Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Weird, Weird Web Around Amazon Oil

It's like something from a spy novel, involving a man nicknamed Dr. Death, the Vietnam War, jungle oil reserves and possible ties to cocaine smuggling and the CIA.

The tale begins with MontcoEnergy LC, a previously unknown oil company, which was assigned five petroleum exploration regions last year by Colombia's National Hydrocarbon Agency (ANH). However, in a statement this May, the ANH said, mysteriously, that it had reversed its decision "for reasons anticipated in the law." The statement added that "the relevant authorities have been apprised of this situation."

A Colombian oil well. 
Good for the ANH. But perhaps they should have known this from the start. After all, Montco apparently does not even have a working website. So, can they really be trusted with a chunk of Colombia's biodiversity and energy resources?

Then the story becomes even more dubious. La Silla Vacia reports that a Canadian oil company  investigated Montco and found that the company's records weren't in order. And that ANH officials discovered that Montco's supposed offices in Texas and Canada were just post office boxes and that an oil well which Montco claimed to own in the small west African nation of Gabon apparently does not exist. A Gabonese official says that his signature on documents provided by Montco is forged.

Now the tale turns sinister: Also according to La Silla Vacia, two of Montco's three owners are linked, thru another oil company they own, to a narcotrafficker named Chupeta. El Tiempo reports other contacts between Montco and shady characters.

Weirdest of all, Montco hasn't given up on getting oil exploration rights. And the guy representing the company in Colombia is David Scott Weekly, who earned the nickname Dr. Death by carrying out special operations in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Weekly has also been linked to the CIA in news reports, altho the CIA denies this.

What's behind all of this? An unknown company with dubious associations offers millions of dollars for Colombian oil prospecting rights and hires a Dr. Death to lobby for it.

It also so happens that lots of Colombian cocaine passes thru West Africa on its way to Europe, altho apparently little thru Gabon.

All of which suggests where these millions of dollars might have come from.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Profession Like Any Other?

Prostitutes wait for clients on a Bogotá plaza. 
A woman who worked as a prostitute in a Bogotá dance club became pregnant and was fired from her job. She sued, claiming that the firing was illegal and that the club owed her health benefits. And a court recently ruled in her favor, that prostitutes, like other employees, deserve job protection and benefits.

Even among femenists, there's debate about whether prostitution should be legal. Is it inevitably demeaning to women? Does it have to be dangerous? Can a person make a free, mature decision to become a prostitute, or are women and girls ultimately forced into it? Does legal adult prostitution serve as a cover for child prostitution and human trafficking?

In Colombia, as in much of Latin America, prostitution is legal, altho here it's supposed to be restricted to certain neighborhoods known as 'tolerance zones,' which are defined here and conditions for the sex industry here. In passing thru central Bogotá's tolerance zone, in the Santa Fe neighborhood, the women standing in the doorways and walking the sidewalks don't appear particularly oppressed to me. I see them chatting and joking to each other and waving to prospective customers cruising by on motorcycles or in taxis. 

But appearances may be one thing, reality another. And, who knows what goes on inside the buildings?

In my very limited contacts with prostitutes, as a journalist, I've heard about different kinds of cases. In Ecuador, where prostitution is also legal, I interviewed a young woman who as a teenager had been lured into a brothel and held there as a sex slave before managing to escape. With the help of an anti-human trafficking organization, she'd prosecuted the brothel owner, altho I don't recall how the case ended up in Ecuador's corrupt and disfunctional court system. When I interviewed her she was administering another brothel, where she said the women were treated well. The abuse she'd suffered still haunted her, but evidently she thot well enough of the profession as to have stayed in it.

I also accompanied the students to the shutting down of a legal brothel which had illegaly employed young girls. The adult prostitutes there were furious that their employer was being shuttered: "How will I feed my children?" one demanded  - but expressed no sympathy for the young girls forced into prostitution against their wills.

Prostitutes in Bogotá's Santa Fe neighborhood,
where prostitution is depenalized. 
In the recent ruling in Bogotá, the court pointed out that denying the legal rights of prostitutes would only favor the interests of the brothel owner, "with grave consequences for the prostitute," and "it also appears contrary to the principle of constitutional equality...and restricts fundamental rights, such as dignified treatment, the free development of the personality, right to earn a living and that to a just compensation for work."

The court said that not giving prostitutes benefits "also treats unfairly a minority social group that has been traditionally discriminated against."

Previous court rulings have also held that prostitution is a profession and that prostitutes have a right to work.

I also spoke to a young woman who works as a prostitute on a plaza in central Bogotá. It's outside of the designated tolerance zone, but the police seem oblivious of the many prostitutes. I met her thru one of the men renting cell on the plaza, whom I asked whether he knew a prostitute who would be willing to tell me her story.

"How about her?" he said, indicating the apparently healthy young woman seated beside him. I was surprised, both because of her appearance and her very normal dress. But she smiled cheerily at me, unashamed. For me, a person who believes that prostitution probably should be legal but has always seen prostitutes as stigmatized outsiders, I was taken aback by her openness about her profession.

This young woman, who is only 22, and is nicknamed Jeje, has been working as a prostitute for about three years. She had worked in a shop near the plaza, but didn't like having to fulfill a schedule or being supervised. While a shop employee, men propositioned her and so when she lost that job, she fell into 'the world's oldest profession.'

"You don't have to be at work at 7 a.m. You don't have a boss bossing you around. If you don't feel good, you don't have to work," she said. "And how else could I make this amount of money in so short a time?"

Most of the other prostitutes got there "for the easy money," Jeje says. In fact, in Colombia prostitutes are known as "women of the easy life."

Most of her clients are decent, Jeje says, altho there are exception "who treat you like garbage." Some resist using condoms, which she said she insists on, but none has ever forced her to have unprotected sex. Still, she acknowledged, condoms sometimes break or fall off.

That produces risks not only for the prostitute and client. A 2009 survey found that 41% of clients of prostitutes in Bogotá don't use condoms with their wives or girlfriends, potentially infecting them with diseases.

And there are other dangers - from the environment. While working the plaza, Jeje's sniffed glue, altho she hasn't become addicted, and smokes marijuana regularly.

"When you're amidst shit, some of its sticks to you," she says.

Jeje estimated that half the prostitutes on the plaza are drug addicts. The police sometimes harass the sex workers, she says - but not because they're prostitutes, but because of the drug use.

But Jeje can earn typically 40,000 pesos in twelve hours, altho that varies greatly. Yet, it's a decent income for a person with only a ninth grade education and no inclination for more studies.

But she knows she can't be a prostitute forever; "When I'm 50, who's going to ask for me?" So she says that, besides raising her son, who is three, she's saving money to open a business one day.

Jeje feels pity for the older women working the plaza - and for the many underage girls. She'd never want a young relative of her own to become a prostitute. For that matter, she doesn't let her family know her profession and hopes that her three-year-old son never finds out.

If his friends knew "they'd call him an hijo de puta (son of a whore)," a common insult in Colombia.

And, when evangelical Christians have accosted her and the other prostitutes, she says "I know it's wrong."

Men walk near the El Oasis brothel in the Santa Fe neighborhood. 
Yet, from this young woman's experience it's not clear to me why her profession is wrong - except from a religious perspective. Certainly, it has many particular dangers. But if prostitution were completely regulated and prostitutes given psychological and health support, then they might be more assertive about protecting themselves from disease and violence. As a prostitute, she's also been exposed to drugs. But is this because of prostitution's inherent nature or because, as a stigmatized profession, sex workers are pushed into such an environment?

Jeje acknowledged that if she could earn as much in a formal job, she'd prefer it. And if Jeje had more education, then she might be able to obtain such work. But Colombia is a long way from educating everybody.

And, if it did, I suspect that prostitution would continue - just more expensively.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Scenes from the 2011 Gay Pride Parade

Today was Bogotá's annual Gay Pride Parade - a colorful, flamboyant, sexual event. After seeing this, nobody should call Bogotá sexually repressed.

Colombia is relatively progressive on gay issues. Same-sex couples can register civil unions and enjoy most of the rights of marriage - except for the word 'marriage' and the right to adopt. The Constitutional Court is supposed to rule on gay marriage in July.  Gay rights advocates should be optimistic, as the high court has produced a series of progressive rulings in recent years.

Bogotá also has a gay neighborhood, Chapinero, and several organizations promoting equal rights for sexual minorities, the best known of which is Colombia Diversa.

Man with man, woman with woman, and the reverse. 

A bride who was born a man.

Extravagant dancer. 

'Disorder and pride.' I'm not sure what this referred to. 

These two guys said they represented U.S. gays. Ironically, on a national level Colombia's laws for same-sex couples are more progressive. 

A vendor at work. 

Signs urge the courts to approve gay marriage. I wonder, however, whether flamboyant  events like this one really help the gays' case with the mostly straight-laced people on the high court. 


An arboreal viewpoint. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

What's Happening with Hugo?

Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and
Raul Castro in a Havana hospital room.
On June 10, Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez was hospitalized in Havana, Cuba, for what was officially described as a 'pelvic abscess.'

Since then, the normally long-winded Chavez has kept virtually silent, with the exception of one broadast, a few photos and a couple of Twitter tweets. That's all despite a huge power blackout and a deadly riot and siege at a major prison back home.

Many Venezuelans suspect Chavez has something very serious, such as cancer. But, in the best tradition of authoritarian regimes, the Venezuelan government is keeping its leader's health a secret from his people. That may be why he's being treated in Cuba, where secrets can be kept.

Most Colombians seem to dislike the leftist Chavez, who probably has aided Colombia's guerrillas. But Colombia also wants a stable Venezuela which buys Colombian exports. And if Chavez either dies or becomes incapacitated, there's no telling who will replace him. Chavez has so dominated Venezuelan politics over the past decade that there no other person in his party is waiting in the wings.

Venezuela has a presidential election coming up next year, and Chavez's health troubles and his country's many problems make it more realistic for an opposition politician succeed him - which would delight both Bogotá and Washington.

On the other hand, since Juan Manuel Santos became Colombia's president, the two nations' relations have warmed. Santos even called Chavez 'My best friend,' earning the ire of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.
Now, Santos's investment in his leftist neighbor may be in jeopardy.

Most likely, Chavez will recover and return to the presidency. However, if his condition is serious, this will likely prevent him from ruling until 2020 or 2030, as he has suggested and his opponents fear.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan officials are assuring their people that Chavez continues governing the country from his Havana hospital room. Venezuela's Constitution seems to say that the vice president should take over - but who cares about the letter of the law in Chavez's Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Taitas of Plaza San Victorino

Few places in central Bogotá are as colorful and perpetually active as the Plaza San Victorino, the great shopping district, with its illegal street vendors, llamas, prostitutes and medicine men (and women).

Those traditional healers, or taitas, belonging to the Inga indigenous people who live in Putumayo Department, appear incongruous amidst the plaza's vice, commercialism and quadripeds.

But the taitas, whom you see hanging out in small groups wearing striped purple ponchos with bunches of beads around their necks. However, these taitas aren't pristine: many appear to be alcoholics, and their fortunetelling is quite commercialized. Today, I first talked to a woman taita and then a male one, who gave me a small bracelet which he dipped in yagé (a hallucinogen also known as ayahuasca) and promised would fix my troubles - for a price: 10,000 pesos. I asked him to cure my gut problems, and I'll be eternally grateful if it works. Afterwards, the first taita returned to find out how much I'd paid the second taita.

A bottle which the taita said contained yagé, a hallucinogen obtained from a vine.  
A taita on San Victorino. 

A handful of beads. 
A necklace. 
The Inga are descendants of what I believe are the only Colombian people who belonged to the Inca Empire. (I suspected that their name is a derivation of 'Inca.') They're famed for their curative powers.

The Ingas' territory, along the Ecuadorean border. 
These two taitas appeared to be under the influence of something other than yagé.

Passing the afternoon on San Victorino, near the sculpture called 'La Mariposa.'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Samba on La Plaza del Periodista

Drumming away.
These samba dancers jazzed up La Candelaria's La Plaza del Periodista this afternoon. Turns out that they're from the Casa de Artes Brasileiras Beco do Samba, and they enjoy performing in public places periodically. And it was clear they were having a great time dancing.

What would revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, whose statue is behind, think about this?

Nobody had more fun than this older man!

On the plaza, with Monserrate behind. 

Drum away!

Quite a hat!

The group's leader. 

Will you dance with me?

On their way home.
Call the samba school at: 245.6762 or Cel: 317-809-5059

Find them on Facebook, MySpace or on their website.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lost Man Who Guides Tourists

Nelson stands on Plaza Bolívar, Monserrate behind him. 
Nelson is one of the informal guides who explain things to tourists on Plaza Bolívar and other central Bogotá historical sites, where he is one of the few who speak English.

With his ragged clothing, drawn face and disheveled hair most tourists probably shy away from Nelson. In that case, they miss not only a history lesson, but also a moving human drama which tells lots about Colombia.

(As the commentator below points out, parts of Nelson's story sound farfetched, and it's impossible to corraborate how much is true.)

Nelson, 56, was a merchant mariner by trade, work which took him to ports in Central America and the southern United States. In 1990, he jumped ship in Texas and moved to Houston, where he worked in a hotel and married another immigrant, from Germany. But, after 14 years, the marriage turned bad and Nelson started drinking and racked up drunk driving charges. In 2004, he skipped bail and returned to Colombia with his savings.

Back in Colombia, Nelson purchased a 40 hectare farm in Bolívar Department - for a rock-bottom price. He said the seller was the widow of a farmer who had been driven off of the land and murdered by the FARC guerrillas. The wife had later succeeded in regaining title to the land, but the guerrillas' continued presence in the area didn't help real estate prices.

Nelson stands before city hall. 
Nelson said his farm did well. He planted corn, yucca and bananas and also raised fish - until one day in 2009 when the FARC guerrillas returned. The guerrilla leader told Nelson that they'd come to buy the farm - for a pittance of five million pesos. Recalling the fate of the previous owner, whose body had been pulled out of a river, Nelson thot fast. He told the guerrilla leader that he couldn't sign over the land without getting the assent of a fictional partner. The guerrilla boss assigned two bodyguards to watch over Nelson as he went to town to make phone calls. In town, Nelson said he managed to visit a pharmacy, where he bought some knock-out pills. He slipped these into the guerrillas' drinks and fled while they slept.

"After you sign, the guerrillas kill you and throw you in the river," Nelson says.

Nelson says the guerrillas have since turned his farm into a coca leaf plantation.

With his escape, Nelson became one more of Colombia's millions of displaced people - perhaps the largest number of any nation in the world.

Nelson displays the leishmaniasis
scars on his forearms.
Nelson then fled across Colombia and found work on a coca leaf plantation in Putumayo Department, where he carried loads of coca paste from the farm to drug traffickers, who processed it into cocaine for shipment to Brazil. But Nelson got leishmaniasis, a disfiguring disease which forced him to come to Bogotá for treatment. He shows off scars on his forearms and how his nose was deformed by the disease.

Every day, from 10 a.m. on, Nelson prowls Bogotá's plazas for tourists to inform. Some give him a few hundred pesos, but one German man recently paid Nelson 50 euros. Nelson said he impressed the man by using a few German phrases he'd learned from his ex-wife. Nelson earns about 20- or 30,000 pesos per day, which enables him to pay for a room in the Las Cruces neighborhood south of Plaza Bolívar.

"I manage to pay for my room, for my meals," he says.

Sometimes he comes to the aid of tourists when he sees the neighborhood's vendors ripping them off, Nelson said.

"I believe in treating the tourists well," he said. "Americans were very good to me when I lived there."

Now, with the recent approval of a law to allow compensation for the victims of Colombia's half-century-long armed conflict, Nelson hopes the government will pay him the value of the farm, which he says was worth 90 million pesos. He's got a lawyer, who will get 30% of any compensation. It won't be an easy battle. After all, Nelson said he paid much less than the farm was worth.

Once he gets his money, Nelson has a more ambitious plan: to return to the United States.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Transit Insanity on Seventh Ave.

Seventh Ave.: already congested.
Let's get this all straight: Bogotá has terrible traffic congestion, worsened by the behind-schedule Transmilenio expansion work which has sections of two main avenues shut down.

Preliminary work has already
begun on Seventh Ave. 
And, at the end of July and August, Colombia is to host the under-20 World Cup, its biggest-ever sporting event, and the country wants desperately to pull off a succesful show.

Despite all of this, at least some Bogotá officials wanted to shut down Seventh Ave. beginning this Monday, to start work on another Transmilenio line. This brilliant plan was backed by the administration of Mayor Samuel Moreno, who is now suspended from office and appears to be headed toward trial because of the scandal around the two other Transmilenio line expansions. (His brother, a senator, is already in prison.)

Fortunately, today the Institute for Urban Development (IDU) postponed the start of the work on Seventh Ave. for another three months. However, the city should push it back further and reconsider the whole deal.

Of course, Seventh Ave, badly needs some sort of efficient mass transit to replace the chaos and pollution of Seventh Ave. However, 'Transmilenio Light' plan was invented by the same Moreno administration which apparently was as concerned with filling its officials' pockets as improving Bogotá's transit. Work on Seventh Ave. has now been postponed so many times that the construction will be left to the next mayoral administration - and the frontrunner for the job, Enrique Peñalosa, advocates instead a full-scale Transmilenio line on Seventh.

Rather than forcing the city's next mayor to carry out a project which he or she doesn't believe in and which was probably cooked up with corruption, Bogotá should hold off on the Seventh Ave. until there's a consensus and a well thought-out plan for it. That plan might be a version of Transmilenio, a subway, a light rail line, a trolley or a combination of the above. But Seventh is the city's most historic and emblematic avenue and deserves to be done right. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours