Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Troubles with Doña Juana

Trash piled high on Jimenez Ave. today. 
Few Bogotanos have ever seen Doña Juana, and many probably haven't even heard of her. But every one of us interacts with Juana every day, many times, each time we discard a piece of trash.

Doña Juana is the city's landfill,

Recycling bins outside the Paloquemao market.
The market does actually compost its organic wastes,
but I suspect that other 'recyclables' end up in the landfill.
In case you thought you've seen even more trashpiles on the streets than normal, you're not hallucinating. Doña Juana's neighbors have blocked the landfill's access roads in protest against the profusion of flies and rats around the landfill.

The neighbors also want the city to build a trash classification facility by the landfill, where recyclable materials could be recovered - and which would mean employment for them. Bogotá recycles only a tiny amount of its waste.

Recycling is good, but better still would be reducing the amount of material sent to the landfill in the first place. The recent law taxing disposable plastic bags seems to have made some difference. A similar tax on other disposable packaging, such as plastic bottles, would be another good step.
A typical scene: Trash inside '
recycling' bins. 

Instead, since land is cheap, the city will just once again expand the dump's boundaries, and these environmental conflicts will repeat themselves.

These plastic bottles will become trash after one use, and fill up the landfill.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, August 14, 2017

Pence (who?) Comes to Colombia?

Yankee go home! Out with Trump/Pence!
United States Vice President Mike Pence visited Bogotá yesterday, causing little polemic - probably because nobody here's heard of him. In contrast to Pence's restraint, U.S. Pres. Trump was meanwhile busy threatening North Korea and Venezuela with military attacks and making news by failing to condemn neo Nazis and white supremecists who staged a violent protest demonstration in the state of Virginia.

Yankee Go Home! (Say the communists)
Pence reportedly talked with Colombian Pres. Santos about the boom in cocaine production and the economic and democratic  in Venezuela, whose violence might spill into Colombia. The U.S. government would like Colombia to resume using aircraft to spray Roundup on coca leaf plantations and to more strongly condemn Venezuela's authoritarian government, which is rewriting its Constitution to its pleasure.

Colombia said that it stopped using the glyphosate herbicide in mid-2015 because of concerns about it causing cancer, although many analysts considered it a conciliatory gesture to the FARC guerrillas, who make a lot of their money off of drug sales. The FARC recently signed a peace deal with the government and are in the process of demobilizing. Whatever the value of aerial spraying, the coca leaf boom was caused by more fundamental factors, such as supply and demand. As for Venezuela, its government is corrupt, incompetent and growing more and more authoritarian. But a military invasion could turn into another Vietnam and would generate tremendous sympathy for the Venezuelan government - and anger toward the U.S. Better to hope that the Maduro government collapses from its own incompetence.

About the only ones criticizing Pence's visit seem to be the communists, who plastered downtown poles with 'Yankee go home!' posters. But the communists are awkward defenders of democracy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The End of AirBnB?

A new law requiring (as I read it) every person who wants to offer a room on AirBnB to register as a tourist agency is an ill-designed attempt to benefit the hotel industry by prohibiting competition.

It's understandable that hotels and hostels, which undoubtedly pay lots of taxes and suffer under reams of regulations, see AirBnB as unfair competition. But the 'sharing economy', which also includes Uber, has become a big part of our culture and economy, enabling an untold number of Colombians to earn extra income while putting a vacant room to use. As a person who runs a tourism business myself and has to pay lots of taxes and comply with often unreasonable - and sometimes impossible - laws, I can assure you that nobody will suffer thru this bureacratic nightmare just to rent an extra bedroom. Instead, if the law is enforced, it will either shut the sharing economy down (as taxis are attempting to do to Uber) or push it into illegality.

The magic of the Internet has made it possible for people with excess resource - such as an empty
Rooms for rent: Should this home's owner
have to register as a tourism agency?
room or apartment - to hook up with others seeking that resource, such as travelers. In the Internet ages, this is not likely to go away, no matter what hoteliers and taxi drivers may wish. By banning AirBnB, Colombia would hurt itself by turning away travelers who don't like staying in hotels. Those people will instead go to Argentina, Mexico or some other jurisdiction which does permit room sharing, and Colombian travel agencies, handicraft makers, restaurants and bus companies will all lose out for the sake of defending the hotels' obsolete monopoly.

This is all particularly true of a nation like Colombia which is just establishing itself as a tourist destination. Eliminating a whole category of lodging won't help its case.

AirBnB-type services creat real concerns, such as a neighborhood losing its character, or becoming unaffordable to its traditional residents, altho these things can happen anyway. Ways to handle these concerns are to limit the number of days per year which a property can be rented out, or prohibiting an individual from renting out multiple properties. And taxes can much more easily be collected from the company than from each individjal property owner.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Futile Fine

Forced into clandestinity? Sex workers wait for clients
on a Bogotá plaza.
To the list of unenforceable and destructive laws, you can add the proposal by a congresswoman to impose a fine for purchasing sexual services.'

A sign in La Candelaria offers 'erotic massages.'
Prostitution has existed - legally or illegally - since time immemorial, and a fine isn't likely to change that. In Colombia, it's legal - or at least depenalized - in certain designated areas, known as 'tolerance zones,' altho that has done little to limit the industry. But fining johns will only push this already troubled and dangerous lifestyle deeper into clandestinity and give cops yet another opportunity to illicit bribes.

The fine, invented by Liberal congresswoman Clara Rojas, is supposed to finance programs to help 'victims of prostitution' leave the business, may be a well-intentioned effort to help prostitutes, many of whom undoubtedly suffer abuse and exploitation, and some of whom are trafficking victims. However, many prostitutes don't consider themselves to be victims at all, but sex workers.

"It wasn't created to help or protect sex workers," said Fidelia Suárez, president of the syndicate of sex workers. "We are not victims or disabled people, but people who made our own decisions to do this work. Fining those who pay for sexual services amounts to penalizing the whole (sex worker) population.

"It is stigmatizing and discriminatory."

'Rough Girls.' Advertising for webcam
workers on a post near private universities.
And the fines, which would start at around 3 million pesos per infracción and increase every two years from then on, would amount to a prohibition on sexual servicies - if the law were actually enforced. It wouldn't be, of course, particularly since most clients of prostitutes appear to be blue collar men who earn little. Rather, they'd find it easier to just pay off the police.

There are better ways to help sex workers who want to leave the profession, such as offering them counseling, alternative work training and help with substance abuse issues. Police and social workers might also offer assistance to the underage girls who openly prostitute themselves in some areas - and carry out sting operations to catch their clients.

Colombia's sex workers also have another issue on their hands - a reported flood of Venezuelan prostitutes who have come here fleeing their collapsing country. In response to a court case involving a group of Venezuelans working in a brothel near the border, sex worker organizer Suárez said Colombians should support their Venezuelan colleagues and opposed expelling them back home.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lighting Up La Jimenez

This week, as part of the Fesival de Verano, parts of La Candelaria's Jimenez Avenue is lit up. The works were done by artists from far-flung locales, including Peru, Spain, Australia and even Colombia. Take a walk, and play with the lights.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A (Police) Code for Corruption

Don't talk back! If this kid being arrested talks back
to the junior cops, it could cost him.
You can insult the president, your grandma or even a priest - but disrespect a cop and you'll pay for it: 657,000 pesos, according to the new Codigo de Policia.

Keep you mouth shut and cooperate! Police evict
booksellers from a downtown sidewalk.
No matter that 'disrespect' is a vague term, inevitably left up to the cop's own judgement - and that speaking one's mind about the police seems like a basic civil right.

And don't urinate in public, either, because that means a 736,000 peso fine.

And if you're brutish and prejudiced enough to insult a member of the LGBT community, you might have to shell out 657,000 pesos. But insulting anybody is bad, so why should LGBT people be singled out, when insulting someone for being fat, female, black or Armenian seems just as wrong?

The new Police Code, which went into effect on Monday, may be well-intentioned. But its fines seem arbitrary, out of proportion and destined to increase police corruption.

Had too much fun at the local bar, and cop spotted you pissing against a tree on the way home? Maybe that's a bad thing, except for the nitrogen-starved tree - but what's the likelihood that you'll be willing to pay close to a million pesos for your transgression? Instead, you'll reach in your pocket for a 20,000 peso bill and hand it to the notoriously malleable police officer.

And is urinating in public really twice as bad as publishing someone's intimate photos on the Internet without their consent, which means only a 325,000 peso fine? Publishing such a photo can ruin someon's career, while urinating just makes a doorway stink.

Practicing the oldest profession on a central Bogotá plaza
outside of the designated red light district.
And then there is the odd 'crime' of 'obstructing expressions of affection' (not including sexual ones), which I suppose is intended to protect LGBT people's rights to display public affection. But don't conclude that the new police code is about free love, because having sex in public and practicing prostitution outside of designated areas are also subject to fines.

Not that the new codigo is all bad -.if it were only enforceable. For exampole, selling cigarrettes to minors now carries a fine. But that's been illegal for years - as is selling loose cigarrettes - yet every corner seems to host a street vendor eager to sell a smoke to anybody with a few coins in their hand.

Colombia is not Singapore, and unless penalties are realistic, they'll only feed corruption and disrespect for the law, rather than a more ordered country.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 31, 2017

Adiós to Venezuela's Democracy

Maduro and followers celebrate their 'victory' in rigged voting in Sunday's election.
During the 1970s and '80s, when military coups installed right-wing dictatorships across much of South America, Venezuela maintained a democracy, if a very imperfect one. Now, ironically, democracy has brought a leftist dictatorship to Venezuela.

Perhaps the best evidence of Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro's anti-democratic intentions is the fact that he never permitted regional elections supposed to be held late last year - and which his party was sure to lose. Maduro claimed that the country, which has the world's largest oil reserves, lacked the money to pay for elections, and called democracy a luxury for the elites.

Yet, miraculously, Maduro had no trouble finding the money for Sunday's constitutional assembly - which he made sure he'd win.

The Maduro government has also packed the Supreme Court, done all it could to negate the results of unfavorable elections, shuttered hostile media, imprisoned political opponents - and even briefly dissolved the opposition-dominated National Assembly.

But none of the Venezuelan government's anti-democratic measures have come close to Sunday's election of a constitutional assembly, manipulated to ensure a pro-government majority, despite Maduro's extreme unpopularity. The assembly has apparently unlimited powers to rewrite the country's constitution and remake its government.

The voting for the assembly representatives included manipulations such as giving rural voters - who have remained loyal to Maduro - disproportional representation, while reducing representation for city dwellers, who overwhelmingly reject Maduro. (Come to think of it, that arrangement is a lot like the United States' unfair and illogical Electoral College - which gave us president Trump.) And the voting system also gave pro-Maduro social organizations preponderant weight in the voting.

Government workers were ordered to vote or lose their jobs. Even so, media observers reported that voter turnout was light.

What's more, many experts say that Maduro lacked the authority to call this vote without first holding a popular referendum. But Maduro knew he'd lose any such referendum.

The Venezuelan opposition boycotted the vote in order to not give it legitimacy. As a result, Maduro's victory will be close to 100%, whether votes are counted fairly or not.

The new Constitutional Assembly's powers aren't defined, and may be unlimited. Expect Maduro to order his minions to eliminate the country's hostile National Assembly and to remove the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, a courageous politician who stood on principle in the face of the government's violations of human rights and trampling of its own Constitution.

Ortega charged that Venezuela was turning into a dictatorship.

In fact, immediately after the vote, Maduro called for removing National Assembly legislators' legal immunity and for replacing Ortega. Two prominent opposition leaders were quickly arrested.

The travesty will continue as long as Venezuela's armed forces - the police and military - continue backing Maduro, and so far they show no signs of wavering.

Already, the governments of Colombia, Mexico and Panama have said they will not recognize the voting's results. But if not, how will they deal with a government they consider illegitimate?

The U.S. and other nations have threatened the Maduro government with sanctions for holding the assembly vote. But don't expect the Trump administration to make the single move which could topple Maduro - cutting off oil sales to the United States. That's because doing so would hurt too many big corporations and lose Trump popularity among drivers.

Maduro and Trump, two incompetent, populist leaders, are also co-dependent.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Facelift for the Plaza del Chorro

The Plaza's newly-unvealed fountain.
After several dry years, the Plaza del Chorro's fountain is flowing again. The city spent 600 million pesos for some five-months work resurfacing the spot where Bogotá was supposedly founded in 1538, repairing the decorations and improving access for disabled people. 
Workers repairing the plaza's fountain.
To lots of us, the plaza seemed just fine already. The facelift is fine, but each of us will have to decide whether the 600 million pesos were well spent. Perhaps were can survey the pot smokers and chicha drinkers who gather in the evenings, and the police who drive them away each night for having too much fun.

The plaza was named after Quevedo, the chapel's priest, who came for water there in the early 1800s. Centuries before that, it was said to be the summer resting place for the leader of the Muisca Indians, called the Zipa - until the Spanish drove them out and founded Bogotá, a distortion of the indigenous name 'Bacatá.'

Until recently, at least, lots more beer and chicha flowed on the plaza than did water. We'll see for how long the fountain operates this time around.

Loading a letter after the inauguration event.

A historic view of the plaza.

Kicking the hacky sack around on the plaza.

A storyteller at work in the chapel doorway.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Unkindest Cuts

Deforestation in Colombia is set to accelerate with planned budget cuts.
Nobody can dispute that Colombia has huge environmental challenges: Deforestation has accelerated by 44% over the last few years, to 20 hectares erased every hour; illegal drug crops are invading national parks; and the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas commits the government to stop the advance of the agricultural frontier.

So, what's the government's response?

From Semana magazine: 'The cuts which the environmental
sector will be subjected to in 2018.'
To slash the budgets of an array of environmental entities, including the Instituto Humboldt, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) and even the National Parks, from 632 billion pesos to 232 billion, or by 63%. That's according to a preliminary budget seen by Semana magazine. Such cuts make Donald Trump's war on the environment appear downright gentle. (I'm not clear on the relationship of these budgets to that of the environmental ministry.)

Incredibly, Minister of the Environment Luis Gilberto Murillo doesn't seem troubled by this financial massacre. "The budget isn't the only indicator of the environmental sector's resources," he said. "Resources are being mobilized like never before."

If only he'd explain where those resources are coming from.

The drastic budget cut - and the lack of an outcry over it - reflects the low priority environmental causes receive here. Minister Murillo may be sharp, capable and sincere, but before this job he had no discernable environmental experience. One suspects he's there in order to have an Afro-Colombian face in the cabinet. His predecessor had been a toy company executive.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Venezuelan Opposition's Moment

A selfie with the crowd in back, as Venezuelans voted today on Plaza Bolivar.
'The people decide!
Colombia has filled during recent years with Venezuelan political and economic refugees, and today they showed their strength. Thousands filled Plaza Bolivar for a plebiscite designed to weaken Venezuela's increasingly hapless, corrupt and authoritarian government.

The opposition's positions will win overwhelmingly - and the government will ignore it and continue
with carreening toward dictatorship. On July 30, the government plans to hold a vote vote to elect an assembly to rewrite the nation's Constitution. But the voting system and representation were designed by the Venezuelan government to guarantee itself a majority.

The people decide!, on three
questions designed to
weaken the government.
Interestingly, the Maduro government has recently suspended regional elections it was sure to lose, arguing that with oil prices low it could not afford to hold the vote. However, it did miraculously find the money to hold the constitutional assembly vote it plans to wind.

The government in Caracas has also used its packed Supreme Court to nullify all decisions taken by parliament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the opposition.

Today's ballot, designed and promoted by the MUD opposition coalition to Venezuelan Pres. Nicolás Maduro, contained three questions:

- Do you reject the constitutional assembly planned by Nicolas Maduro without the previous approval of the Venezuelan people?

- Do you demand that the armed forces and all public functionaries obey the 1999 Constitution and back the decisions of the National Assembly.

'Gochos united in Bogotá.' Gochos are people
born in the Venezuelan state of Tachira.
- Do you approve of the public authorities and the creation of a national union government and the holding of free and transparent elections to restore the constitutional order.

Many observers believe that in Venezuela power ultimately rests with the military. Opposition leaders argue that the government has violated the 1999 Constitution, written under the leadership of the now-deceased Hugo Chavez and would like the military to refuse to obey the government.

.Whatever happens in Venezuela: Continued crisis, outright dictatorship, revolution or civil war, it will mean huge impacts on Colombia, in terms of trade and immigration.

In a celebratory mood, Venezuelans oppositionists line up to vote on Plaza Bolivar.

Painting Venezuelan flags.

A Venezuelan exile's sign: 'Maduro, it's your fault that my children miss their grandparents.'

Venezuelan government opponents pack the Plaza Bolivar.
Venezuelans walk to vote.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, July 7, 2017

Maria, a Sesquicentennial Celebration

Perhaps it's appropriate that Jorge Isaacs was recently removed from the 50,000-peso bill and replaced with fellow novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

A scene from Isaacs' novel 'Maria.'
After all, Isaacs' signature novel, Maria, represents a past era and a past mindset. It's a romantic, sentimental novel, set near Cali on a plantation ironically named El Paraiso worked by slaves, and resembling his family's own hacienda.

Altho Maria, published in 1867, the story of a love affair between two cousins, was produced repeatedly on the theatre stage, television and in movies, it seems that few people read it anymore, perhaps because its sentimental romanticism is so 19th-century. Today, it's all about magical realism.

Nevertheless, this being the novel's 150th anniversary, it's receiving a bit of attention, including an exhibition in the Biblioteca Nacional in Bogotá, which calls the novel:

'the foundational novel of Colombian literature for its representation of relations between different
A plantation scene on the El Paraiso plantation.
social classes, the protagonism of the landscape, the reflections about the transformation of the colonial and plantation world, the ideas of a 'nation', and the era's political tensions.'

But appreciating those aspects requires a familiarity with 19-century Colombian society, which few have today.

Isaacs himself, who lived from 1837 to 1895, was an extraordinary character who lived a life which might have come from a Garcia Marquez novel: The son of a Colombian mother and a Jewish-Jamaican immigrant, Isaacs' failures in business caused him to turn to politics, literature and the military. He was at times a soldier, politician, road engineer, explorer, educational planner, and would-be coup leader in Antioquia Department. And, despite his idealized portrait of plantation life, Isaacs campaigned to end slavery, which he called 'a cancer.'

He left behind a book of poems and his novel Maria, a bestseller in its day translated into 31 languages.

Reading a modern version of Isaacs' 'Nueva Era' newspaper.

The art deco National Library, in Bogotá.               

A character in Maria is attacked by a crocodile.

A portrait of Maria.

A modern version of Isaacs' newspaper, the Nueva Era.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours