Friday, October 30, 2015

Might the Corporations Pay Victims?

U.S. corporations which have escaped charges of responsibility for human rights violations in Colombia because the alleged events happened in Colombia might feel a bit more nervous now, thanks to a recent ruling by a U.S. judge.

Multiple U.S. companies, including Coca Cola, the Drummond coal company, Chiquita banana and others have been accused in U.S. courts of financing illegal Colombian organizations, particularly right-wing paramilitaries, which committed severe human rights abuses, including assassinations, massacres and forced displacements.

But U.S. courts have consistently ruled that the alleged victims of those atrocities and their relatives could not sue in the U.S. because the relevant events took place in Colombia. The courts don't even examine the crimes themselves or the U.S. corporations' relationships with criminal groups.

Hernán Giraldo Serna, ex-paramilitary
leader on trial in the U.S.
However, the other week a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that victims of one Colombian paramilitary extradited to the U.S. on narcotrafficking charges can pursue charges against him there. The one-time paramilitary leader, Hernán Giraldo Serna. ex-leader of the Tayron Block of the so-called self-defense forces, was extradited to the U.S. in 2008 on narcotrafficking charges. However, the family of a social activist and ex-member of the M-19 guerrillas named Julio Henríquez, who was murdered on Giraldo Serna's orders in 2001 joined the case.

A district court ruled that the family did not have standing to participate in the case, but a Washington appeals court reversed that ruling and ordered Henríquez's killing be included in the case, according to El Tiempo.

I'm no lawyer and my understanding of these issues is superficial. And this paramilitary has admitted ordering Henríquez's killing, whereas the corporations are generally only accused of financing outlaw groups which committed crimes, perhaps without even the companies' previous knowledge.

Nevertheless, Henríquez's ability to sue in the U.S. for a crime committed in Colombia seems to offer at least a glimmer of hope for other victims.

The most notorious case is probably Chiquita banana company, which in 2005 confessed to the U.S.
Chiquita, worried?
government that between 1997 and 2004 it had paid millions of dollars in what it called 'protection money' to Colombian paramilitary abuses. During the same years, the paramilitaries were committing severe atrocities, including massacres and forced displacement. Chiquita claims it had no choice but to make the payments in order to protect the lives of its workers, altho the company could have sold its operations and withdrawn from Colombia. Chiquita paid a $25 million dollar fine to the U.S. government, but nothing to the paramilitaries' victims.

Victims of Colombian paramilitaries and their families filed numerous lawsuits against Chiquita in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute, but the cases were dismissed because the relevant events had taken place in Colombia.

Might this latest ruling make a difference?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Infrastructure Election

Enrique Peñalosa, mayor-elect of Bogotá.
Enrique Peñalosa got the most votes in Bogotá's mayoral election, but the big winners may be construction companies.

A look over campaign contributions as summarized by El Espectador, using information from the Cuentas Claras website (I couldn't get the site to work myself) shows that construction companies financed much of the campaigning, particularly Peñalosa's.

Ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who led in nearly all the pre-election polls, had the biggest campaign chest. $1.6 billion pesos. El Espectador's article lists at least six builders who contributed to him, and also notes that Peñalosa's 'legal representative' is a director of two construction companies.

At least one of Peñalosa's contributors suffered a recent controversy. Ladrillera Santafe, which mines and sells building materials, was criticized this year by rural residents of Cundinamarca for plans to open three big clay mines, for brickmaking. The critics charged that the mines would destroy the region's ecotourism potential.
There's lots of money in that construction,
whether necessary or not.

It's not hard to see why builders might want Bogotá's new mayor to owe them a favor, since the city
will likely spend a fortune on construction in the next years, on a metro line (sure to cost at least U.S. $10 billion), new roads and bridges, replacing the El Campin football stadium, remaking the Rio Bogotá and many other projects.

But whether such infrastructure is really necessary is another question. Yes, Bogotá has huge traffic jams. But it's well documented that expanding roadways only generates more traffic. The congestion could be reduced much faster and less expensively by discouraging driving, by taxing gasoline more and with a London-style congestion fee. Yes, a metro line would be nice, but the city can't figure out how to cover its projected budget, which is likely to double projectsion. (Peñalosa favors a less expensive, faster-to-build elevated metro line.)

But whether or not the city needs such projects, with construction companies whispering in the mayor's ear, they're much likelier to be built.

People and companies may contribute to candidates for many reasons, including friendship, ideological affnity and respect, but undoubtedly the biggest reason is personal interest: The contributor believes that the candidate, if elected, will promote the contributor's interests, whether by pouring money into their sector of the economy or favoring their specific company. And I suspect that many believe that, if they help get their man or woman into office, he or she will return the favor by funneling city money their way.

That might be good for the company, but not for the city, if the contributing company charges more, is corrupt or less competent than other companies who did not grease the wheels with campaign contributions. Much government spending is not necessary in the first place. For an example, look at the United States' huge and absurd agricultural subsidies, which persist mostly because a few farm states like Iowa have a disproportionate influence in presidential elections.

Whether the builders' investments in Peñalosa's campaign pay off may depend on which Peñalosa governs Bogotá. This Peñalosa campaign video is mostly about building and widening roads all over the city, despite roads' negative impacts on noise, pollution and quality of life - and the fact that they quickly fill up as well.

On the other hand, El Tiempo's summary of Peñalosa's plans emphasizes more sustainable projects such as expanding public transit and bike lanes.

Which Peñalosa will govern Bogotá?

Full disclosure: My business, Bogotá Bike Tours, has benefited indirectly from the construction companies' largesse because we've rented bikes to the Peñalosa campaign.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 23, 2015

New Labels, Same Smoke

Recently, in its desperation to expand its peso-hemorrhaging SITP bus system, the Petro administration has been slapping 'SITP' stickers on old buses and - like magic! - transforming them into new, modern, efficient, orderly and clean buses.

Except for the fact that they continue stopping in mid-block, running red lights and belching smoke.

Apparently, that sticker doesn't change anything inside the buses.

¿Why haven't any of the mayoral candidates made cleaning the air part of their campaign platforms?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The La Candelaria 'Ghost' Tour

El Tribuno del Pueblo, a figure from Colombia's 1810 revolution.
 This evening, I participated in La Candelaria's annual Halloween Ghosts Tour (Tour de los Fantasmas). It turned out to include more historical figures than ghosts, but was still entertaining.

Miguel Antonio Caro, man of letters and
Colombian president in the late 1800s.
The walk starts out on Plaza Bolivar, supposedly at 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays until Oct. 31, but actually closer to 6:30, and goes up Calle 10 to Carrera 2, then north to end at la Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo.

Along the way, you're introduced to figures such as El Loco de La Tranvia, a lovelorn young man with an obsession with streetcars, who had seen his love escape from him on one of them, and spent the rest of his days chasing the vehicles. Also, La Loca Margarita, a passionate supporter of the Liberal Party, who roamed the neighborhood denouncing the Conservative Party.

To participate, send an e-mail to the address on this page and wait for the confirmation message.

La Lavandera, The Washerwoman, who washed a rich family's clothing in a house on Calle 10. She suffered abuses, and one day when her son drowned in the water tank, she went crazy. She supposedly still haunts and house and sometimes residents awak to find she has washed their clothing overnight.
This vacant apartment complex - said to be Bogotá's oldest one - on Carrera 2 between Calles 11 and 12 is supposed to be haunted.
Policarpa Salvarrieta, a heroine of the revolution, is confronted by the Virrey (the Spanish king's representative), who murders her.

Jose Raimundo Russi in his doorway across the street from La Salle University. He was a lawyer in the mid-1800s who joined a criminal band, was arrested and executed. Supposedly, his ghost still haunts the street.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Protesting Bullfighting...As Always

Scenes from today's anti-bullfighting march, to which a group of anti-frackers united themselves.

Mayor Petro, a bullfighting opponent, had wanted to include a referendum on bullfighting in the upcoming Oct. 25 municipal elections, but a judge nixed the idea. The mayor appealed, so perhaps the protesters are still hoping against hope that the referendum goes forward.

As always, I'd like to ask the bullfighting protesters why they focus solely on this, which affects only a few dozen animals, but ignore the much more widespread cockfighting, not to mention factory farming, which mistreats innumerable animals (and probably people's health) every single day.

Mayor Petro, who's term is almost over, has not allowed bullfighting here since 2012. The Santa Maria is now closed for renovation.

The Colombian government has enthusiastically embraced fracking, altho it may not be economically viable here.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Grow a Leaf, Go to a U.S. Prison

FARC leader Timochenko, accused by the U.S. and Colombia
of  'controlling the production, manufacture, and distribution
of hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States
and the world,' could soon be in Congress.
Alias Timochenko and other leaders of the FARC guerrilla group, which produces and traffics a big chunk of the world's cocaine (as well as committing countless other crimes), likely will receive little more than symbolic punishments, as well as protection from extradition, before moving into politics, under the peace agreement announced recently.

Yet, while the kingpins who earn millions will likely walk free, impoverished campesinos who grow the coca leaf and earn trifles could end up in U.S. prisons.

Coca farmers like these men could soon be
subject to extradition under a U.S. law.
Those are the dirt-poor peasants who plant coca leaf because they see no alternative to feed their families and may have been pushed into the business by threats from narcotraffickers. They are simple people who may have only vague understanding of what happens to the leaves after strangers buy them and haul them away.

This is thanks to the Transnational Drug Trafficking Act of 2015, now making its way thru the U.S. Congress. According to the Congressional Research Service's summary, the act 'Amends the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to prohibit the manufacture or distribution of a controlled individuals having reasonable cause to believe that such substance or chemical will be unlawfully imported into the United States.' If the act passes passes and Colombia cooperates, then the peasant farmer who made a pittance from his coca leaves will turn on the TV in a U.S. federal penitentiary and watch the guerrilla leader who earned millions exporting those leaves making a speech in the Colombian Congress.

According to El Tiempo, only a few dozen campesino farmers are imprisoned in Colombia for the single crime of growing coca leaves. However, some 60,000 Colombian campesino families make their living by growing coca leaf, earning little more than a $1,000 per year per household. All of them - or at least the heads of household - would be subject to extradition and traial and imprisonment in the U.S. The would require lots of new U.S. federal prisons.

It hardly seems likely that entombing a few Colombian peasants in a U.S. prison would have any impact on drug production. After all, there are innumerable other hungry and fearful farmers waiting to take their places. And doesn't the U.S. have any better uses for its tax dollars than to fly peasants north, put them on trial and imprison them for decades - such as, perhaps, treating addicts in the U.S.?

Meanwhile, Colombia itself seems to be heading in the opposite direction: decriminalizing coca farming, in favor of encouraging peasants to shift to legal crops.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

To Those Who Have Much, More

Julio Santo Domingo (seated), with his son and heir Alejandro.
In a nation which still has one of the world's most unequal distributions of property and income, it hasn't seemed to make waves that one of its two richest families, the Santo Domingos, has suddenly become billions of dollars richer - without breaking a sweat.

The family patriarch, Julio Mario Santo Domingo, who died in 2011, possessed a fortune of $8 billion dollars, with a business empire including the El Espectador newspaper, Caracol TV and radio and 14% of the SABMiller beer company.

It was the SABMiller interest which contributed the new billions this week, when the world's largest beer maker, InBev, bought the company for $104.2 billion dollars. According to El Tiempo, the interest which cost the Santo Domingos $7.8 billion in 2005 is now worth $14.8 billion.

The new company, AB InBev, will control 30% of the world's beer sales, including Bavaria's 98%
chokehold on the Colombian market. The combined companies control 61% of Latin America's beer sales.

Don't be surprised if the decrease in competition means paying more for your pola. The Wall Street Journal, no critic of capitalism, says the fusion "prepares the ground for an increase in beer prices all over the the world."

Call it the fulfillment of the Bible's Parable of the TalentsFor to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours