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

Ernst Röthlisberger's View of Bogotá

An indigenous man being punished by public humiliation in the stocks.
Born in Switzerland in 1858, Ernst Röthlisberger arrived in Bogotá 23 years later hired as one of the National University's first foreign professors to teach history, philosophy and law.

The machine room in El Charquito,
the hydroelectric works at Tequendama.
Fortunately for us, Röthlisberger was also an enthusiastic documentary photographer, and chronicled soldiers, tragedies, construction work and everyday people. He returned to Switzerland about 1900, but his work was only revealed in 2015, when his descendents donated two albums of photographs to Bogotá's National University, which restored them. Dozens of his photographs are now on display in the Archivo de Bogotá.

Röthlisberger's photos show an interest in dramatic events, such as the construction of the El Charquito hydroelectric complex near the Tequendama falls, whose ruined machines still remain, and the conflaguration in the Arrubla shopping mall, located in what is today City Hall on Plaza Bolivar, which destroyed the complex and also many priceless historical papers, including Colombia's independence documents. 

He also photographed recruits to the Thousand Days War, as well as common people on the street. To me, those are the most interesting pics: The wealthy in their bowler hats and the poor in their bulky ruanas and dark faces - whether due to heredity or work. 

I liked the photo of the wealthy businessmen chatting and ignoring the indigenous street vendor alongside them - a scene which can be seen today. The bareness of Bogotá's eastern hills is a testament to the fact that residents cooked and heated their homes with firewood. 

Also jarring is the photo of the indigenous man seated on a sidewalk with his legs in the stock. Which is crueler, public humiliation or today's private solitary confinement?

The train to Zipaquira.

Carrying a confessional.

Mules on Plaza Bolivar.

Falls on the Rio del Arzobispo, today above the Parque Nacional - and almost off limits because of muggers.

Note the dramatic class differences in dress. Which side are the rich on?

A mill on the way up to what is now Monserrate.

A warship, presumably from the Thousand Days War.

The Arrubla conflaguration on Plaza Bolivar in 1900.

A view along the Calle Real, today's Carrera Septima, looking toward Plaza Bolivar.

The U.S. Embassy was located off of the Plaza Bolivar.

A view of the Iglesia de Egipto when it stood almost alone.

The Eastern Hills were completely deforested. Today, they are forested - with exotic pines and eucalyptus.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

With Supporters Like This Guy...

Jhon Jairo Velasquez, one-time cartel assassin
turned right-wing political campaigner.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez, known as Popeye, was probably Pablo Escobar's top assassin, who confessed to personally murdering some 250 people - so he's not the sort of guy whose endorsement most political candidates want.

But Popeye, who was released in August 2014 after 23 years in prison, has gone full throttle in favor of right-wing presidential candidate Iván Duque in the voting to be held on Sunday.

Or, rather than supporting Duque, Popeye has been lashing out against Gustavo Petro, the leftist candidate, ex-Bogotá mayor and ex-M19 guerrilla leader, who has the second largest support in most polls.

'We will combat the Petro collectives with everything,' Popeye tweeted last week. 'Evil rats, Petristas communist ones; Associates of the FARC (guerrillas), Nicolas Maduro and (Colombian president) Juan Manuel Santos.

'I can be killed by a bullet,but not by fear,' Popeye added.

Why a one-time assassin for a narcotics kingpin, who still hangs out with narcos, would campaign for a law-and-order candidate is a mystery. After all, Escobar's Medellin cartel fought bloody battles against the police and military.

Or, for those who believe in conspiracies, perhaps there's more here than meets the eyes. Is Popeye actually in the pay of another candidate, such as Petro himself, who wants Popeye to sully Duque's name by associating with him?

The Medellin Cartel did sometimes ally itself with right-wing paramilitaries, so perhaps popeye has some lingering loyalties. Or perhaps Popeye, who reportedly now leads tours in Medellin, genuinely hates left-wing politicians such as Gustavo Petro, the ex-mayor of Bogotá and leader of the M-19 guerrillas who is one of the leading candidates for president. Popeye certainly spends lots of ink denouncing communism.

In recent tweets, Popeye sounded like he was preparing a civil war, discussing storing arms and weapons in people's houses. But Popeye's tweets really triggered alarms when he promised that 'My rifle will do the talking'. His critics have asked prosecutors to investigate whether that constitutes an illegal threat.

Like Escobar's son Juan Pablo, who allegedly has continued making drug money deals from his home in Argentina, Popeye can't seem to leave his vicious Medellin Cartel habits behind.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 21, 2018

Do you believe it?

Maduro celebrates his election victory alongsie Maradona.
The country suffers hyperinflation a soaring homicide rate and a shrinking economy. Stores and pharmacies are bare of food, medicines and toilet paper. It's hemorraging people, who are fleeing this disaster area.

And yet the president, who is notoriously corrupt and lives high while his people suffer, got reelected by a landslide.

Does anybody at all believe that Sunday's presidential election results in Venezuela were fair and democratic?

Venezuelan president/dictator Nicolas Maduro and his crowd may have read the recent and interesting book 'How to Rig an Election,' by two British academics. The book observes that old fashioned ballot box stuffing is now passé. Instead, today's authoritarian leaders stack the deck in their own favor before a single vote gets cast, thru techniques such as registering more voters in regions where they are popular and setting up more voting stations in those same areas.

In Venezuela, the government started preparing for the election many months ago by imprisoning or banning from public office the opposition's strongest potential candidates. Maduro also linked the reception of food aid - vital in a starving nation - to allegiance to Maduro. Whether or not the government really knew which candidate voters supported didn't matter: It was the impression that counted.

That was also why the government set up red tents outside of voting stations - sometimes so close that they violated election rules - for government loyalists to check in after voting. The message was clear: 'We're rewarding you for voting for us.' Government offices also required public employees to attend pro-Maduro rallies.

These were all crude attempts to harness the still-great public resources of the nation with the world's largest oil reserves in favor of Maduro.

The government might not even have needed to manipulate the vote counts, but it probably did, anyway. After all, many election observers said that the electoral commission's reported 47% voter turnout seemed wildly exaggerated in light of the many near-vacant voting stations. After a previous election, the voting machine company, Smartmatic, charged that

Maduro has good reason to hold on to power. (His new term ends in 2025.) He and his buddies are living high while his people suffer. And, if he were to be overthrown, his enemies would surely try to prosecute Maduro for corruption and human rights violations, forcing him to take refuge with few remaining friends, in Cuba, Syria or Russia.

Instead, Venezuela will sink into even deeper misery. And hundreds of thousands or millions more Venezuelans will flood into neighboring nations. And Venezuela will lose a generation of its brightest, most motivated people.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Can Venezuela Pull a Malaysia?

Najib Razak, ex-Malaysian
prime minister, who lost an
election this month.
A notoriously corrupt strongman appears to hold a lock on his country's leadership. In the run-up to elections, he uses oil income to saturate the country with his campaign ads, controls most of the media and uses gerrymandering and other tricks to ensure his reelection victory.

The nation I have in mind is Malaysia, the southeast Asian nation which held national elections ten days ago. But I might as easily be talking about Venezuela, which is to hold a vote tomorrow in which its authoritarian president Nicolas Maduro is expected to use a rigged system to get himself reelected, despite running his oil-rich nation into the ground. In both nations, the government used legal charges and technicalities to bar opposition candidates from even running in the election.

To everybody's amazement, Malaysia's opposition party won the election, and the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957 lost power.

That might provide a glimmer of hope for the opposition in Venezuela in tomorrow's voting. There,
Venezuelan president/dictator Maduro.
Pres. Maduro has taken control of nearly all the media and government institutions and is allegedly using payments and intimidation to win tomorrow's election.

Colombian Pres. Santos reported this week that Colombia had seized a big shipment of food allegedly intended to be used by the Venezuelan government to pay for votes, altho much of the food was already rotten. Santos also charged that the Venezuelan government planned to give Colombians Venezuelan ID cars and have them vote for the government.

But Venezuela differs in important ways from Malaysia, where the opposition candidate who won the prime ministryship had already been prime minister, and so many people had a positive image of him. On the other hand, Malaysia's economy was fairly strong, whereas Venezuela's is in free fall, potentially motivating many people to vote against the government.

But, barring a miracle, Mauro will win reelection tomorrow and continue stiffening his dictatorial rule and worsening his nation's economic disaster. And hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans will continue pouring into Colombia.

And the Malaysian election likely has redoubled Maduro's determination to win at all costs tomorrow. After all, Malaysian's ex-leader may now be put on trial for his alleged monumental corruption.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What to do With Narco Art?

Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt at work.
(Photo: Colartes)
During his long life, Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, one of his era's most accomplished Colombian sculptors, created works for airports, plazas and museums, commemorating themes of religion, liberty and human rights across Colombia and Mexico,where he lived for 25 years.

But Arenas, who lived from 1919 to 1995, also made one sculpture paying tribute to one of the worst people Colombia has produced: narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar. Now, Colombia may have to decide what to about an artwork which represents the intersection of wealth, crime, art and even sexuality.

The sculpture, called La Familia hangs on a wall of Escobar's El Monaco apartment building in Medellin. It isn't one of the artist's most distinguished works: It portrays sexualized figures standing one atop another, the woman a stereotypicaly voluptuous narcotrafficker's fantasy.

Medellin now plans to demolish the Monaco building in an
effort to change its narco-city image. That's a questionable policy in an era when historical memory is gaining importance. After all, the narcos' extravagant lifestyle demonstrates what happens when a sought-after commodity is prohibited: It makes vicious criminals rich.

La Familia, on a wall of the
El Monaco building in Medellin.
Many narcos, altho not known for their appreciation of fine culture, did collect expensive artworks to show off and to launder their millions. After their deaths or arrests, the art was generally seized and auctioned off by authorities as the ill-gotten gains of criminal enterprise. (However, Pablo Escobar's brother Roberto did recently - and incomprehensibly - win a lawsuit against the government for the value of art and other valuables confiscated from his apartment after the Medellin cartel's collapse in the early 1990s.) Those objects have reentered the world's art market carrying little taint from dirty money.

But what about art created as a tribute to a vicious criminal?

There's no word about why Arenas created the work for Escobar. Did he fear him? Did he admire the man's criminal accomplishments, or his pretentions of nationalist politics? Or did Betancourt just need the money?

According to news reports, Arenas' sculpture may go to Medellin's 'Museo de la Memoria,' which is to commemorate the victims of Medellin's violence. But that hardly seems like an appropriate abode for an eroticized tribute to a mass murderer.
Prometheuus Unchained, in the Casa del Museo de Antioquia.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours