Friday, June 22, 2018

Uribe, Perpetual Kingmaker

Ivan Duque, president elect
and Uribe creation.
If last Sunday's presidential vote proved one thing, it's that Alvaro Uribe continues ruling Colombian politics. No matter that his own presidency was marred by severe human rights violations including paramilitary massacres with evident government collusion and the horrific False Positives murders, or that his brother is in prison and Uribe himself is the object of multiple investigations for paramilitary links.

No, none of that seems to matter in Colombian politics. Eight years ago, Uribe selected his minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, to succeed him. Santos won the presidency, altho he proceeded to defy Uribe by negotiating peace with the FARC guerrillas. Uribe was the leading opponent of the peace talks.

Four years ago, Uribe chose Oscar Ivan Zuliaga, who came close but failed in his attempt to unseat Santos.

But now, with Ivan Duque, a fresh face in Colombian politics, Uribe has shown again his ability to be
Uribe, right, and Zuluaga, his previous political product.
kingmaker. Duque, a senator who is only 41 years old and has been just a few years in politics, was little known until Uribe annoited him as his succesor. On Sunday, he handily defeated Bogotá's leftist ex-mayor Gustavo Petro for the presidency.

While Pres. Santos surprised many by breaking with Uribe, it looks much less likely that Duque will do so. Duque is young and has little political experience. He lacks Santos' long family political heritage. And Uribe will be the most powerful man in Congress, making his collaboration fundamental to the president.

Another winner Sunday were the evangelical churches, most of which threw their support behind Duque. Colombia historically was a strongly Catholic nation. The 1991 Constitution converted it into a secular nation, but Catholicism continued holding great cultural and political influence. In recent decades, however, evangelicals have made great inroads among poor people, while the Catholic Church lost battles on issues including abortion and gay rights and euthenasia. The Conservative Party, which often represented the Catholic church and was one of only two parties which mattered, has lost relevance, while MIRA and other purely evangelical political parties have surged.

The MIRA evangelical party endorsed Duque.
Duque will be indebted to the evangelicals. And, while he has said that he will respect LGBT rights, and "not rip apart" the FARC peace accord, which the evangelicals also opposed, political reality may dictate other plans.

Colombia's environment will be another great loser from this election, although it was already in full retreat. Deforestation has accelerated at a terrifying pace in recent years, and Duque's plans to pursue an economy based on resource extraction will only worsen that trend.

Many suspect that Duque, an academic and diplomat, who is only 41 and has only a few years of political experience, will be controlled by Uribe. Uribe, after all, put Duque where he is and also heads the largest power bloc in Congress.

Duque, however, will have trouble sabotaging the peace deal, which both he and Uribe opposed, because it is a ... law and because many of his likely political coalition partners supported it.

But Duque will pursue prohibitionist drug policies and an aggressive coca leaf erradication effort, even tho both have been shown to be failures. Duque will also deepen Colombia's fossil fuel-dependent economy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, June 15, 2018

Still Losing the Drug War

Today's El Tiempo reports the boom in coca leaf cultivation.
It should be great news. Production of this Colombian product has more than tripled in the last several years. But unfortunately, we're talking about an illegal harvest: coca leaf destined for cocaine.

Nobody's sure why coca leaf cultivation has boomed in recent years. Perhaps the FARC encouraged farmers to plant more, with promises that one day they'd be paid to erradicate their own crops? Well, if the Marxist FARC are capable of such a capitalist wonder, then the government should put them in charge of turbocharging other parts of the economy, such as the beleagured textile industry.

The reality. Coca leaf acreage
is booming.
In fact, the only reasonable explanation is that more demand generates more supply. Evidently, traffickers are succeeding in smuggling cocaine out of Colombia. In Europe, for example, cocaine prices have been stable recently, but purity has increased.

Colombian and United States anti-drug warriors, who have poured billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives into the war against cocaine, are recycling the same old ideas which have failed before: manual and aerial erradication and encouraging alternative crops. The government also proposes deepening the military's role as an anti-drug force - an arrangement which will confront soldiers against the same poor population which they mostly come from.

But even if those strategies did work, they'd only push more coca leaf acreage into Peru and Bolivia,
The fantasy: Colombian plans
to reduce coca leaf acreage.
as has happened before.

In Afghanistan, another nation with tremendous U.S. influence, a different drug crop - heroin - has also boomed.

Isn't it time to admit defeat, legalize these substances, and reduce their harm?

The boom in coca plantations is also one cause behind Colombia's accelerating deforestation. If coca plantations were legal, then farmers would lose incentive to chop down jungle to hide their plots, and the state and consumers could exercise at least some influence about how and where coca wase planted.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Decadence of the Liberal Party

Liberal candidate Humberto
de la Calle: A good man,
but a bad campaigner.
During much of Colombia's history, the Partido Liberal was one of two dominant forces - along with the Partido Conservador - in Colombian politics. The Liberals produced some 30 presidents and helped introduce peace treaties with guerrilla groups, the secularization of the country and expanded rights for women and minorities.

The Liberals dominated the presidency after the end of Frente Nacional in 1974, electing 5 of the country's 7 presidents.

However, the presidency of Ernesto Samper (1994-8), whose campaign was financed by drug cartels, tainted the party (and by the same token, his succesor Conservative Andrés Pastrana's failed peace talks with the FARC guerrillas threw the Conservatives into disrepute). The 2002 election of Pres. Alvaro Uribe, who started his political career as a Liberal, moved far to the right, and won the presidency as an independent, drained both major traditional parties of relevance.

The Liberals' lack of ideological consistency may also weaken it. The party houses both far-leftists
such as e-senator Piedad Cordoba, who evidently sympathizes with both the FARC guerrillas and the government of Venezuela, and conservative evangelicals.

In this latest presidential campaign the Liberals made the mistake of choosing as their standard bearer Humberto De La Calle, who led the government negotiating team in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. But De La Calle's candidacy never took off, receiving only 2% of the vote. And neither did the Liberals enter into a coalition with the only viable centrist candidate, ex-Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo.
The Liberal Party endorses Ivan Duque, right-wing opponent of the peace deal.
Finally, after choosing a pro-peace candidate in the first round, in the presidential campaign's second round the Liberals endorsed Ivan Duque, the political heir of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, furious critic of the peace negotiations. A voter could be forgiven for wondering what the Liberals stand for -if anything.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Welcome to The 'New' Bronx

Welcome to the New Bronx
 It was called a 'living hell,' with drug addicts of all ages, child prostitutes, torture chambers and illicit cemeteries, located just a few blocks from City Hall and the Presidential Palace, until in May 2016 the city sent in thousands of police and cleared it out, scattering the criminals and addicts all over the city.

Since then, that living hell has been a dead zone: Devastated buildings and vacant streets.

However, the city of Bogotá has big plans for the one-time Bronx (also known as La Ele): It aims to turn the neighborhood into an arts and clothing design district, altho it's also talked about education and housing facilities.

Artists show off work in the military
recruitment complex alongside
the Bronx.
Until Friday, they're holding an odd festival in the ex-Bronx and the neighboring military recruitment center, with art, music and theatre, as well as photos portraying the Bronx's horrific past.

But plans here have a way of not becoming reality, and so far the signs of revitalization in the Bronx are hard to spot. However, the city is making improvements nearby. The historic but notorious Los Martyrs Plaza has been cleaned up, and the adjoining Iglesia del Voto Nacional is being renovated.

Nevertheless, just a few blocks away, addicts who might have once live in El Bronx smoke crack against walls and seated in piles of garbage.

But the old Bronx is still there, just empty.
Visitors to the old, vacant Bronx with its photo exhibit recalling worse times.

No entrance to the old Bronx, even tho there's nothing there.

Empty streets and vacant, bombed-out buildings.

A homeless drug addict sits beside Los Martires Plaza.

The Iglesia del Voto Nacional is under renovation.
Used things, perhaps stolen, for sale on Martires Plaza. This used to go on inside El Bronx.

In the Los Martires you see grand homes of what was once a wealthy neighborhood.

Drug addicts now hang out on the nearby Plaza España.

Smoking dope against a nearby wall.

A few blocks from El Bronx, smoking crack in piles of garbage. 

Welcome to the New Bronx.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Another Sign of the Venezuelan Invasion

A sign in the red light district offers to wire money to Venezuela.
A window sign in a different part of town
offers to send money to Venezuela.
Venezuelans everywhere! It's not news that many thousands of Venezuelans - some guesstimate more than a million - have fled into Colombia from the shrinking economy, hyperinflation and raging crime in their own country.

As a result, it seems as tho nearly every hotel, restaurant and shop has at least one Venezuelan employee.

More notoriously, reportedly many Venezuelan women have also gone into prostitution in Colombia. That was evidenced dramatically in Bogotá's red light district the other day: I saw at least four signs offering money transfers to Venezuela on a single street.

For some, prostitution must be a rational professional choice in which the dangers, risk of suffering abuses and social stigma are compensated by a relatively high income. But many Venezuelan evidently enter the profession out of sheer desperation, to bring some food home, or to send a few rapidly devaluating bolivars home to Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Duque, the Virtual President

Iván Duque, Colombia's
virtual president.
With 39% of the first-round voting, little short of a huge scandal or a heart attack can stop Ivan Duque from being elected Colombia's next president.

Duque will win, almost certainly, despite his youth and inexperience - he formally entered politics only in 2014 and has held no executive positions - and carries all the baggage of his political patron, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose political career has been scarred by severe human rights violations and who has been credibly linked to right-wing paramilitary groups. Just a few days ago, the New York Times reported that during the 1980s investigators collected evidence that Uribe's campaigns were financed by drug cartel money.

It didn't have to be this way. If only at least two of the centrist candidates, such as Sergio Fajardo and Humberto De La Calle had formed an alliance, the political center might have gained enough critical mass to give voters confidence that at least one centrist candidate had a chance. Instead, with the center fragmented amongst three candidates, voters polarized to the two candidates who seemed viable: Duque on the right and ex-guerrilla leader and Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro on the left.

As it was, ex-Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo fell just over one percentage point behind Petro. With the support of De La Calle and the Liberal Party, he likely would have made the second round run-off, where he could have attracted both centrist and left-wing voters and realistically beaten Duque.

Instead, Duque will draw draw the lion's share of Germán Vargas Lleras' voters and many of Fajardo's, easily giving him the additional 11% support he needs to become president.

Duque was a leader of the 'No' campaign against the peace accord with the FARC guerrillas, so we can expect a President Duque to do all he can to sabotage it. And two of his key constituencies were conservative Catholics and evangelical Christans, so we can also expect him to try to reverse gains made for the rights of women, sexual minorities and Colombia's environment. Duque will instead favor big business and resource extraction.

This will test the principles and resilience of Colombia's judicial system.

Where's the hope? Duque is highly educated and evidently very intelligent. He's got lots of academic preparation, from Los Andes University and Georgetown and Harvard in the United States.

Perhaps Duque will turn out to be his own man, rather than Uribe's, as Duque has repeatedly promised. It's not impossible. After all, Uribe also chose Juan Manuel Santos, his defense minister, to be his successor, but Santos set his own course by talking peace with the FARC guerrillas and became Uribe's political enemy.

By the same token, Ecuadorean president and strongman Raphael Correa chose his vice president, Lenin Moreno, to succeed himself. But Moreno broke with the leftist Correa and the two have also become political enemies.

However, Santos had a long political trajectory and came from a family which had already produced several presidents and vice presidents, so he had the confidence and political base to hew his own path. Duque is still a neophyte.

As for second-place finisher Gustavo Petro, who will run-off against Duque, he has little chance. Petro received 25% of the vote, meaning that he would need all of Fajardo's votes and more to win a majority. And, if Duque is a polarizing figure, ex-guerrilla leader Petro is even moreso.

That said, it is remarkable that a nation which has for decades battled against guerrilla groups would even be willing to put an ex-leader of such a group one voting round away from its presidency. It deprives the FARC guerrillas of any arguments that they have been treated unfairly by the political system.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, May 26, 2018

It (Should Be) Fajardo

Colombia's next president?
Unfortunately, probably not.
Vote for Fajardo for president on the27th!

Sergio Fajardo wasn't perfect as mayor Medellin: Some projects were executed poorly, and he ran over budget. But Fajardo also accomplished things, and Medellin has continued its evolution from Narco City to tourist destination and retirement haven. In fact, the Washington Post just listed Medellin as one of the globe's 'attrative cities.' Not bad for a city which just a few decades ago was ruled by vicious drug cartels. Bogotá was not on the post's list.

Fajardo is a political centrist. Unfortunately, in tomorrow's first round of presidential voting, the two leading candidates are the far-left Gustavo Petro and the right-wing Ivan Duqué.

Petro's mayoralty of Bogotá was marked by investment for poor people, but also monumental mishandling of public services. Exhibition No. 1 was his decision to transfer the garbage collection contract to the city's water company, which didn't even own garbage trucks. For weeks, garbage piled up on sidewalks and streetcorners.

Petro got temporarily removed from office for that travesty. I also witnessed many examples of corruption and/or incompetence during Petro's time as Bogotá mayor. For example, the city installed racks for hundreds bikes in places where nobody ever wants to park a bike. And Petro issued a contract for a public bicycles program which was illogical, unrealistic economically and evidently rife with corruption. The much-needed project has as yet to start.

De la Calle seems like a good guy, and we all should be grateful to him for making the peace deal with the FARC, as imperfect as it is, a reality. But negotiating a peace deal is far from being the top executive of Colombia. It's too long a leap from peace negotiator to president. De la Calle is not ready.

Vargas Lleras got things done, in particular on infrastructure. But Vargas Lleras' eocnomic and social philosophies are too conservarive for my taste.

Unfortunately, none of the three centrist candidates seems to have enough support to make people he has the potential to pass into the second round of voting. So, Duque and Petro will likely pass to the second round of voting.

If Ivan Duque wins, he'll set Colombia backward decades on social issues such as minority rights. He'll also do his best to sabotage the peace agreement with the FARC, causing the armed conflict to resurge.

Also, many believe that Duque, a young guy, would just be a puppet of ex-president Alvaro Uribe, Duque's political sponsor. And Uribe has been credibly linked to right wing death squads, also called paramilitaries. That would give Duque a huge burden.

Petro, on the other hand, has lots of good ideas - which however are completely impractical and undoable, such as trading the oil economy for avocado growing.

Wish it were true!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Senseless Vacancy on Carrera 2

Not a bad view from the roof.
Inside: Rubble and crumbling walls.
When I moved to Bogotá in 2005, I'd ride my bike past a small abandoned apartment complex on Carrera 2 one block north of La Salle University. The place had been invaded by a bunch of never-do-wells, artists and street vendors who inhabited the building irregularly, as did the carpentry workshop next door. 

One day, the residents got evicted - and the building has sat empty ever since, with the exception of a family of caretakers, occasional filming work and an annual haunted house. 

This afternoon, the building, said to be Bogotá's first aparment complex, was opened to the public and transformed into an art project. It was a sad scene: piles of rubble, disintegrating wood work, broken walls. But the place has retained some historical elegance, as well as developed a worn, delapidated beauty. 

The complex is in these blue
 buildings on Carrera 2.
Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like the owners, whoever they are, have any plans to turn the place into something useful. I talked to the young man who administers the building, and he agreed that leaving this historic and centrally-located building empty was tragic. He suggested the building might be turned into an arts complex. 

I agreed, and mentioned also the possibility of creating an apartment complex.

"No. That would be commercial," he said, with distaste. 

Aren't artists interesting? Better that the place should sit vacant and abandoned than be tainted by capitalism in order to provide homes for people.

An urban post-armaggedon jungle.

A crumbling work by Toxicomano.

Once upon a time, a nice place to live.

Watch out: Death.

An art installation.

Great views of the city and the hills.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours