They little streets, plazas and parks, trash up rivers and clog sewers. And a lot of them end up in the ocean, where animals swallow them and choke to death. And then there are all the petroleum resources used to manufacture the bags, and the pollution generated during the process. All to make something which is often used just once, for a short time, and then discarded.

So, give Bogotá officials credit for recognizing the problem. If only they would try an effective solution.

First came 'educational' measures for stores. Some neighborhood stores put up signs encouraging customers to bring their own bags - which almost everybody ignored.

Worth something?
Then, on July 1 a bag tax kicked in - of 20 pesos -  or 6/10 of one U.S. penny. Nobody bothers to pick a 20 peso coin up off the street, nor do people carry them, making this tax meaningless. So, unless the same customer uses five bags, he likely won't get charged at all. At the same time, I don't see any practical way the DIAN can monitor how many plastic bags a store uses. (Expect a black market in plastic bags). So, stores will simply pass on to all of their customers the tax bill for the bags they report using, eliminating the tax's incentive quality.
The tax didn't discourage this shopper from packing her
shopping cart with bags filled with more bags.

All of this makes about as much sense as Colombia's policy to reduce carbon generation, in which the country simultaeneously taxes carbon to discourage its use, and also subsidizes fuel consumption and encourages oil and coal production.

It's no wonder that plastic bag habits are tough to change. Not only are plastic bags convenient, but a friend points out that giving them out has become a 'social gesture.' I couldn't count the number of times that a seller has chased after me or literally cried out in protest when I rejected his or her offer of a completely useless plastic bag to carry home a single apple, a candy bar or a box of aspirin. But the bag came from somebody's heart.

Taxes have effectively reduced plastic bag use in Ireland, some U.S. cities, and other localesbcxi. But those places have stronger legal systems and lower rates of corruption and black markets.

Perhaps a bag tax would work here if the government either enforced it using sting operations, or actually taxed the newly-manufactured bags.

'Please bring your own bag.' This sign, in a shop in La Candelaria, was removed once employees realized that the pllastic bag decree wouldn't be enforced.

A sign in a shop implores customers to save the planet by bringing their own bags.
Notice the woman's hand giving a customer a bag.
City workers hand out reuseable bags in La Candelaria. They gave the bags to anybody willing to sign for them, whether they needed them or not.
A proud woman with her free bags.

This older woman scored two bags. But will she ever use them? Could she actually carry one full of stuff?
The La Panamericana stores seem to have taken real measures. Here, a sign at the checkout counter saying they no longer will give out bags smaller than 30 by 30 cms.

Canvas bags for sale in La Panamericana.
The bag rule doesn't apply to neighborhood corner shops and traditional markets like this one.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours