Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Bitter Fate for Sugar Workers

Sugar cane workers protest for their jobs in Risaralda. (Photo: El Diario)
Harvesting sugar cane with machetes under broiling sun is a dangerous, exhausting and miserably-paid work, which is also highly unreliable, dependent as it is on the vagaries of weather and economy.

However, that terrible toil has supported countless Colombian families. And now that it is going away, they are rebelling.

Harvesting cane by hand.
The same field which employs some 120 machete-wielding laborers can be harvested by a single harvesting machine operated by only four people. Not only that, but the machine can collect the scrap vegetation, which can then be combusted to fuel the cane processing, rather than burned uselessly in the field.

The economic tensions fed strikes recently in Risaralda, particularly on a sugar refinery of the same name, which produced more than a dozen workers and policemen injured.

'We publicly denounce that the Risaralda sugar refinery has strongly promoted mechanization of the harvest as a way to persecute the union., the Sintrainagro union declared on its website. 'We call on government agencies to intervene in favor the workers and their families, for the right to work. Replacing working with machines, leaving them no other dignified source of employment, we'll be faced with unemployment and violence, because the people's needs do not disappear in this nation where prosperity is for some, but not all.'

Where are the workers? Mechanical harvesting of sugar cane.
The union ended the strike after Risaralda agreed to its other main demand: Ending the policy of subcontracting workers, who received little pay and benefits.

But the process of mechanization, which is driven by economic forces, is not likely to stop. Mechanization will end a way of life, albeit a tough one, and expel many thousands of people out of the countryside and into city slums, where they will find few job prospects and often fall prey to crime, drugs and violence.

Such is the reality, in the name of ever-cheaper sugar and ethanol.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

No Chinese Spoken Here!

Capt. Wu Hong under arrest. (Photo: El Tiempo)
Colombia aspires to be a plugged-in, globalized nation, and arguably its most globalized city should be the port and tourist magnet of Cartagena.

So, why in the world, can't that regional capital of a million people find a Chinese-language translator?

A few days ago, Cartagena port officials discovered that a Chinese ship bound for Cuba carried not only the oil pipes declared on its manifest, but also had hidden 100 tons of gunpowder, ammunition for heavy artillery and more than two million detonators.

The captain, Wu Hong, was duly arrested - but authorities found they could not arraign him because they had no Chinese-Spanish interpreter. A search of Chinese restaurants and shops produced no volunteers, perhaps because the people feared involvement in an illegal enterprise. Finally, a student from China was located and presented himself in court. However, when officials asked him for his cedula, the young man "scratched his head and said that he'd left it at home," El Tiempo reports. The youth departed and has not been heard from since.

Crates of contraband arms. (Photo: El Tiempo
Cuba's trafficking of war material is bizarre, unethical and ugly. The island nation has no borders and nor apparent enemies, particularly now that it's making friends with the United States. (And if the U.S. did invade - in violation of treaty commitments - no amount of artillery would save Havana from the planet's only superpower, anyway.) The arms cache is particularly worrisome in light of the discovery in Panama last July of weapons hidden on a Cuban ship bound for North Korea, a totalitarian dictatorship which regularly threatens to attack South Korea.

Ironically, Cuba is hosting the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas.

But back to Cartagena's embarrassing lack of a Chinese interpreter. I needn't observe that China is the world's most populous nation, the world's second-largest economy and a huge investor in Latin America. It's also a great potential source of tourists.

Are there no students who did semesters in Chinese high schools or universities? No businesspeople who travel to China? No Chinese immigrants who've learned Spanish? No Chinese language scholars?

Cartagena's lack of Chinese interpreters is handicapping prosecution of this ship captain. But it surely throws much more of a wrench into the region's economy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mockus's March for Life

March for Life volunteers recently in Bogotá's Parque Nacional.
Antanas Mockus lobbies for his March for Life.
Antanas Mockus, the widely-admired ex-mayor of Bogotá, is organizing a 'March for Life' in Bogotá for Sunday, March 8.

What's there to criticize about that?

Plenty, it turns out, from the perspective of ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

Last month, now-Senator Uribe made known to the world that Mockus's foundation 'Visionarios por March for Life, therefore, was a thinly disguised march in favor of those peace talks.
Colombia' had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts from the government. That meant, Uribe insinuated, that Mockus was in cahoots with Pres. Santos - Uribe's political enemy - in support of the FARC-government peace talks going on in Havana, Cuba.

'They seem to be visionaries, but for the money, someone wrote on Twitter feed.

Uribe is a furious critic of the talks, which he charges will mean impunity for guerrilla leaders.

But what should it matter whether a man organizing a march for life actually supports a peace process? Mockus has never hidden his support for the negotiations, which appear on track to end Colombia's 50-year-old civil conflict.

And Mockus is suffering from Parkinson's disease, which could cut his life short. It would make no sense for him to throw his reputation for honesty and uncorruptibility into the trash for the sake of a single contract.

If you can, join Mockus's March for Life. It can only help.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, March 2, 2015

Faces of the Victims

These huge posters appeared on Calle 26 the other day, just north of the Central Cemetery. I'm told that they portray leftist victims of government and other violence, including particularly victims of the genocide against the Union Patriotica.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Power Corrupts, and....

Lord Acton.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." - Lord Acton; April 1887.

Alvaro Uribe was unquestionably Colombia's most popular and powerful president of recent times. Thanks to his firm and aggressive policies, Colombia's guerrillas were beaten back, laying the groundwork for today's peace negotiations.

However, anybody who lived thru that time remembers how Uribe's aggressiveness could carry over into paranoia, which caused him to accuse principled leftists and even critical journalists of being guerrilla supporters.

Alvaro Uribe: the almost-dictator?
The consequences of that became clear last Friday, when two high officials of Uribe's government were convicted for their roles in the 'chuzadas' or eavesdropping case. In that scandal, the president used the DAS, then Colombia's secret police, to spy on political opponents and critical journalists. (The DAS was dissolved in the wake of the scandal.)

Uribe was so powerful that he succeeded in amending Colombia's Constitution to enable himself to
run for a second consecutive term. If the Supreme Court had not blocked his try for a third term, Uribe might still be Colombia's president today, instead of in the Senate, from where he attacks the Santos administration's peace talks with the FARC.

Ex-DAS director Maria
de Pilar Hurtado.
The chuzadas scandal, which many observers said was worse than Watergate, was only one of many which scarred Uribe's eight-year administration. Under Uribe's watch, the military also allied itself with right-wing paramilitary death squads, which committed horrific massacres while the regular troops stood by. And soldiers also murdered thousands of innocent young men and reported them as guerrillas in order to receive bonuses, in what became known as the False Positives scandal.

Uribe's great power may have caused a moral breakdown. Or, a lack of scruples may have helped Uribe, in Machiavellian fashion, to attain power. But in Uribe power and questionable morality coincided and for a while threatened to carry Colombia down the path of Latin American caudillismo.
Ex-Secretary of the presidency.

It was fortunate - and perhaps surprising - that after almost eight years of Uribismo the courts
retained enough independence to defy the president's try push a third term. Unfortunately, however, the same has not happened in nations such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua, where presidents hold near total control - and the potential for near total corruption.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, February 27, 2015

Venezuela Vs. Colombia's Media
Disparaging - but a coup? (From Semana magazine)
Maduro says that paramilitaries
infiltrate from Colombia.
His popularity at 20%, his nation's economy in collapse, and his democratic credentials increasingly questioned, Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro is fighting back - against the Colombian media.

When Semana magazine cartoonist Vladdo published a cartoon portraying Venezuela's coat of arms with a sickly horse, empty cornucopia and empty branches, Maduro was ready.

"I reject the campaign of manipulation, lies and hate in Colombia against Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, against Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution," Maduro thundered over a national 'cadena' (chain), when all Venezuelan radio and television stations are required to carry his speeches.

Madura offensive against
the Colombian press.
Whether Vladdo's portrayal is accurate or not - and it sure seems true that Venezuelan shelves are empty and its people discouraged - the context is revealing. Maduro attacked Colombian media by enslaving (literally 'chaining) a Venezuelan media which has already been tamed by official threats, intimidation and lawsuits.

Over the past several years, the Venezuelan government has progressively taken away broadcasting licenses and bought out critical broadcasters and newspapers. Surviving independent papers struggle to obtain paper to print on. And the famed opposition opinion paper Tal Cual, run by old leftist Teodoro Petkoff, it switching from being a daily to a weekly under the burden of government lawsuits, lack of advertising and lack of newsprint.

So it's not surprising that Maduro, used to a pliant and passive media back home, would object to a critical one next door.

At the same time, of course, everything Colombian provides Maduro with a convenient target to attack. In that respect, Maduro's use of the term 'Santanderean oligarchy' is also telling. Maduro was referring to Colombian revolutionary hero and president Francisco de Paula Santander, who broke with Simon Bolivar after independence and is famous for telling Colombians that 'Weapons have given you independence, but laws will give you liberty.' In contrast to Santander, after independence Bolivar wanted to discard the Constitution and make himself lifetime president - much as the Chavez-Maduro dynasty, whch has ruled for 16 years, has done in Venezuela.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fired for Truth-Telling?

Yohir Akerman, ex-columnist. 
For years, Yohir Akerman wrote often polemical columns for Medellin's El Colombiano newspaper - columns often critical of religion and even of the newspaper's other columnists.

But when Akerman dared to suggest that the Good Lord could be - horrors of horrors - mistaken, he got ousted from the paper.

Akerman's latest and last column arose from the recent flap over the Universidad de la Sabana's opinion on the issue of adoption by same-sex couples. Sabana University, an elite private school located in north Bogotá, was founded by Opus Dei, the extremely conservative Catholic group. Predictably, the university's medical school recommended against permitting gay adoption. However, it went on to opine that homosexuals could be considered mentally ill, a position long since rejected by the medical establishment. The retrograde view on gay people brought the university so much criticism
that it issued a retraction.

In his newspaper columns, Akerman quoted Old Testament verses prescribing the
El Colombiano
death penalty - often by stoning - for adulterers, rebellious children, women who are not virgins at marriage and other 'wrongdoers.' He also also cited Bible verses endorsing slavery.

"All of these concepts are in the Bible," Akerman concluded, "and as history has demonstrated on these subjects, god was mistaken."

The newspaper appended this convoluted message to the column: 'Note from the directors: This newspaper promotes debate from respect and good arguments. We consider that this column strays from those principles. For the author, not publishing the column would mean his resignation. We publish it and accept his resignation.'

The directors did not explain why quoting the Bible constituted a lack or respect or good argument.

The Bible: Infallible?
Semana magazine quotes Akerman as saying that the paper's director criticized him particularly for not capitalizing the word 'god' and for asserting that God was mistaken.

In Sabana University's defense, it's not explicitly clear that its criticism of same-sex adoption was based on religious ideas. In fact, it doesn't seem unreasonable that growing up in a heterosexual family, which has been the norm for much of human and pre-human evolution, would be better for kids. But it also seems obvious that a loving, supportive family of any type is much better than an abusive one or being warehoused in an orphanage.

And the studies I've seen show that children of same-sex couples tend to out-perform those of heterosexual couples for a simple reason having little to do with the parents' gender or sexual orientation: they have highly-motivated parents who had to make lots of effort to have kids. In contrast, we all know that many heterosexual couples become parents by mistake.

For its part, Akerman's column seems to fall well within the spectrum of reasonable commentary. After all, he primarily quoted the Bible rather than attacking it.

Rather than summarily ousting Akerman, El Colombiano's editors might explain why the Bible is unerring, and therefore that death by stoning is a reasonable punishment for a range of moral 'lapses.'

But while they're at it, El Colombiano might also find itself endorsing a Christian version of the barbaric Islamic State.

As for the court, it ruled that, for now, same-sex couples could adopt only when the child was the biological offspring of one member of the couple, but that the legislature should regulate the issue.

Perhaps such an incremental decision is best in a highly-Catholic nation. In the U.S., when courts made rulings on controversial issues such as racial segregation and abortion it's led to years of conflict. Some things are best decided by the more democratic legislature.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours