Thursday, July 2, 2015

Commerce Equals Crime?

'I'm a storekeeper, not a criminal.'
Owners and employees of the San Andresitos and other businesses with a reputation for selling contraband products marched down Calle 13 today protesting a proposed law which would stiffen punishments for selling contraband goods or having links to money laundering. 

The sellers charge that the law equates doing retail business with criminality. But not all commerce is criminal, just that which doesn't pay taxes or follow laws.

The trouble for the San Andresitos is a simple one: Their cheap cheapo business model is based on one thing: contraband goods, and many of those are linked to money laundering.

Tough luck for them. But they should look at the bright side - the government has never effectively enforced such laws, and they're unlikely to do so this time.

Riot police on Calle 13.
The law, yes, but not this way.
United for the right to work.

Waving the flag on Plaza San Victorino.

'For the right to work. A law with social justice.'

The San Andresitos on Calle 13 were closed, for once.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Fight for a Patch of Water

Which is the line? Disputed seawaters between Colombia and Venezuela.
(Image from Wikipedia)
The Golfo de Venezuela separates Colombia from its eastern neighbor in more ways than one.

The gulf, outside the city of Maracaibo, is borderd on its western side by the La Guajira peninsula, and on the other by the Venezuelan mainland. Thru the gulf passes much of Venezuela's oil exports.

But one small patch of the gulf is not Venezuela's - according to Colombia. And that difference has been the source of disagreement since Venezuela separated from La Gran Colombia in 1831. Multiple treaties, negotiations and arbitrations haven't resolved the difference. And in 1987, the two nations even came close to war when a Colombian warship, the Corbeta Caldas, entered the disputed waters. Venezuela sent its own fleet of warships to confront it, and the crisis only ended after the secretary of the OAS and the president of Argentina intervened.

After that, the two countries established a binational commission to work out the dispute, but the commission hasn't met for the last seven years.

The difference centers on whether the maritime border is drawn as an extention of the land border, as Venezuela claims, or more to the eastward, as Colombia asserts. Part of the dispute hinges on the status of the Los Monjes Archipelago, a group of rocks inhabited by birds but not people (except for a Venezuelan military outpost), which are controlled by Venezuela, but have historically been claimed by Colombia. Do Los Monjes qualify as Venezuelan continental territory incluencing the border line?

The current dispute was triggered by another border dispute, between Venezuela and its eastern
Venezuela claims abouit two-thirds
of the territory controlled by Guyana.
(Image from Wikipedia)
neighbor, the small, ex-British colony Guyana. Venezuela claims more than half of the territory governed by Guyana, including Caribbean waters. In May, Guyana issued drilling rights to ExxonMobil in waters claimed by Venezuela. Venezuela responded by declaring Integral Maritime Defense Zones, called Zodimains, on both its eastern and western borders, including waters claimed by Guyana and Colombia. (The western Zodimain does acknowledge that the waters are disputed.)

Guyana, whose very existence as a nation is threatened by Venezuela's claims, responded more aggressively, by canceling landing rights for a Venezuelan state airline, stranding a plane and passengers in the Guyanese capital. Venezuela seemed to back off after that. Colombia, for its part, sent a letter of protest and is still awaiting response.

The dispute has more than symbolic importance. The patch of waters borders the entrance to Maracaibo's port, and may contain oil or gas reserves.

Control of Carribbean maritime territory is a sore point for Colombia, after a ruling in 2012 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague giving Nicaragua sovereignty over large areas of sea around the San Andres archipelago, which belong to Colombia.

Some Colombian commentators suggest that Venezuela's provocative moves are intended to generate nationalism and distract the people from domestic troubles. Venezuela's economy is in free-fall, its crime rate has soared and the government faces parliamentary elections in December.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, June 29, 2015

The FARC: Never to Blame

Bojayá townspeople walk thru their church,
destroyed by a FARC bomb.
When the FARC guerrillas apologized late last year for their 2002 massacre of 117 civilians in the town of Bojayá, some thot it marked a milestone in efforts to make peace.

Sure, Bojayá was one of the most terrible single acts in Colombia's half-century of conflict. In May, 2002, guerrillas and paramilitaries were fighting over this small, impoverished town of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. The guerrillas fired one of their notoriously innaccurate homemade mortars at the paramilitaries, only to have it land on the church, where civilians had taken refuge. More than 10% of the town's residents died.

But if many hoped that the guerrillas' grudging acceptance of responsibility marked a shift in which the guerrillas would admit their innumerable crimes against civilians and accept punishment, permitting the healing of Colombia's war wounds, we've been disappointed.

The best proof is the guerrillas' response to their own bombing on the 22nd of a oil pipeline near
A giant turtle killed by oil spilled by the FARC guerrillas.
(Photo: Noticias RCN)
Tumaco. Presumably, the guerrillas thot of it as an attack on big business and the government. But hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil poured across biodiverse jungle, into the Mira River and along the coastline. More than 100,000 residents of Tumaco, a mostly poor city, were left without drinking water.

What's been the guerrillas' response? Apologies? Offers to aid the long-suffering residents of Tumaco, who only days before were left without electricity after the FARC blew up an electricity transmission tower? The most the FARC would say was that the environmental destruction and poisoning of Tumaco's water were a "non-desired result" of their attack. Their statement quickly shifted blame onto the government for "escalating the confrontation."

(Some observers pointed out that, only days before, the FARC had praised Pope Francis's encyclical about protecting the environment.)

This is only the latest in a long series of FARC crimes against civilians, which include massacres, forced displacement, kidnappings, recruitment of children, rape and the planting of landmines.

In Colombia's long conflict, all sides have committed gross human rights violations. But the fundamental difference between state forces and the guerrillas is that the government has held its own people and and institutions to some degree of responsibility. Not enough, certainly, but some degree.

Two army officers are doing long prison terms for killings, tortures and disappearances committed during the 1985 retaking of the Palace of Justice from the M-19 Guerrillas (several of whose ex-leaders, in contrast, are now in government).

Soldiers and officers are being prosecuted and doing prison terms for participating in the False Positive killings, in which military units kidnapped and killed young men and disguised them as guerrillas in order to win bonuses and time off. And now, higher army officials may be charged because they set general policies which made the False Positive killings possible.

And, the inspector general is considering charges against 9 military officers in relation to a FARC ambush of a military unit in El Cauca on April 15, in which 10 soldiers were killed. The officers may have been drunk the night of the massacre and ordered the soldiers to sleep in an unsafe location.

But if the FARC punished their fighters who launched the bomb onto the church in Bojayá or who bombed the pipeline near Tumaco, they haven't said so.

Until the FARC acknowledge their crimes and accept responsibility - and punishment - for their actions, Colombia is not likely to reach a peace agreement, much less any lasting peace.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Half-Remembered Hero

Antonio Nariño, by Acevedo Bernal.
Antonio Nariño was one of the heroes of Colombia's revolution, but lives on mostly as a surname, immortalized primarily in the Colombian department named after him and the presidential palace, La Casa de Nariño.

But Nariño (1765 - 1823), who is being memorialized these days in an exhibition in the Archivo de Bogotá, deserves to be remembered as much more than another heroic portrait. In conflict after conflict, with both pen and sword, he battled for freedom - and paid with his own liberty.

A child of a wealthy Bogotá family, Nariño suffered lifelong health problems for which he moved to the warmer climate of Cartagena, where he became a successful exporter. He also imported the first privately-owned printing press in La Nueva Granada, ending the royal government's monopoly on the press.

In 1794, Nariño used that printing press to publish La Nueva Granada's first copies of 'The Rights of Man and the Citizen,' the fundamental document of the French Revolution and a furious challenge to the absolutist Spanish monarchy. After distributing only a few copies, Nariño got cold feet and burned the rest. But the virrey had already discovered the publication, and Nariño was arrested and condemned to ten years' exile in a Spanish colony in Africa.

Nariño, however, managed to escape and return to Colombia, where he was again arrested and imprisoned until 1803. In 1808, with the winds of revolution blowing, the royal government rounded up dissidents, including Nariño, who was imprisoned until freed by the rebels in 1810.

Back in Bogotá, Nariño founded what was probably Colombia's first opposition newspaper, La Bagatela, with which he helped drive out of office Jorge Tadeo Lozano, the first president of the then-independent Estado de Cundinamarca. Nariño then became Cundinamarca's second president.

The La Bagatela newspaper, in the Archivo de Bogotá.
Nariño also led troops in the independence wars, but was captured once again by the royal forces and carried to prison in Spain, and managed to return only in 1821, after independence had been won. Back in La Gran Colombia, Nariño returned to politics, but was accused of corruption and treason. In his final battle, he was absolved in court.

Suffering health problems, Nariño moved from Bogotá to a warmer climate, where he died two years later.

How might Colombia's history have been different if it had had such a fighter during each generation?

As for La Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, it is located on the site of Nariño's birthplace.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Coca Leaf's Back (It Never Left)

A cure for migraines, diabetes, insomnia? In La Candelaria, a sign on a stand selling coca leaf products boasts of their supposed health benefits.
Relax. Now you can legally consume coca leaf products, again. Well, almost all of them.

In February 2010, the INVIMA, Colombia's food sanitation agency, issued an alert declaring the sale of all products made from coca leaves illegal outside of indigenous territories.

No matter that many coca leaf products, such as teas and balms, have been consumed without incident for decades, if not millenia; No matter that the coca leaf is quite nutritional and, at worst, benign; No matter that every coca leaf made into food, drink or medicine is one which won't end up as cocaine.

Bags of coca leafs for sale.
"The INVIMA calls on the citizens to abstain from consuming or commercializing products such as tea, aromatics, cookies or any other food containing coca leaf among its ingredients," the agency said. "These products lack Sanitary Registry and their medicinal, curative and therapeutic benefits are not authorized or supported by the INVIMA."

Certainly, one should be cautious with any nostrum or other 'health' food - but not paranoid. Potential buyers can look for INVIMA's seal on the package and decide for themselves. They can also decide how much stock they put into the hygiene policies of a government which requires businesses to label the sink 'lavamanos' so that nobody confuses it with a lamp or an oven, but turns a blind eye to air pollution.

Coca tea, and coca rum for sale.
This week, the Council of State annuled the INVIMA ruling, pointing out that coca leaf products have received the approval of entities such as the nation's Ombudsman and the Institute of Anthropology and History.

'The use of coca leaf by part of indigenous communities makes up a fundamental part of their millenial traditions and has great medicinal and nutritional benefits," the council wrote.

Of course, coca leaf products never stopped being available throughout Colombia, both on and off of indigenous territories. Prohibition has never worked.

Try a coca tea.
This is all actually a return to the past. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before prohibitionist drug laws, coca leaves and cocaine were seen as sorts of miracle drugs, and placed into all sorts of products, including a wine supposedly endorsed by the Pope. (Back then, the colonial powers established coca plantations in far-flung places like Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Java, making me ask why narcotraffickers, who display tremendous in the ways they traffic drugs, don't plant it outside three Andean nations.)

So, consume your coca leaf products if you want to.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The FARC vs. the People

A soldier and his bomb-sniffing dog examine an electrical tower destoryed by the FARC guerrillas. (Photo; Semana)
The FARC guerrillas like to formally call themselves the FARC-EP, the 'Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Army of the People.'

But the FARC have long attacked those people they pretend to defend, stealing from and extorting them, kidnapping them, kidnapping their children to turn them into private soldiers, driving them off of their land and even massacring them.

However, over the last two months, as the peace talks in Havana have bogged down, the FARC have escalated their attacks on both the military and common Colombians: the guerrillas have murdered policemen in cold blood; blown up electrical towers, plunging cities into darkness; and halted oil trucks and poured the petroleum onto the ground, polluting rivers and poisoning cities' water supplies.

Why would the guerrillas do this? Perhaps they want to force the government to agree to a cease fire, or to slow down the negotiations even more, to enable the guerrilla fronts to rake in milions more from the drug trade, or to enable the guerrilla commanders to spend more time in lovely, relaxing Havana. However, the attacks seem to have backfired. Instead, pressure is growing on Pres. Santos to set a deadline by which to sign a peace agreement, or else.

Or, as one commentator suggested, the guerrillas may just want to keep their fighters busy - even if that means preying on civilians.

Whatever their motives, the guerrillas are once again displaying their own moral bankruptcy, while destroying the dreams of peace for all Colombians.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Smoky Days

Occasionally, when I see fewer of those 'rolling chimneys', I start wondering whether, just possibly, Bogotá's environmental authorities are actually bothering to enforce pollution laws. And then a day comes like last Friday to disabuse me of those fantasies.

Here, a small proportion of the belching vehicles I saw that day in central Bogotá - without even particularly looking for them.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours