Sunday, April 22, 2018

Innumerable Oxxos

An Oxxo about to open in Las Aguas, beside the Plaza del Periodista.
Get your junk food fix here: An Oxxo
window on 19th street.
Beside La Plaza del Periodista, a new Oxxo appears. There's already one on the other side of the plaza, as well as another down 19th St., as well as a half-dozen more around La Candelaria.

Is there no limit to the market for the sort of refined, high-fat, high-salt and alchoholic fare which Oxxo specializes in?

Buy doritos!
Most likely, Oxxo's plan is to take away from the neighborhood stores this vice segment of the industry  - which I imagine is also the most profitable segment. Once they've lost their most profitable sales, the family-run stores will die, depriving the neighborhood of the healthy fruits and vegetables they sell, but which are too troublesome for Oxxo to bother with. This produces what in the U.S. is called a 'healthy food desert.'

But taking sales from the traditional stores can't be the whole story. The market for things which ruin
A family-run neighborhood shop, featuring
fruits and vegetables.
our health, like sugar, salt and fat-packed foods, tobacco and etc., must be pretty elastic. Push fat, salt, sweets and alchohol in people's (and particularly children's) faces and - surprise, surprise - they'll buy more of them.

Who wins? Oxxo and the junk food industry, and Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionare who owns the chain.

Who loses? Our health.


Across the plaza, another Oxxo.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, April 20, 2018

The World's Tallest Shopping Mall?


The 19th Street entrance to the Bacatá's shopping mall.
The BD Bacatá was supposed to be a Bogotá landmark - and it is turning out to be, just not in the way its builders and the city had hoped.

At 67 stories and 217 stories, it is the tallest building in Colombia, the second tallest in South America and the world's first crowd-funded high-rise - and may be close to going broke.

Huawei, one of the mall's tenants.
According to news reports, the builders haven't paid contractors, and investors are asking where their money is. Even the building's name has been seized as an asset, according to one report.

The builders insist that they will finish the building - but it's already years overdue.

Meanwhile, some of the apartments in the shorter northern tower have been occupied, and the ground floor mall is functioning, altho some of the stores have yet to open.

Fashionable bags, coming soon.
Building a mega-project in a run-down section of downtown Bogotá always looked like a challenge. And the project ran into various challenges, including a huge rock at the site, and legal complications stemming from the building's wide variety of tenants: the shopping mall, offices, restaurants, apartments and a luxury hotel.
The Bacatá seen from Plaza Las Nieves,
a run-down district a few blocks away.

The project was perhaps a bad idea for non-economic reasons as well. Its adjoining streets are already congested and chaotic, and the surrounding blocks have little public space and no green space at all.

For the good of Bogotá, and especially downtown, let's hope that the Bacatá limps to completion. The blocks to the project's north are full of apartment blocks and university buildings under construction. It would be a pity to have an unfinished eyesore standing between the university district and the historical center.

If the Bacatá's owners cannot round up the resources to complete their project, hopefully the bank or a big investor (Donald Trump?) will step in a do so.

Until then, call the Bacatá's south tower the world's tallest shopping mall.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, April 16, 2018

Gaitán Revisionism

Gaitán supporters at the site of his assassination during the 70th anniversary, April 9 last week.
Gaitán DVDs on sale
on the anniversary of his
assassination last week.
Seventy years ago last week, on April 9, 1948 on Carrera 7's sidewalk Juan Roa Sierra gunned down a leftist, firebrand politician, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, triggering the Bogotazo riots and creating a popular saint. With all the attention given to the martyr Gaitán around his asssassination's 70th anniversary, it's worth taking a closer look at the man - and his imperfections.

I'm not disputing Gaitan's passion and sincerity. And there's no questioning the courage with which as
congressman he denounced the 1928 massacre, by Colombian soldiers backed by the United States, of banana workers employed by the United Fruit Company.

However, if Gaitán was sincere in his motives, some of his methods and actions can be questioned. And that makes one wonder what he would have done if he'd been elected president.

A monument to Gaitán on Calle 26 near the Central Cemetery.
Gaitán had, after all, already served as senator, minister of labor and of education and mayor of Bogotá. His term as mayor had been most polemical, as he tried to impose draconian - some would say almost fascist - policies, such as dictating to residents what colors to paint their houses, requiring shoeshiners and taxidrivers to wear uniforms - and, most notoriously of all, prohibiting the ruana from the streets of Bogotá. The ruana, a sort of overcoat, is used by Colombia's poor, particularly country people, so banning it was tantamount to expelling the poor from Bogotá. The measures were intended to 'cleanse' and 'beautify' the city for its anniversary, but they got Gaitán ousted prematurely from office.

Just imagine if a right-wing politician like Alvaro Uribe were to try something like that. We'd never hear the end of it. But because it was Gaitán who did it, the episode gets forgotten.

It's perhaps not surprising that Gaitán had fascist tendencies. After all, he studied law in Rome in the 1920s, under Mussolini. Gaitán's populist, angry speaking style was undoubtedly also influenced by Mussolini. So, it's perhaps significant that, as far as I've heard, Gaitán never denounced the European fascists' hatemongering, mass murder and warmaking.

Gaitán was a succesful lawyer. But evidently not a crusading, moralistic one. After all, the very day he was assassinated Gaitán and his friends were celebrating the previous night's court victory - the freeing of a military officer who had murdered a journalist.

If Gaitán was unprincipled enough to defend a journalist's killer, what could the nation have expected
Gaitán's old house, now a museum, in the Teusaquillo
neighborhood. During his life, Gaitán was criticized
for his expensive lifestyle while rallying the poor
against the wealthy.
from him as president, in terms of rule of law? Of respect for a free press? Of civilian control of the military? Some speculate that a president Gaitán would have refused to relinquish power and become yet another Latin American strongman.

Part of the idolization and martyrization of Gaitán is the belief that if he had survived he would surely have been elected president. But that itself is far from certain. Gaitán was on the left edge of the Liberal Party, which was badly divided internally. And Gaitán was a very polarizing candidate, loved by many and hated by many. He might not have won the Liberals' nomination, or might have lost to a Conservative candidate. (A Conservative in fact was elected Colombia's next president.)

A strong parallel can be made to Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for the Democratic Party's nomination for U.S. president. Like Colombia's Liberals, the Democratic Party was badly divided at the time, particularly over the war in Vietnam and ultimately lost the presidency to Richard Nixon.

Another aspect of Gaitán's matyrization are the conspiracy theories around his assassination: some claim that he was killed by the Conservative Party, by the Russians, by the Cubans, or - most of all - by the CIA.

These are interesting theories, but they all lack evidence. Yes, Gaitán had lots of enemies inside and outside of Colombia, many of whom would have loved to see him dead. But I've read a lot about Gaitán's assassination and never found a single piece of concrete evidence of a conspiracy.

Gaitán's apparent assassin, Juan Roa Sierra, was seized and lynched by a furious crowd immediately after the shooting, making it impossible to be definitively prove that he was the assassin or to know whether there was a conspiracy behind him. (Gaitán's killing triggered the horrific riots remembered as the Bogotazo, and the following low-grade civil war known as La Violencia.) But the crowd must have had a reason for attacking Roa. And, afterwards, Colombia hired Scotland Yard to investigate the assassination, who also concluded that Roa had done it.

And if the CIA had been behind Gaitán's killing, we'd know about it. After all, the CIA backed coups in Chile, Guatemala, Iran and other places, all of which is well documented from released CIA files. And the CIA tried many times to assassinate Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, and that is also well-documented. (Castro, coincidentally, was in Bogotá at the time of Gaitán's assassination and had a meeting scheduled with Gaitán that very afternoon.) If the CIA were behind Gaitán's killing, we'd know it by now.

We don't want to hear about the imperfections and failings of the 'great man' many believe Gaitan to have been. And that's amplified when the man is martyred. But John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert were cold warriors, and Robert worked for red-baiter and hatemonger Joseph McCarthy. Abraham Lincoln was racist and made a fortune as a lawyer by representing railroad companies when he might have been defending escaped slaves who being hunted down by southerners who claimed to own them.. The Rev. Martin Luther King was a womanizer. Winston Churchill was an unabashed imperialist and held backwards, racist beliefs which would make him a pariah by today's progressive standards. After the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara managed a prison where inmates, including young boys, were executed without trial just for having been part of the old regime.

None of these defects prevent these men from being 'great' because they stood for or accomplished important things - even if they had big flaws.

It is uncomfortable to think that a 'great man' who changed history, or might have, was killed by a maladjusted nobody. But that seems to have been the case over and over again. It's much more interesting and satisfying to believe in a conspiracy or great dark forces. But, to do that, one needs proof.

Who knows why Gaitán chose to represent a murderous military man - particularly when the military was murdering Liberals? Were the rest of his cases more idealistic, or similar?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, April 13, 2018

Trump Won't Be Missed

A recent anti-Trump march in Bogotá portrayed Trump as a fascist. 
Few of the heads of state at this week's Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru are likely to miss Donald Trump. Trump, after all, has done all he could to insult, ignore and offend Latin America.

The White House justified Trump's absence by saying that he needed to focus on events in Syria, where the vicious Assad government recently used poison gas on its own people. That's certainly important. El Tiempo newspaper, however, pointed out that Trump often governs by Twitter, making his excuse less than convincing. Others speculate that Trump wanted to stay in Washington to deal with his mutiple legal troubles stemming from the women who allege they had sexual relationships with him.

The New York Times observes that even before Trump, the U.S. was losing influence in Latin America to China, which is now the largest trading partner of Brazil, Chile and Peru and has made huge infrastructure investments in the region.

Trump had also planned to visit Colombia, one of the few nations which still has lukewarm relations with Washington. But U.S. Vice President Pence, who will replace Trump, will skip Colombia, which he visited last year. Colombia feels stood up, editorializes El Tiempo.

The summit will now lack its two most polemical heads of state, Trump and Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, who first insisted on participating in the summit and then decided to boycott it after recognizing that he wasn't wanted.

With the two polarizing figures gone, perhaps the rest of the leaders can get something done.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Counting the Venezuelans

Venezuelans wait in La Candelaria to register with a government office.
By some estimates, more than a million Venezuelans have fled into Colombia over the past several
years, fleeing their own nation's hyperinflation, sinking economy, soaring crime rates and empty stores and pharmacies.

Colombia has been remarkably accepting, perhaps because in past decades Venezuela received innumerable Colombians fleeing the violence here, and because many of the Venezuelans crossing the border are children or grandchildren of Colombians who fled into Venezuela.

Now, Colombia wants the Venezuelan immigrants to formulize their status here by registering.

A money-transfer place in Bogotá's red light district

Waiting to transfer money to Venezuela.
Remarkably, there's been little public resentment against the Venezuelans, except for some concern about crime and grumbling by low-income workers and prostitutes that the Venezuelans are taking away jobs. But fortunately so far in the congressional and presidential campaigns, no populist candidate has seized on the Venezuelans to get votes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

All Welcome Antanas Mockus!

'Smile, Mr. Mockus!'
Antanas Mockus, ex-Bogotá mayor, failed presidential candidate and newly-elected senator, appeared on Jimenez Avenue today and was treated like a rock star. 

An unlikely politician, Mockus was a philosophy and mathematics professor and rector of the Universidad Nacional, known for 'eccentricities' such as riding his bicycle to work (why is that eccentric?) and once dropping his pants and displaying his behind to an audience of protesting students.
As mayor, Mockus was known for his probity and for innovative public policies such as employing mimes to teach social responsibility.

He later ran for president and lost, perhaps because people felt that such a man wouldn't be suited to lead a war against leftist guerrillas.
A few years ago, Mockus was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but he has confronted the disease with stoicism and courage, saying recently that he has years of contributions left to make. As the Green Party's standard bearer, he received the second largest vote of any senatorial candidate.
Perhaps that's why Mockus receives this warm welcome, unusual for a politician and unheard of for a mathematics professor.





By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Hail Mary for the Amazon

Deforestation in the Amazon is accelerating. (Photo: WWF)
In what might be called a desperate hail mary pass to save the beleaguered Amazon rainforest, a Colombian court gave the region region rights, a bit similar to a person.

The concept is great. After all, Colombian is suffering a terrible - and accelerating - loss of forest. Between the years 2015 and 2016 deforestation rose 44%, destroying close to 200,000 hectares of forest in 2016 and accompanying biodiversity, much of it in the Amazon. And deforestation apparently has speeded up since then.

The acceleration may result in part from the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, who
Deforestation in Brazil. (Photo: Getty Images)
controlled a lot of territory in Colombia's remote regions and its jungle south. By threatening miners, farmers and cattleraisers in remote regions with robbery, extortion and kidnapping, the guerrillas involuntarily protected those areas. Today, the FARC are demobilizing, leaving Colombia's natural diversity open for business - and exploitation.

But the basic motives underlying deforestation are capitalistic: A jungle, tragically, is worth more dead and gone than it is living and dynamic - at leat in the short term. Loggers, soybean farmers, coca leaf growers, mahogany loggers and others feed their families next month and next year by destroying forest, although all of us will pay much more in the long run.

The court's ruling is very admirable - and very idealistic.

But unfortunately, the illegal miners, ranchers and loggers who are clearing Colombia's jungles are not likely to respect a judge's opinion. The fundamental problem is that the jungle contains immense resources waiting to be stolen, with almost no protection. In some regions, just a few rangers are charged with protecting tens of thousands of square kilometers of wildlands, leaving them unprotected at all. It's a depressing situation with no solution in sight.

However, while courts and park rangers aren't likely to do much, each of us can reduce pressure on the Amazon a bit by minimizing our own consumption of Amazon products, such as hardwoods, beef and soybeans produced by deforesting jungle.

A bus pollutes central Bogotá. Don't kids have a
right to be protected from this?
This lawsuit was filed in the name of Colombian children's right to a healthy environment and protection from the impacts of global warming. The right to a healthy environment is in Colombia's Constitution. That begs the question why courts don't protect urban kids' rights to a clean environment with healthy, breathable air?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Stupidest Crime?

Jesus Santrich, ex-guerrilla leader and alleged narcotrafficker,
back when he was super cool.
For most Colombians, serving in Congress would be a dream job: Get paid millions to sit around talking, a free security detail and other benefits - and often you don't even need to show up for work. And there's also the widely-believed potential for corrupt side benefits from selling political influence.

But all that was not enough for Jesús Santrich, a leader of the FARC guerrillas who until a few days ago was set to assume one of the guerrilla group-turned-political-party's 10 guaranteed seats in Congress. Like the other ex-guerrilla leaders, Santrich didn't even have to campaign for his seat, which was guaranteed in the peace agreement. (And he wouldn't have gotten it democratically, since the FARC's vote was disappointingly tiny.)

According to Colombian police and the U.S.'s DEA, while getting ready to serve in Congress, Santrich was also scheming to traffic tons of cocaine to the United States. The FARC guerrillas were notorious for participating in the cocaine trade, but under the peace treaty the guerrillas signed with the Colombian government, narcotrafficking was considered a political crime eligible for amnesty. But, according to the allegations, Santrich continued trafficking after the deal was signed, which would be a crime.

Ironically, the alleged narcotrafficking attempt would be a trivial crime compared with the many
A sensationalist newspaper gloats over Santrich's arrest.
outrages the FARC guerrillas committed while Santrich was in charge of part of their radio propaganda. Those included massacres, recruitment of child soldiers, forced displacement of peasants, violence against girls and women, kidnapping and on and on and on. But those crimes are generally being 'punished' with a slap on the wrist.

The FARC have charged that Santrich is being framed. But U.S. and Colombian authorities say that their evidence, including recorded phone conversations, is strong. And it seems very unlikely that the Santos government, which has made peace with the FARC the center of its administration, would want to endanger that agreement.

If, as seems likely, Santrich is extradited to the U.S. for trial and imprisonment, his story will stand out for one thing: immense stupidity.

The case is reminiscent of the story of cartel leader Pablo Escobar's son Juan Pablo, who moved to Buenos Aires and became a successful architect, but allegedly continued using his old narco connections to help Colombian traffickers make deals with Argentine businessmen. Go figger.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, April 9, 2018

Day of the Victims 2018

A memorial artwork in front of the San Francisco Church.
April 9, the anniversary of the 1948 assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, is also the 'Day of the Victims.' The commemoration had a special significance this year because of the signing of the peace agreement between the government and FARC guerrillas, the ongoing murders of social leaders and the 70th anniversary of Gaitán's assassination.

Events included memorials at the site of Gaitán's assassination, at his house, on Plaza Bolivar, and also a march by indigenous people.

A crowd of 'Gaitanistas' gathered by the spot where he was assassinated.

How about a Gaitán video?

A memorial beside the National Museum. Interestingly, soldiers participated in the memorial, altho the military itself has been accused of many rights violations.
'Long live the Embera women.'


Demanding reloation of the Wounaan people.
Dancing in the treet.
A memorial artwork by the San Francisco Church.
Carrying caskets down Carrera Septima.
On Plaza Bolivar, denouncing the killng of social leaders.

On Plaza Bolivar.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Tell TM to Stop Smoking Us!

Watch out! Poison gas coming!
TransMilenio is in the process of making a momentous decision, which could affect Bogotanos'
Run, run, away!
quality of life for decades to come. The bus rapid transit system is preparing to purchase some 1300 new buses to replace existing ones, which have outlived their planned life expectancy of 12 years.

But, what kind of buses will TM buy?

City officials say they plan to purchase mostly Euro 5 buses, which should be less polluting than the current ones. That, however, will depend on how they are maintained. And, judging from the smoke-belching quality of some of the current buses, the maintenance leaves lots to be desired.


Clean alternatives include hydrogen, natural gas and electric buses.

Why the city has apparently not seriously considered the first two is beyond me. Those cleaner
A 'clean, green' low-emission bus
purchased recently by TM.
engines may not have the same accelaration power as diesel, but I've seen electric buses charging up steep hills in San Francisco, California. And most of Bogotá is flat. Bogotá HAS considered electric buses, and even has one operating as a test vehicle. From what I've read, its disadvantages are mostly cost. Electric vehicles cost more to buy, and the infrastructure for supplying sufficient electricity and charging the buses would be costly.

Mayor Peñalosa also says that electric versions of the long, bending buses which Bogotá plans to buy simply do not exist.

Transmilenio's sole electric bus. (Photo: http://bogota.gov.co/temas-de-ciudad/ambiente/primer-bus-electrico-de-transmilenio-en-bogota)
However, electric vehicles suffer fewer breakdowns and cost less to maintain, so Bogotá could save money in the long run. And then there are all the health costs from pollution, and all the companies which decided not to locate here and tourists who decided not to come here because they didn't want to breathe smoke.
A trollebus in Bogotá. The last clean trollebuses left Bogotá's streets in 1991, leaving us with belching diesel vehicles.
(Photo: Barry Blumstein)

The old is new again: A historic electric bus in San Francisco, California.
A modern zero emission electric bus rolls up a hill in San Francisco, California.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours