Monday, May 21, 2018

Do you believe it?

Maduro celebrates his election victory alongsie Maradona.
The country suffers hyperinflation a soaring homicide rate and a shrinking economy. Stores and pharmacies are bare of food, medicines and toilet paper. It's hemorraging people, who are fleeing this disaster area.

And yet the president, who is notoriously corrupt and lives high while his people suffer, got reelected by a landslide.

Does anybody at all believe that Sunday's presidential election results in Venezuela were fair and democratic?

Venezuelan president/dictator Nicolas Maduro and his crowd may have read the recent and interesting book 'How to Rig an Election,' by two British academics. The book observes that old fashioned ballot box stuffing is now passé. Instead, today's authoritarian leaders stack the deck in their own favor before a single vote gets cast, thru techniques such as registering more voters in regions where they are popular and setting up more voting stations in those same areas.

In Venezuela, the government started preparing for the election many months ago by imprisoning or banning from public office the opposition's strongest potential candidates. Maduro also linked the reception of food aid - vital in a starving nation - to allegiance to Maduro. Whether or not the government really knew which candidate voters supported didn't matter: It was the impression that counted.

That was also why the government set up red tents outside of voting stations - sometimes so close that they violated election rules - for government loyalists to check in after voting. The message was clear: 'We're rewarding you for voting for us.' Government offices also required public employees to attend pro-Maduro rallies.

These were all crude attempts to harness the still-great public resources of the nation with the world's largest oil reserves in favor of Maduro.

The government might not even have needed to manipulate the vote counts, but it probably did, anyway. After all, many election observers said that the electoral commission's reported 47% voter turnout seemed wildly exaggerated in light of the many near-vacant voting stations. After a previous election, the voting machine company, Smartmatic, charged that

Maduro has good reason to hold on to power. (His new term ends in 2025.) He and his buddies are living high while his people suffer. And, if he were to be overthrown, his enemies would surely try to prosecute Maduro for corruption and human rights violations, forcing him to take refuge with few remaining friends, in Cuba, Syria or Russia.

Instead, Venezuela will sink into even deeper misery. And hundreds of thousands or millions more Venezuelans will flood into neighboring nations. And Venezuela will lose a generation of its brightest, most motivated people.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Can Venezuela Pull a Malaysia?

Najib Razak, ex-Malaysian
prime minister, who lost an
election this month.
A notoriously corrupt strongman appears to hold a lock on his country's leadership. In the run-up to elections, he uses oil income to saturate the country with his campaign ads, controls most of the media and uses gerrymandering and other tricks to ensure his reelection victory.

The nation I have in mind is Malaysia, the southeast Asian nation which held national elections ten days ago. But I might as easily be talking about Venezuela, which is to hold a vote tomorrow in which its authoritarian president Nicolas Maduro is expected to use a rigged system to get himself reelected, despite running his oil-rich nation into the ground. In both nations, the government used legal charges and technicalities to bar opposition candidates from even running in the election.

To everybody's amazement, Malaysia's opposition party won the election, and the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957 lost power.

That might provide a glimmer of hope for the opposition in Venezuela in tomorrow's voting. There,
Venezuelan president/dictator Maduro.
Pres. Maduro has taken control of nearly all the media and government institutions and is allegedly using payments and intimidation to win tomorrow's election.

Colombian Pres. Santos reported this week that Colombia had seized a big shipment of food allegedly intended to be used by the Venezuelan government to pay for votes, altho much of the food was already rotten. Santos also charged that the Venezuelan government planned to give Colombians Venezuelan ID cars and have them vote for the government.

But Venezuela differs in important ways from Malaysia, where the opposition candidate who won the prime ministryship had already been prime minister, and so many people had a positive image of him. On the other hand, Malaysia's economy was fairly strong, whereas Venezuela's is in free fall, potentially motivating many people to vote against the government.

But, barring a miracle, Mauro will win reelection tomorrow and continue stiffening his dictatorial rule and worsening his nation's economic disaster. And hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans will continue pouring into Colombia.

And the Malaysian election likely has redoubled Maduro's determination to win at all costs tomorrow. After all, Malaysian's ex-leader may now be put on trial for his alleged monumental corruption.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What to do With Narco Art?

Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt at work.
(Photo: Colartes)
During his long life, Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, one of his era's most accomplished Colombian sculptors, created works for airports, plazas and museums, commemorating themes of religion, liberty and human rights across Colombia and Mexico,where he lived for 25 years.

But Arenas, who lived from 1919 to 1995, also made one sculpture paying tribute to one of the worst people Colombia has produced: narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar. Now, Colombia may have to decide what to about an artwork which represents the intersection of wealth, crime, art and even sexuality.

The sculpture, called La Familia hangs on a wall of Escobar's El Monaco apartment building in Medellin. It isn't one of the artist's most distinguished works: It portrays sexualized figures standing one atop another, the woman a stereotypicaly voluptuous narcotrafficker's fantasy.

Medellin now plans to demolish the Monaco building in an
effort to change its narco-city image. That's a questionable policy in an era when historical memory is gaining importance. After all, the narcos' extravagant lifestyle demonstrates what happens when a sought-after commodity is prohibited: It makes vicious criminals rich.

La Familia, on a wall of the
El Monaco building in Medellin.
Many narcos, altho not known for their appreciation of fine culture, did collect expensive artworks to show off and to launder their millions. After their deaths or arrests, the art was generally seized and auctioned off by authorities as the ill-gotten gains of criminal enterprise. (However, Pablo Escobar's brother Roberto did recently - and incomprehensibly - win a lawsuit against the government for the value of art and other valuables confiscated from his apartment after the Medellin cartel's collapse in the early 1990s.) Those objects have reentered the world's art market carrying little taint from dirty money.

But what about art created as a tribute to a vicious criminal?

There's no word about why Arenas created the work for Escobar. Did he fear him? Did he admire the man's criminal accomplishments, or his pretentions of nationalist politics? Or did Betancourt just need the money?

According to news reports, Arenas' sculpture may go to Medellin's 'Museo de la Memoria,' which is to commemorate the victims of Medellin's violence. But that hardly seems like an appropriate abode for an eroticized tribute to a mass murderer.
Prometheuus Unchained, in the Casa del Museo de Antioquia.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Makeover for Rita

Cyclists observe Rita in the Parque Nacional.
The long-suffering Rita's
graffitied torso.
Rita, 5:30 p.m., the sculpture by Enrique Grau on Carrera Septina in Bogotá's Parque Nacional has become something of an unlikely urban landmark. Standing at the entrance to one of the city's most popular parks, right beside its largest Catholic university, Rita is a prostitute.

Installed in the park in 2002, over the years, Rita has suffered for reasons more related to her location than her profession. Offering large iron plates on one of the city's primary thoroughfares, this Rita tempts not sexually frustrated males, but passersby in search of self expression, often without the redeeming qualities of artistic ability. Poor Rita has become defaced by graffiti and tagging. Soon, Bogotá plans to clean and renovate Rita.

Besides urban neglect and adolescent misbehavior, Rita's condition could also
A poster on a wall in the Santa Fe neighborhood's
red light district says 'Rejection.'
be interpreted as a representation of abuse against women, always a timely issue in Bogotá. And news of her repairs comes at a time when policies about sex work, which is legal in designated 'tolerance zones,' are once again under discussion in the wake of the sexual abuse of a 3-year-old girl taken from an informal day care center located in Bogotá's Santa Fe tolerance zone.

Whether she is honoring prostitution or warning against it, Rita's renovation won't come cheap: 27 million pesos, or about US $1,000 dollars, according to El Tiempo.

Still, it might be worthwhile, if not for the fact that Rita will get graffitied again soon after.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Piece of Paradise in South Bogotá

Tossing a frisbee amidst the trees. 
Entrance to a different reality:
El Parque Bosque San Carlos.
Uribe Uribe and Gustavo Restrepo are two of those nondescript working class enighborhoods of south Bogotá which are pleasant enough places to live, but have little more to recommend them. So, I was stunned when bicycling thru these neighborhoods today to come upon a forest - a real uban forest!

It's called the Parque Bosque San Carlos, and on a holiday afternoon like today it was full of neighbors walking their dogs, playing football, throwing frisbees and dancing. I didn't feel like I was in Bogotá at all - and much less the often grimy and monochronous southern side of the city.

San Carlos is smaller than the also treey Parque Simon Bolivar Park and Parque Nacional. But San Carlos is much more forested, and those other parks are located in the wealthier north Bogotá,whose residents have more opportunities to escape from the city. And San Carlos is a complete park, with jogging paths, futbol pitches, basketball courts, children's play areas and lots of green spaces.
Even flowers!

How did this happen? The park adjoins the Santa Clara Hospital, so the land must have once been part of the hospital's campus, which is why it wasn't built up with houses. I read that the trees, almost all of them eucalyptus, were planted around 1950, making them seventy years old. Some have gotten diseased, and in late 2016 the city closed the park for some six months and cut down more than 40 trees and planted 30 trees more adapted to the local climate.

 The success of San Carlos ought to set an example for the city to turn the unused lands around the San Juan de Dios Hospital and the Central Cemetery into parks as well.
A nice place to walk a dog - even backwards.

A sapling grows, presumably of a native tree.

The park has several children's play areas.

A birdhouse, and a glimpse of the working class neighborhood.

Parchita makes a friend.

Rolling away.

A great place to learn to ride a bike!

Enough room to play ball.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Respite for Bogotá's Breathers?

A TransMilenio bus belches its way thru central Bogotá
recently. How much cleaner will the new buses be?
In a small victory for clean air, Mayor Peñalosa increased the advantage zero-pollution buses will receive in the bidding for a new fleet for TransMilenio from 50 to 400 points.

Unfortunately, I can't discover anywhere how many total points we're talking about: Are we talking about 400 points out of a thousand, or 400 points out of a million?

But apparently the 400 points are significant, since Peñalosa promised that thanks to them many of the 1,000-plus new buses will be Euro 6: basically electric or naural gas powered.

That will be a relief for us breathers, since many of the older TM buses are veritable 'rolling chimneys' because they've exceeded their planned mileage and obviously have neither been maintained or equipped with filters.

Electric buses, at least, can never pollute, no matter how old they get or how badly they're neglected. (And, because Colombia's electricity is mostly hydroelectric, it generates relatively little greenhouse gas.)

The clean buses will cost more to buy, (altho less to maintain), and they will also require the installation of new infrastructure in TM statiions. So, they'll be expensive up front, but will save Bogotanos untold amounts in health expenditures and human suffering, as well as the economic benefits from increased tourism and businesses' willingness to move to a cleaner, more pleasant city.

But that makes me ask: If City Hall is willing to go to that expense and effort to make TM cleaner, why not bother to sanction monstrosities like this bus I saw yesterday belching its way up Calle 19?

Or this truck I spotted smoking away today along on Calle 13 near the train station?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Suspicious Border Gasoline Boom

Stirring up cocaine in a jungle laboratory. The process uses
lots of gasoline. (Photo: Business Insider
The town of Argelia, in the department of Cauca, has some 27,000 residents and 19 gas stations. However, last year the municipality racked up 3.4 million gallons of gasoline sales and 642,000 gallons of diesel sold - some three times as much as just two years before and higher per-capita than sales in Bogotá - despite Argelia's poverty and few cars.

Argelia, Cauca: booming gasoline market. Foto: RCN Radio
The paradoxical situation, reported by El Tiempo, may a simple explanation: Argelia and other rural agricultural communities with booming fuel sales also happen to have booming coca leaf and cocaine economies - and gasoline and diesel are basic ingredients for converting leaves into the drug.

The intersects with many other disfunctions. Because cocaine is illegal, those many millions of gallons of fuel are handled without any regulation or safety laws. So, once exhausted, they're often just dumped into rivers or onto the jungle floor.

The popularity of motor fuels for cocaine production is partly the fault of the Colombian government, which spends a fortune every year on fuel subsidies - particularly in border areas. Fuel subsidies make little sense socially or economically, since they go disproportionately to the wealthy. And they make absolutely no sense at all environmentally, since fossil fuel production takes a huge environmental toll all along its life cycle and burning fuels contributes to global warming. But the subsidies make sense politically, since they buy votes. The pressure to subsidize gasoline is particularly strong in areas near Ecuador and Venezuela, which subsidize their fuels much more than Colombia does.

And by subsidizing gasoline for drivers, Colombia also does so for drug producers.

Officials may be considering various strategies to deal with this problem - altho none of them likely involves raising the price of gasoline to pay for its social and environmental impacts, which would not only make cocaine production more expensive, but would also reduce traffic jams, clean the air and generally make Colombia's cities more liveable.

Solutions which Colombia is more likely to try, such as rationing fuel in some border areas, will inevitably increase smuggling and contraband, particularly from Venezuela, and enrich criminal organizations. Officials also talk about adding a chemical ingredient to fuels to make them less effective for drug making. But expect drug makers to find a way to neutralize this chemical and to increase smuggling across the border, since Colombia's neighbors certainly won't add the ingredient to their own fuels.

There's only one way to end these absurd and ineffective attempts to use ineffective policies to repair a failed one - decriminalize drugs and minimize their harm.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours