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

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Makeover for Rita

Cyclists observe Rita in the Parque Nacional.
The long-suffering Rita's
graffitied torso.
Rita, 5:30 p.m., the sculpture by Enrique Grau on Carrera Septina in Bogotá's Parque Nacional has become something of an unlikely urban landmark. Standing at the entrance to one of the city's most popular parks, right beside its largest Catholic university, Rita is a prostitute.

Installed in the park in 2002, over the years, Rita has suffered for reasons more related to her location than her profession. Offering large iron plates on one of the city's primary thoroughfares, this Rita tempts not sexually frustrated males, but passersby in search of self expression, often without the redeeming qualities of artistic ability. Poor Rita has become defaced by graffiti and tagging. Soon, Bogotá plans to clean and renovate Rita.

Besides urban neglect and adolescent misbehavior, Rita's condition could also
A poster on a wall in the Santa Fe neighborhood's
red light district says 'Rejection.'
be interpreted as a representation of abuse against women, always a timely issue in Bogotá. And news of her repairs comes at a time when policies about sex work, which is legal in designated 'tolerance zones,' are once again under discussion in the wake of the sexual abuse of a 3-year-old girl taken from an informal day care center located in Bogotá's Santa Fe tolerance zone.

Whether she is honoring prostitution or warning against it, Rita's renovation won't come cheap: 27 million pesos, or about US $1,000 dollars, according to El Tiempo.

Still, it might be worthwhile, if not for the fact that Rita will get graffitied again soon after.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Piece of Paradise in South Bogotá

Tossing a frisbee amidst the trees. 
Entrance to a different reality:
El Parque Bosque San Carlos.
Uribe Uribe and Gustavo Restrepo are two of those nondescript working class enighborhoods of south Bogotá which are pleasant enough places to live, but have little more to recommend them. So, I was stunned when bicycling thru these neighborhoods today to come upon a forest - a real uban forest!

It's called the Parque Bosque San Carlos, and on a holiday afternoon like today it was full of neighbors walking their dogs, playing football, throwing frisbees and dancing. I didn't feel like I was in Bogotá at all - and much less the often grimy and monochronous southern side of the city.

San Carlos is smaller than the also treey Parque Simon Bolivar Park and Parque Nacional. But San Carlos is much more forested, and those other parks are located in the wealthier north Bogotá,whose residents have more opportunities to escape from the city. And San Carlos is a complete park, with jogging paths, futbol pitches, basketball courts, children's play areas and lots of green spaces.
Even flowers!

How did this happen? The park adjoins the Santa Clara Hospital, so the land must have once been part of the hospital's campus, which is why it wasn't built up with houses. I read that the trees, almost all of them eucalyptus, were planted around 1950, making them seventy years old. Some have gotten diseased, and in late 2016 the city closed the park for some six months and cut down more than 40 trees and planted 30 trees more adapted to the local climate.

 The success of San Carlos ought to set an example for the city to turn the unused lands around the San Juan de Dios Hospital and the Central Cemetery into parks as well.
A nice place to walk a dog - even backwards.

A sapling grows, presumably of a native tree.

The park has several children's play areas.

A birdhouse, and a glimpse of the working class neighborhood.

Parchita makes a friend.

Rolling away.

A great place to learn to ride a bike!

Enough room to play ball.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Respite for Bogotá's Breathers?

A TransMilenio bus belches its way thru central Bogotá
recently. How much cleaner will the new buses be?
In a small victory for clean air, Mayor Peñalosa increased the advantage zero-pollution buses will receive in the bidding for a new fleet for TransMilenio from 50 to 400 points.

Unfortunately, I can't discover anywhere how many total points we're talking about: Are we talking about 400 points out of a thousand, or 400 points out of a million?

But apparently the 400 points are significant, since Peñalosa promised that thanks to them many of the 1,000-plus new buses will be Euro 6: basically electric or naural gas powered.

That will be a relief for us breathers, since many of the older TM buses are veritable 'rolling chimneys' because they've exceeded their planned mileage and obviously have neither been maintained or equipped with filters.

Electric buses, at least, can never pollute, no matter how old they get or how badly they're neglected. (And, because Colombia's electricity is mostly hydroelectric, it generates relatively little greenhouse gas.)

The clean buses will cost more to buy, (altho less to maintain), and they will also require the installation of new infrastructure in TM statiions. So, they'll be expensive up front, but will save Bogotanos untold amounts in health expenditures and human suffering, as well as the economic benefits from increased tourism and businesses' willingness to move to a cleaner, more pleasant city.

But that makes me ask: If City Hall is willing to go to that expense and effort to make TM cleaner, why not bother to sanction monstrosities like this bus I saw yesterday belching its way up Calle 19?

Or this truck I spotted smoking away today along on Calle 13 near the train station?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Suspicious Border Gasoline Boom

Stirring up cocaine in a jungle laboratory. The process uses
lots of gasoline. (Photo: Business Insider
The town of Argelia, in the department of Cauca, has some 27,000 residents and 19 gas stations. However, last year the municipality racked up 3.4 million gallons of gasoline sales and 642,000 gallons of diesel sold - some three times as much as just two years before and higher per-capita than sales in Bogotá - despite Argelia's poverty and few cars.

Argelia, Cauca: booming gasoline market. Foto: RCN Radio
The paradoxical situation, reported by El Tiempo, may a simple explanation: Argelia and other rural agricultural communities with booming fuel sales also happen to have booming coca leaf and cocaine economies - and gasoline and diesel are basic ingredients for converting leaves into the drug.

The intersects with many other disfunctions. Because cocaine is illegal, those many millions of gallons of fuel are handled without any regulation or safety laws. So, once exhausted, they're often just dumped into rivers or onto the jungle floor.

The popularity of motor fuels for cocaine production is partly the fault of the Colombian government, which spends a fortune every year on fuel subsidies - particularly in border areas. Fuel subsidies make little sense socially or economically, since they go disproportionately to the wealthy. And they make absolutely no sense at all environmentally, since fossil fuel production takes a huge environmental toll all along its life cycle and burning fuels contributes to global warming. But the subsidies make sense politically, since they buy votes. The pressure to subsidize gasoline is particularly strong in areas near Ecuador and Venezuela, which subsidize their fuels much more than Colombia does.

And by subsidizing gasoline for drivers, Colombia also does so for drug producers.

Officials may be considering various strategies to deal with this problem - altho none of them likely involves raising the price of gasoline to pay for its social and environmental impacts, which would not only make cocaine production more expensive, but would also reduce traffic jams, clean the air and generally make Colombia's cities more liveable.

Solutions which Colombia is more likely to try, such as rationing fuel in some border areas, will inevitably increase smuggling and contraband, particularly from Venezuela, and enrich criminal organizations. Officials also talk about adding a chemical ingredient to fuels to make them less effective for drug making. But expect drug makers to find a way to neutralize this chemical and to increase smuggling across the border, since Colombia's neighbors certainly won't add the ingredient to their own fuels.

There's only one way to end these absurd and ineffective attempts to use ineffective policies to repair a failed one - decriminalize drugs and minimize their harm.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Our Eight-Month Battle for a Bathroom

Finally! Acueducto workers dig up the street to connect up our bathroom.
After nearly eight months of waiting, countless visits to various city offices and meeting with a seemingly endless series of bureaucrats, Bogotá Bike Tours finally has a BATHROOM.
Our bathroom as bookstore.

In case there's anybody left in Colombia who does not closely follow this blog, this drama started in September of last year, when our landladies' sewage system failed, and their old house flooded with wastewater every time it rained hard. Preferring not to live with sewage up to their knees, they hired workmen to repair the house's old pipes. The men did their job - but then came the turn of the city's aqueducto department, which had to hook our pipes up to the main line in the street.

That began endless appointments, mostly pointless, for the landladies, with the city's transit department, public space, Urban Development, and even the historical center's Public Patrimony office - each of which was supposed to sign off before acueducto could come and provide us with the great privilege of bathroom service. Meanwhile, these older women, who suffer health problems, lived with sewer service in only half of their house.

During all of these long months, the broken sidewalk where the men had worked on the house's pipes threatened the ankles, knees and hip bones of unwary pedestrians.

During this ordeal, the broken sidewalk in front of our landladies's door was a threat to passers-by.

Our bathroom as
bicycle storage room.
Meanwhile, we invented all sorts of conspiracy theories: Did the city have something against us or our landladies, two older women with health problems? Was it the mayor's goal to recapture the spirit and aromas of past centuries, when residents tossed their waste out of upper floor windows into the middle of the street? Was all this the result of lobbying by the owners of public restrooms, which wanted to monopolize the industry?

Still, we never forgot about our bathroom: We used it as a handy storeroom for books and bicycles.

The big hang-up was Patrimony, which took some six months to decide that us having a bathroom was not a threat to the neighborhood's historical patrimony. I appealed to local government offices, which just ignored our problem.

Finally, in March, they decided that our having a bathroom was no threat to the neighborhood's historical quality, and Acueducto scheduled the work for mid-April.

The finishing touches:
repairing the sidewalk.
But April came and went, and with no sign of Acueducto. It turned out that Patrimony had issued a permit to do the INDOOR work WHICH OUR LANDLADIES HAD ALREADY HAD DONE LAST YEAR.

As a last resort, we filed a tutela, which is a sort of mini lawsuit, citing constitutional reasons why we had a right to a working bathroom.A judge, thankfully, swept aside all the bureacrats' paper shuffling and box ticking and applied common sense: 'These people eat and drink and experience normal human bodily functions. So, give them a bathroom!' Finally, Acueducto showed up late one night last week and did the work.

Needless to say, in a nation with a sane, functional bureacracy, our bathroom would have been hooked up in a few days. Anything longer would have been a scandal.

So, we have a bathroom. But I'll never forget this episode, as a wonderful example of government apathy, incompetence and irresponsibility.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours