Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The New Bronx

It was El Bronx. What will it be in ten years?
A year ago, this was a place of frantic activity: Drug dealing, prostitution, even torture and murder. Today, it's quiet, except for a few laborers demolishing the old buildings.

Plenty of drug addicts are still around. 
This was El Bronx, for years Bogotá's most notorious street, until one year ago Mayor Enrique Peñalosa sent in thousands of police to clear it out. Inside, they found torture chambers, cemeteries and child prostitutes and crack addicts.

The treatment of the people they found there was very irregular: some reportedly were bussed to surrounding towns and simply left there, while I'm told that others were dumped on the edge of the polluted Bogotá River. According to the city government, several hundred entered treatment for drug dependency.

The neighborhood's environment has changed. Fewer drug addicts wander about, and the threatening atmosphere is reduced.

One neighboring storeowner had conflicting feelings about the change. On the positive side, some
The entrance to what was El Bronx.
customers are no longer afraid to come to the area, she said. The homeless and drug addicts didn't bother her personally, she said, 'since they were doing their own thing,' but they did stink.

Many of the drug addicts now spend their days lying on the median strips of neighboring avenues.

The city has ambitious plans for the area, including attracting health care, design industries, higher education and building low-income housing. The neighboring Martires Plaza and the Iglesia del Voto Nacional are being refurbished.

But the city's plans feel like a threat for local businesspeople. The store owner said business owners fear the city will use eminent domain to purchase their properties without giving them a fair price.

The neighboring Iglesia del Voto Nacional is being renovated.

And Los Martires Plaza has also been fixed up.

The city is building apartments and shopping in what was the old Cartucho neighborhood.

Los Martires hardware stores.
 The neighborhood is full of small retail businesses.
And bedwear shops.
Once a wealthy neighborhood, some grand old homes remain.
Homeless drug addicts spend their days on La Plaza España.
A few blocks west, La Plaza España has changed little. Perhaps Bronx residents moved here.

Street art on Plaza España.

An old man sits in front of a closed pasta factory on Plaza España.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Profile in Courage from Next Door

Not a 'yes woman.' Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega.
Look at authoritarian states around the world, from Belarus to Russia to Turkey to Egypt and you'll see not only a near-dictator, but also a crowd of yes-men (and women) around him eager to praise every decree and pronuncement, no matter how offensive.

That's why the stands taken by Luisa Ortega, the attorney general of increasingly authoritarian Venezuela, are so impressive.

Generally, in authoritarian regimes, those surrounding the leader support him because the leader rewards loyal allies, while those who oppose him get fired or worse.

But Ortega has defied that calculation.

Ortega called the decision by the Supreme Court - packed with government loyalists - to dissolve the
Wannabe dictator Nicolas Maduro.
oppposition-controlled parliament and assume its powers "a violation of the constitutional order." That's a bit of an understatement, but good for her, anyway. In the face of her opinion and international criticism, the court reversed itself, although it continues to annul the parliament's laws one by one.

Ortega has also declined to prosecute anti-government protesters, causing the government to send them to military courts, an evident violation of the Constitution.

Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro pointed out that trying civilians in military courts was done by Latin America's right-wing dictators.

She has also accused the Maduro government of lawbreaking and even of killing at least one protester.

Ortega is no right-wing anti-government fanatic, but leftie loyalist to the deceased Pres. Hugo Chávez.

And Ortega called Pres. Nicolas Maduro's plan to convoke a constitutional convention as "unnecessary" and risky, and charged that the delegates chosen to rewrite the Constitution would not be representative of Venezuelans, who overwhelmingly oppose Pres. Maduro.

Others have pointed out that Maduro's constitutional convention idea is a naked power grab.

We can count on at least one thing: under the new Constitution Ortega won't have a government job.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 29, 2017

Does Being Pilo Pay Off For Colombia?

Scholarship students from the Ser Pilo Paga.
Ser Pilo Paga, the government program which gives scholarships to Colombia's best universities to top students from poor families, is paying off for the country.

That's according to Los Andes University economics professor Fabio Sánchez, whose study was financed by the National Planning Department. Sánchez reported that before the Pilo Paga program, only 28% of students who scored in the top 10% in the Saber 11 test went on to get a university education, and only 7% got into the top, or 'accredited', universities.

Those are mind boggling numbers. Looked at in reverse, they mean that 72% of top-scoring students didn't go on to university at all, and 93% of top-scoring students don't make it into top universities.

You can bet that the underlying dynamic there is economic. The talented students who don't get into
But who does it pay most?
universities lack either the money or connections to do so, while many low-scoring but wealthy students undoubtedly do go on to study in good universities.

That means a huge amount of wasted talent, and is probably a big reason why poverty here is so stubborn and innovation rates low.

In fact, another recent study, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), criticized Colombia's huge gap between poor and wealthy, and said that the nation's economic growth has benefited the poor little.

Better education for students from poor families could help change that, and Sánchez's study found that Pilo Paga helped increase access to higher education for those 10% of top-scoring students from 28% to 60%, and that the percentage entering those top 'accredited' universities skyrocketed from 7% to 53%.

The program has thus increased the social variety of universities like Los Andes, whose students previously came overwhelmingly from wealthy families.

Los Andes universit:
Muy Pilo!
All of which are impressive numbers, if they're accurate.

However, there's a reason someone should double check Sánchez's results. Sánchez's employer, Los Andes university, happens to be a major beneficiary of the Pilos Paga program. According to a column by Pablo Correa & Tatiana Pardo Ibarra, an editor and a reporter for the El Espectador newspaper, respectively, Los Andes has been by far the biggest beneficiary of the Pilo Paga program - so much so that in 2015 its rector called it "the most public university in the country."

Today, an impressive 35% of Los Andes' incoming students are part of Pilo Paga. Yet,the university raised its tuition by 5.3%, 6.9% and 9.6% over the last three years. As a result, Los Andes receives far more Pilos Paga money, even tho other universities such as La Javeriana and La Salle enroll more students from the program.

Others question whether the government should be using public funds to subsidize some of the country's most elite institutions while public universities suffer severe deficiencies. (Los Andes does differ from other private universities in that it has no owners, and its profits are all supposed to be reinvested in the university.)

Pilo Paga has provided scholarships for 31,000 students at a cost of a half trillion pesos. Might it have been better to have instead invested that money in the struggling public universities, which enroll primarily students from poorer families?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bogotá's Vertical Garden

A vegetated side wall of the Santalaia building.
On a steep, curving backstreet in Chapinero Alto stands a eight-story apartment building which would be quite ordinary - except that it's covered with vegetation.

The Santalaia building's entranceway.
The Santalaia building is not a long-lost ruin covered by the jungle, but the world's tallest vertical garden, according to Diner's Club magazine. The building is clothed with over 3,000 square meters of vegetation, composed of ten plant species, which swarm up the building's sides and onto its roof.

The Santalaia building seems to be the high-water mark of a wave of green walls (and green-roofed bus kiosks) in Bogotá, often championed as a solution to air pollution.  The building's vegentation offsets the carbon footprint for 700 people, according to the building's builders. Its vegetation can provide oxygen for 3,000 people and filter away the exhaust pollution from 745 cars, according to the builder's YouTube video. Bven if that's true - and if it were, wouldn't the building
A close-up of the building's foilage.
quickly become entombed by car exhaust? - Bogotá has more than 2 million private vehicles - not counting motorcycles, buses, etc. - and the number is growing rapidly. That means that the Santalaia building offsets far less than 0.00372% of the city's vehicle emissions, and less each day as more vehicles get packed into the city, and it provides oxygen for .033% of the city's 9 million residents.

Perhaps green walls and buildings would make a real difference if most Bogotá buildings were draped in vegetation, but that's not going to happen soon. The city would do much better by actually enforcing its air pollution laws.

Surprisingly, I didn't find much information about the Santalaia on the web. It doesn't even have its own website. It'd be interesting to know the origin of the project, and whether it's a p.r. idea, or a genuinely environmentalist one. On that same line, I wonder whether the builders incorporate green values in other ways, such as using low-floor showerheads, employing ambient light, etc. (I read that they do use the building's grey water to irrigate the plants.) Does the building encourage residents to walk and bicycle, by perhaps charging for parking?

A smoke-belching two-stroke motorcycle pollutes its way past the Santalaia building. Why not enforce pollution laws?
Why aren't the front decks also covered with vegetation?
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 22, 2017

It's Mamoncillo Season!

A mamoncillo and guama vendor on La Ciclovia.
It's mamoncillo season! Those fun fruits which you split open with your teeth or fingernail and suck the jelly off of the seed for a sweet and sour taste are out on the street again.

A mamoncillo ready to be sucked.
Also known as mamón, and more scientifically but less poetically as the Melicoccus bijugatus, mamoncillos are related to the lychee and the maple tree, but look like grapes. You can't eat the whole thing, tho. You crack open the peel and squeeze out the jelly-covered seed, which you proceed to suck and suck. And that's the origin of the name: 'mamoncillo' comes from the verb mamar: to breast feed.

For sale alongside the mamoncillos, you'll often find guama, a huge legume, whose beans are covered with a sweet, white fluff, which you suck off.

Guamas for sale.
If you want to try mamoncillos and guamas, do it soon. Their seasons are short!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Afro-Colombians Demand to be Heard

Afro-Colombian march down Ave. Septima.
'We support the strike in the El Chocó' region.
 Afro-Colombians, often said to be forgotten Colombians, are demanding attention and resources from the national government. Recently, Afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific coast region have held protests and work stoppages demanding government investment in infrastructure and that the government fulfill commitments made in previous agreements.

The Pacific coast, distant from Colombia's major cities, is an impoverished region wracked by violence from guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and narcotrafficking groups which fight over valuable drug trafficking routes and illegal mines. This weekend, riots and looting took place in the port city of Buenaventura.

Such hair!

Afro heroes.

'The Afro-Colombian people demand that the government fulfill its promises.'

'We demand the law of equal opportunities and no racial discrimination.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Fight the Government, Get a Residence Visa

Foreign FARC guerrillas may soon have these.

The news that as part of the FARC guerrillas' peace deal with the government, foreigners in the rebels' ranks will be able to get Colombian residence visas is sure to frustrate many of us foreigners here. After all, we suffered thru round after round of red tape and paperwork, as well as paying fee after fee, to obtain and renew our Colombian visas, before finally obtaining an 'indefinite visa' after 5 years' continuous residence.

Of course, during all that time we had to stay on the right side of the law, and can lose the visa because of criminal misconduct.

So, it seems very unfair that people who have spent years aiding and abetting, if not actually participating in, severe crimes like extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and even murder, will be awarded visas just because those crimes were supposedly committed for a political purpose - to overthrow that same government which will now award them a visa.

Of course, it's questionable how many foriegn ex-FARC guerrillas will actually want to live in Colombia. After all, their fight was to turn Colombia into a socialist 'paradise', but the country remains decidedly capitalist.

The media estimates there are about 20 foreigners in the FARC, from Europe and other Latin
Tanja Nijmeijer, Dutch citizen and FARC member.
American nations. The most famous of those is Dutch citizen Tanja Nijmeijer, who was part of the guerrillas' negotiating team in Havana, Cuba.

But this absurdity is just one of the smallest of many prices Colombia is paying in order to, hopefully, move closer to peace.

Afterthought: As arbitrary and infuriating as Colombia's visa process is, it was nothing compared to that in Bolivia, where I had to visit the visa office on a near-daily basis for nearly a year, getting everything signed in triplicate and paying notaries and lawyers for this, that and everything. When I finally got my work visa, my job had already ended. More intelligent people just crossed the border every few months, or paid a bribe and got their visa immediately.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Peak at ARTBO

Taking a look at ARTBO, in the Estudio Las Nieves.
ARTBO, Bogotá's annual arts festival, is happening this weekend, and I took a look at two of the expositions. One was interesting to me.

Distorted animals and people, by Roger Ballen, in Estudios las Nieves.

'Naturally' by Bertil Nilsson, also  in Estudios las Nieves.

Another 'Naturally', Bertil Nilsson, also  in Estudios las Nieves. Did Mr. Nilsson put himself in the images?

Jua Kali, by Tahir Karmali, also  in Estudios las Nieves.

Imaginative Orthopedics, by Maria Camila Calle, also  in Estudios las Nieves.

Estudios las Nieves is in the nondescript and definitively un-artsy building on the right, in the Las Nieves neighborhood.
The photos below are from the Espacio Odeon, on Ave. Jimenez, near the Museo de Oro bus station. The Espacio Odeon is located in an unfinished, or perhaps crumbling, building.

ARTBO is lending bikes this year.

To see art, it's important to dress in black.

The Espacio Odeon's interior beams.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours