Monday, October 16, 2017

Was It Fraud?

Venezuela's official election results: Overwhelmingly red.
Can a government whose popularity is in the mid-20 percentiles, whose incompetence has given its people a shrinking economy, the world's highest inflation rate and a terrifying crime rate, and driven untold thousands of its citizens to flee to Colombia, really win in almost three-quarters of its provinces?

It strains credulity, particularly since the electoral authorities also announced a high turnout of 61% of voters for a regional election.

And fraud wouldn't be unprecedented. After July elections for members of a Constitutional Assembly, which was boycotted by the opposition, the company which supplied the voting machines called the government's turn-out numbers inflated. The assembly was widely denounced as illegitimate. Venezuela is notoriously corrupt.

Caracas Chronicles, a pro-opposition website, speculated that opposition voters lost enthusiasm and did not turn out. But does it make sense that pro-government voters would turn out in big numbers when store shelves are bare of toilet paper, medicines and basic food stufs?

Perhaps information will leak out and reveal what really happened. Until then, Venezuela's crisis is only likely to worsen.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Buying a Wayuu Bride - Sort Of

A column decorated with goat hides represents the dowries paid by young Wayuu men to their brides' families.
Before he can get married, a young man of the Wayuu indigenous people must give his bride's family a big dowry: Often 50 goats, necklaces, cattle, money and jewels.

In this matrilineal society, the valuables are supposed to go primarily to the family of the bride's mother, according to Bogotá's Museum of Regional Dress, which has a small exhibition on now about the practice.
The Museo de Trajes Regionales, located on Calle 10 
just above Plaza Bolivar, is one of 
La Candelaria's lesser-known museums.

The exhibition consists primarily of a column covered with goatskins representing the animals given by the groom. The young man generally must collect gifts from relatives and friends to amass a sufficient dowry. It's a controversial practice which persists mostly in rural areas of La Guajira.

Despite appearances, the museum's website denies that this represents a bride price, calling the payment rather the groom's 'appreciation of the prestige of the bride and her family.

"In no case is this a sale or trade of a human being," says the website.

Wayuu traditional dress.
Nevertheless, when I visited La Guajira years ago, Wayuu women told me they felt humiliated by the dowry, as tho they were being traded for livestock.

But the dowry is perpetuated across generations, since fathers insist that they be paid, to compensate them for the dowry they themselves paid their own wives' families.

The Wayuus' traditional territory was divided in two by the Colombian-Venezuelan border. While this certainly separated families, it also created a privilege for the Wayuu people, who usually can cross the border freely. Many Wayuu, particularly women, have become wealthy traders - and contrabanders.

The Guajira peninsula has a history of lawlessness, from contraband and pirates. Henri Charrière, the protagonist and author of Papillon, cohabited with Wayuu women while hiding out after escaping from Devil's Island.

The Wayuu divide themselves into clans, based on maternal descent, and these clans have historically
carried out murderous feuds. When paramilitary groups wrested control of the region from guerrillas in the mid-2000s, they sided with some clans against others, committing massacres and forcing people to flee to Venezuela.

The last few years, the Wayuu's always-dry territory has suffered a severe drought, killing many children. The situation has likely been worsened by coal mines, which have diverted streams and consume huge amounts of the region's scarce water.

And altho the Wayuu exhibition is small, the dress museum is worth visiting to see the regional and historical clothing worn by different groups of afro, indigenous and white Colombians.

Campesinos from Huila Department.

Guambiano Indigenous people from Huila Department.
A mask from an Amazonian indigenous tribe.

A view from the museum's interior.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Venezuelans are Coming, and Coming

Two young men from Venezuela sell arepas on Plaza San Victorino recently.
The two employees in a stir fry place here in La Candelaria came recently from Venezuela, where one was an attorney and the other had some small businesses. A street musician whom I knew more than a dozen years ago in Caracas just showed up in La Candelaria. The other night, I was accosted by two young Venezuelan women selling arepas venezolanas. Apparently desperate, one of them placed her hand fondly on my shoulder just a few minutes after we'd met.

A Venezuelan man and boy ask for money - supposedly for
other Venezuelans - near Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar.
Colombia, which for decades sent millions of its people overseas, is now being inundated by immigrants from oil-rich Venezuela - which until not long ago was the economic envy of the rest of the continent.

The reasons are obvious: Venezuela's incompetent, increasingly authoritarian government, has caused the economy to contract nearly 20% and inflation of almost 800%, numbers usually seen only in wartime.

The Caracas Chronicles website calculates that more than 70,000 Venezuelans have come to Colombia - but nobody knows for sure, since many undoubtedly cross the border illegaly.

According to this graph from the Caracas Chronicles blog,
the number of Venezuelans fleeing their nation far exceeds the
number of refugees crossing the Meditarrean to Europe.
The wave of foreigners has inevitably generated tensions. The two young arepa sellers talked about minor confrontations on the bus, and said that street merchants insulted and harrassed them. Undoubtedly, low income Colombians feel threatened by the wave of cheap labor. Even Colombian prostitutes have complained that Venezuelans are invading their industry, offering services at cut-rated prices.

What will happen? Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro seems determined to continue his disastrous economic policies, and shows no sign of sharing power with the oppisition. So, Venezuela will likely continue its economic tailspin, and possibly end up in some sort of civil war.

Expect the Venezuelans to keep coming.
Many thousands of Venezuelans pack Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar
during a recent vote arranged by that country's
opposition parties.
According to one poll published by the Caracas Chronicles
website, the great majority of Venezuelans
want to leave their country.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 6, 2017

Paint it Before It's Gone

This non-descript three-story home on Calle 26B and Carrera 4 in La Macarena is due to be demolished in a few months. But until then it's living its most colorful chapter as the canvas for a multitude of Bogotá street artists, who have painted it inside and out. 
Called 'Galería Fenix', after the mythological bird which was reborn from its own ashes, the paintings are supposed to represent life, death and rebirth. This is third such project since 2015 by the LAVAMOÁ TUMBA arts collective, always in such doomed buildings. The group's name means, informally, 'We're going to knock it down.'
The organizers expect the paintings to remain there for about two months, or until the building gets demolished. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Motors Matter More Than Lungs

Straight out of TransMilenio's tailpipes and into our lungs.
Bogotá's Secretariat of the Environment just decided not to require TransMilenio and Sitp buses to use filters to reduce their pollution.

Anybody who traveles Bogotá's streets can see why many of those buses are called 'rolling chimneys.'
Air pollution causes thousands of premature deaths in Bogotá each year, as well as untold suffering for the aged and for people with asthma and other breathing ailments.

But the agency that's supposed to protect Bogotá's environment (and presumably our health) took the side of the bus owners, who claim that filters would damage their engines. That might come as a surprise in the many cities around the world which have required filters for years - and where residents breathe clean air. It's enough to make one suspect that the Bogotá bus owners' real agenda is to save money by sending their unfiltered filth belching into our atmosphere.

A SITP bus does what it knows best:
pump billions of diesel particles into our air.
Instead, the law instructs bus owners to select from a range of anti-pollution options, including valves, conventional filters, magnetic filters, etc. In other words, by giving the owners many alternatives, none will be enforced.

And even if the owners are right about the engine damage, it only means an additional cost - undoubtedly still much cheaper than the immense health and environmental damage caused by Bogotá's toxic air pollution.

Besides the medical and environmental impacts, how many companies have chosen to locate elsewhere because of the gray air? How many tourists have opted to spend their time and money elsewhere to give their lungs a break?

Putting the economic interests of bus owners first is a bad bargain for the city all around.

Bogotá's environmental agency has made it clear: Their motors are woth more than our lungs.

An afterthought: The polluters are shifting their costs onto cyclists and pedestrians in a very concrete way: by forcing them to buy the filters, to cover their own mouths.

Dressed right for Bogotá's air.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, September 29, 2017

Visa Blues

Sad and slow: Visa services row beside the U.S. Embassy.
Went to the U.S. Embassy the other week to get a new passport, and the folks there who offer support services for U.S. visa seekers are suffering.

Fewer than before: Visa seekers and their friends and
relatives wait outside the embassy.
The kid who took my passport photo pointed to the mostly empty space in front of his shop. Last year, that was full of visa applicants and their relatives, he said, sadly.

"That man has got us like this," he said, sticking his forefinger into his own neck.

Not difficult guessing who 'that man' is.

Coincidentally, I've read that U.S. tourism and applications by foreign students are down, too.

I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, where the Internet economy is booming. Seems like every other shop and restaurant has a 'help wanted' sign: but Trump's stricter immigration laws are keeping out the immigrants who want to do those jobs, harming the economy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Fiscalía's New Museum

Inside Bogotá's newest museum - the Fiscalia's.
Add to Bogotá's memorable museums its newest one: The Fiscalía's.
Carlos Lehder.

Yep, seriously. The Fiscalia, or Attorney General, the agency charged with accusing and prosecuting criminals, has played a key role in the biggest dramas in Colombia's recent decades, many of which are on display in the new museum. Most impressively, the museum also includes the government's own sins.

The museum is also unintentionally a testament to the violence, corruption and general mayhem which drug prohibitionism has inflicted on Colombia. Not surprisingly, one subject the museum does not touch is decriminalization - despite its demonstrated success - because it would take away the Fiscalia's business.

Everybody's heard of Pablo Escobar, but many fewer know the name Carlos Lehder - even tho he was crazier and perhaps even richer than Escobar. Lehder admired both John Lennon and Adolf Hitler. He tried starting his own populist political party. And he even bought a Caribbean island, kicked off the inhabitants and used it to party and stockpile cocaine. But he was so unstable that Escobar supposedly betrayed him to the DEA. Lehder is still rotting away in a U.S. federal prison.

Model of an early drug-smuggling sub.
Supposedly, Escobar bought a used Soviet submarine to smuggle cocaine north, but never actually used it. Today, drug cartels build home-made diesel submarines and even aquatic drones, load them with cocaine and send the drug north.
Martyred Justice Minister
Rodrigo Lara Bonillo.

Another less-remembered character of the era was the crusading Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonillo, who prosecuted members of the Medellin cartel and was gunned down for it in Bogotá in 1984. His killing triggered the war between the government and Esocbar.

In the end, the leaders of the less-famous Cali cartel were captured and extradited to U.S. prisons, where some still remain. In contrast, many Medellin cartel leaders gave themselves up and received short sentences in Colombia - despite being much more murderous.

A jet ski which supposedly
belonged to Pablo Escobar.
Both the Medellin and Cali cartels were destroyed during the 1990s, and the paramilitaries and most guerrillas have also since disbanded. Yet, today Colombia probably exports record amounts of cocaine.

Bloque de Busqueda members looking at Esocbar's corpse
on a Medellin rooftop in 1993.
However, foreigners, particularly those recently arrived in Colombia, may not recognize other episodes - such as the Proceso 8000.

In the Proceso 8000, Liberal Party Pres. Ernesto Samper's (1994-98) presidential campaign was discovered to have received money from the Cali cocaine cartel.

The investigation brought the conviction of other government officials, but Samper himself was found 'neither guilty nor innocent' by a Congress - altho today few doubt he knew about the dirty money. It led to Washington canceling Samper's U.S. Visa - a huge embarrasment for a close ally - and the U.S. The episode was named after a folder containing key documents - altho I did not see that folder in the museum.

Cali cartel leaders on their
way to prison in the U.S.
One might trace Colombia's rejection of its traditional political parties and the eventual election of Pres. Uribe partially to the Proceso 8000 scandal. After Samper, came Pastrana's failed negotiation with the FARC, and then Uribe's U.S.-backed military offensive against the FARC, which many believe forced them to the bargaining table - albeit at a huge cost in human rights. The hard-right Uribe did not come from either of the two traditional political parties.

Display about the FARC guerrillas.
After the end of the Cali and Medellin cartels, the violence and narcotrafficking didn't let up. Colombia still had to deal with the socialist FARC and ELN guerrillas, which were born in the 1960s, and their right-wing paramilitary enemies.

A captured FARC document listing weapons,
including gun cartridges and explosives.
The government didn't defeat any of these groups. The paramilitaries demobilized during the mid-2000s, receiving up to 8-year terms, despite horrific crimes. The government also negotiated a controversial demobilization deal with the FARC and is now talking to the ELN.

FARC propaganda.
A laptop belonging to FARC leader 'Mono Jojoy' recovered
after he was killed in a government bombardment in 2010.

Probably the darkest chapter in recent Colombia history was paramilitarism - the right-wing death squads organized by landowners with government and military collaboration, which carried out many massacres, often of campesinos, including women and children, based only on suspicion of sympathy for the guerrillas.

The jeep driven by police investigating crimes in
1989 in Santander Department. 
One of the more notorious of the massacres carried out by paramilitaries with collaboration from the regular military was that of La Riochela, in 1989 in Santander Department. Fifteen judicial investigators had traveled to a remote area to investigate killings. Paramilitary fighters stopped them and cold bloodedly murdered twelve of them under orders from a Medellin cartel leader and with support from the regular military. After the killings, the 'paras' hid their weapons in a military base.

Victims of the La Rochela massacre.

Yet another dark chapter involving the regular military were the 'false positives' killings during the
Uribe government. At that time, the military gave military units rewards of bonuses and time off for killing guerrillas. Some units responded by kidnapping poor young men, killing them and disguising them as guerrillas in order to collect the rewards. The killings received national attention when a group of young men were kidnapped from Soacha, in south Bogotá, and later found dead near the Venezuelan border, labeled as guerrillas.

An exhumation kit for buried corpses.

Running thru the museum's displays, of course, is the subject of drug trafficking, which has helped finance nearly all of Colombia's violent groups (and some non-violent ones).

A cocaine.making lab. Lots of chemicals involved. Cocaine is niether green nor organic.
And cocaine can and has been smuggled inside nearly everything.
Coffee beans with cocaine inside.

'Candies' used for smuggling cocaine.

Colombian clock used for smuggling cocaine.

Pool balls, used for smuggling cocaine.

A car tire used for smuggling cocaine.
Unsurprisingly, the museum does not touch the subject of decriminilizing drugs, a policy which has produced lots of benefits when tried in Portugal. That doesn't surprise, because such a policy would reduce the Fiscalia's business.

The Museo de la Fiscalia is located in this building on Carrera 13 just south of Calle 19, in central Bogotá.
You can leave your bike in the parking lot across the street. Admission is free. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours