Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Poet of the Bronx: Death, Drugs and Music

Max Heinz and his guitar. 
From Nazi Germany, to Chile to Bogotá's Bronx, the saga of Max Heinz, 'A Poet of the Bronx,' has to make one question human nature - or celebrate it.

Max Heinz's mother fled Germany just before World War II "on the last boat out." She wasn't Jewish, but her father "knew that Germany was going to lose the war" and wanted to rescue his daughter. A man of influence and connections, Max Heinz's grandfather also knew of the Nazis' abuses against Jews and others committed in the notorious Dachau concentration camp. He was able to free a Jewish man from Dachau and help his family escape Germany - but on the condition that they adopted his daughter, Max Heinz's mother. "He put them on the boat, with my mother as their daughter." That's how Max Heinz obtained his Jewish surname Loeb, "although I'm not of Jewish blood."

The family landed in Buenaventura. Eventually, Max Heinz's mother met and married a Chilean man, who took her to his homeland, where Max Heinz was born. The Chilean's own father was from Birmingham, Alabama. His parents spoke to him in English and German, and "I learned Spanish from the drivers and gardeners," Max Heinz recalls. The family returned to Colombia, where Max Heinz's father worked as a translator.

By his home on the edge
of the San Bernardino neighborhood. 
A talented swimmer, Max Heinz participated in national and international competitions, winning many medals, he says. Later, he got into Tae Kwon Do. Being trilingual got him work in universities and language academies. But when his mother died about 20 years ago, Max Heinz's life fell apart. He had dabbled in drugs, he says, but then he lost control.

"I said 'What the fuck! and I went out to the street to drink."

Max Heinz, now 54, lived first in El Cartucho, the notorious neighborhood since bulldozed and replaced by Parque Tercer Milenium, then in El Bronx and now in the equally rough San Bernardino neighborhood just south of Tercer Milenio.

He's witnessed killings committed according to those neighborhoods' pitiless codes of justice. Back in El Cartucho, where he recalls 3, 4 or 5 murders took place every day, the bosses, known as caciques, would hand a man a gun and order him to kill someone.

"If he did it, he'd get twenty bazuco cigarretes, if not he'd get killed himself. He had to do it."

Waiting to sing on a bus on Carrera Decima.
Max Heinz says he was never ordered to kill - thanks to a great degree to his musical ability. Instead, he played his guitar.

In the Bronx, he describes how drug sellers' ruthlessness with debtors. "They'll make the guy sit down, and give him an hour to pay. He can't go anywhere. All he can do is hope that someone who passes by will give him the money. Otherwise, they kill him."

Max Heinz, who seems quite a humanist, accepts this way of doing business.

"The dealers have to do it. Otherwise, the users would all take advantage of them.

"There's a code of honor."

Recently, he witnessed another musician gun a man down in San Bernardino. The corpse was tossed near a road. Nobody said anything. "Everybody is death, dumb and blind," says Max Heinz. The killer "must have had his reason. People don't kill for no reason."

He defends and respects El Bronx, even insisting that prostitution doesn't go on either there or the old Cartucho (against all other accounts I've heard), and that "women, children and animals are respected.

A street in the San Bernardino neighborhood. 
"It's a real paradise," he says of El Bronx, causing me to stare at him. "You can get everything there cheap. I bought a cellphone with television for only 7,000 pesos," he boasts, pulling it out and insisting it wasn't stolen. "Nobody else would buy it. All they want to spend their money on is drugs."

He consumes a cocktail of drugs himself, legal and illegal. But, as he describes it, they serve him as stimulants, keep him awake and enable him to play music. Just a few bits here and there, mixed into something else, he describes. One drug helps him control his consumption of another. He's got his self-maintenance formulas down pat, he says.

That was especially true back when he lived in El Bronx, where "they blasted the music until 6 a.m., shut down for a bit, and then started again."
Teaching English in La Candelaria. 

Still, his almost frenzied grin and rachety movements and speech give away that he's under the influence of something - or needs something.

For the past few months he's taught English in a foundation for poor children in La Candelaria. He credits that experience with helping him reduce the consumption of the one drug which he says was hurting him - vodka.

"I've cut down from two bottles a day to a half a bottle."

Along the way, Max Heinz has been profiled in the now-defunct 'Colombian Post,' which called him 'A Minstrel of Bogotá' and a few years ago in Cromos magazine, which baptized him a 'Poet of the Bronx.' He carries the article proudly in his pocket. Max Heinz says he's lived with six women and fathered nine children.

With students of English. 
Max Heinz seems happy, or at least generally satisfied. He teaches languages, sometimes as a volunteer, with energy and enthusiasm. "Repetition is the key," he explains.

And he earns his bread and butter singing on public buses. He's written 118 songs, but says that evangelical churches have stolen some of them. On buses, only fast ballads will do - he's got only a few minutes for his show, and a bolero would put the passengers to sleep.

"I've got to get on and do my show in two minutes and thirty seconds. I don't beg. I don't talk shit.

"I prefer singing to the poor. They give you coins and shake your hand. The rich just reach out and drop the coins into your hand."

But singing to bus passengers isn't easy: "They're tired. They've had a bad day. And they didn't ask you to sing. You've got to sing well. Otherwise, you make better money just begging."

But Max Heinz declined to sing for me. His guitar strings needed changing, he said.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Snubbing Venezuela

Protesters in front of Congress today chanted 'Capriles, fascist, imperialist.'
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Carpiles met with Colombian Pres. Santos today in a politically
Capriles and Santos shake hands today. 
curious event which did no favors for Colombian-Venezuelan relations.
In Venezuela's recent presidential elections Capriles lost narrowly to Hugo Chavez's chosen succesor, Nicolas Maduro - according to official results. The election contained lots of irregularities. Maduro intially promised a thorough recount. Since then, Venezuela's government has been shaken by a scandal over corruption and infighting, as well as severe shortages of basic goods. A weak Maduro quickly forgot his recount promise.

But Capriles is traveling across the region asking neighboring nations to support a recount. Of course, the Venezuelan government won't do it, and - as justified as Capriles' demand is, it's hard to see what advantage there could be for Colombia in meeting with Capriles. Already, Maduro is threatening to withdraw his government's support from the Colombian government's negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.

Anti-Capriles proesters in front of Congress on Plaza Bolivar chanted 'Capriles, fascist, imperialist.' Perhaps they've forgotten that Chavismo continues selling most of its country's oil to that Great Satan, the United States, and placing its economy into hock to Russia and China. The Chavistas have also eliminated checks and balances and are suffocating independent media. But those are all domestic Venezuelan problems.

But the protesters may have one point: I can't conceive of any reason why Santos met with Capriles - who doesn't have a snowball's chance of getting the election reversed - except as a favor to Washington.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Leapin' for Street Art

Despite his hard life, this recycler seemed to jump for joy as he passed a street mural in Los Martires, near the Central Cemetery. Perhaps he's an art fan, or just bored, or drunk.

The mural, painted recently by the Ink Crew Graffiti Colectivo. I'm not sure what it represents. However, hippos have played an absurd role in Colombia's story. Cocaine king Pablo Escobar imported three of them from Africa in 1985. Today, some 25 hippos live on his old Hacienda Napoles outside of Medellin - where you can watch them getting fed.

But Escobar's hippos have become a problem, since they're an exotic species and quite dangerous in the water. They've talked about sterilizing them, but I'm told that's easier said than done.

Was this man reflecting on this during his leaping pass by this piece of street art?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours, which offers graffiti tours

Monday, May 27, 2013

Still a Long Road Toward Peace

Students walk past a poster celebrating dead FARC guerrilla leaders on the campus of the National University in Bogotá.
The agreement reached on land policy between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas is historic - but only a first step in what's still a long and perilous path to peace.

A faded poster on the National University campus
celebrates the FARC''s 48th anniversary.
Will they make it to their 50th in 2016?
The agreement is a landmark because it's the first such agreement reached with the guerrillas in the 60-year history of fighting against, and occasionally negotiating with, the Colombian government. But it took far longer than planned, and the two sides still have to reach agreements on drug trafficking, guerrilla disarmament and what sorts of punishments, if any, ex-guerrillas would accept.

And while the negotiators initially expected land issues to be the easiest of the points on the negotiators' agenda, land has a huge significance in Colombia's history of conflict. The FARC guerrillas, led by Manuel Marulanda, originated from a group of landless peasants who established Marquetalia Republic in Tolima Department in the late 1950s. In 1964, the Colombian army invaded, driving out the peasant fighters, who morphed into the FARC in 1966 and began their long guerrilla conflict across Colombia.

Camilo Torres, the ELN's guerrilla-priest, in the
National University. Will the ELN start negotiating, too?
Land issues also have broader significance in Colombia, which has long had one of the most unequal land (and income) distributions in the world. Reaching an agreement with the guerrillas on land reform could not only justify their reason for existing, but hopefully also advance toward ending an historic injustice.

Pres. Santos made a series of promises for rural development, including land redistribution and nutrition and educational programs. Those, of course, would only be extentions of programs which already exist. (But how can Santos really commit the Colombian government if he doesn't win reelection?)

FARC founder Manuel Marulanda and
others in Marquetalia.

Huge challenges remain, of course. Issues such as the future role of the guerrilla leaders may be less transcendental, but perhaps more difficult to resolve. Everybody agrees about the benefits of social justice. However, the public, government and FARC leaders may have a very hard time agreeing whether the leaders of a guerrilla group which has massacred and displaced and kidnapped civilians, trafficked drugs, used child soldiers, and on and on should go to prison - as justice would suggest - or into Congress, as the guerrillas want to do.

Lots of outside events could also untrack the very delicate negotiations, including political changes, an
economic downturn, a flare-up in the conflict or the death of a guerrilla leader.

It's also still an open question whether the FARC as an organization will be able to enforce any agreement upon their far-flung fronts. Those fronts earn fortunes thru narcotrafficking and extortion: Will they be willing to give up such 'success' and turn themselves in to authorities, very possibly to face imprisonment? For that matter, will the Colombian government - which in the past has colaborated with right-wing paramilitaries - live up to its part of any bargain?

And, if the guerrillas do make peace, might other violent organization simply take their place?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Colombia's Cycling Renaissance

'Heroes of Steel' roars El Espectador.
This is turning into a Banner Year for Colombian bike racing.

Rigoberto Uran, second place
in the Giro de Italia.
Yesterday's second-place finish by Rigoberto Urán in the Giro de Italia was only the latest in a string of achievements. (Fellow Colombian Carlos Betancur finished 5th and won Giro's the best young rider title.)

This was the first time that a Colombian rider has stood on the podium at the Giro de Italia and Urán, who is only 26, has many years of accomplishment ahead of him - as of course Betancur does as well. It was also, incidentally, the first time in 15 years that an all-Colombian team rode the Giro, one of cycling's Big Three multi-stage races.

Carlos Betancourt,
the Giro's best young rider.
But the Giro accomplishments, which a breathless El Tiempo called "sensational, historical and without precedent," shouldn't overshadow Colombian cyclists' other recent feats. This year, Colombian Janier Acevedo won Stage Two of the Tour of California and Nairo Quintana won the Tour of the Basque Country.

Why this new success? The excellent blog Cycling Inquisition suggests that a dialdown in the doping culture has permitted Colombians, with their natural climbing abilities, to shine. The country also has a generation of good riders and But deeper causes may be Colombia's strengthening economy and improving security situation, which provide more money for cycling and create opportunities for Colombian riders to get contracted by European teams.
Nairo Quintana, winner of this year's
Tour of the Basque Country.

The next big rides are the Tour de France in June and the Vuelta a España in August. It'll be exciting to see what those young Colombians can do!

This chapter of Colombian sports success (Colombia also has a strong shot at making it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil) makes a refreshing contrast to the country's previous successes in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, drug money flowed into sports, financing teams, buying bicycles and paying for plane tickets - but also taking a horrible toll in corruption and killings. Drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar (whose brother Roberto was a talented bike racer and who set up a cycling team and bicycle factory) used riders to smuggle drugs, and numerous riders ended up in prison or in early graves. On the soccer/football side, the tragedy of Andrés Escobar still hangs over Colombian football.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Latest Anti-Anti-Transgenics Tirade

'They're invading us.'
These very sincere folks were demonstrating on Ave. Septima today against transgenic seeds, which they claim are destroying everything from Colombia's seed diversity to everybody's health.

The fear of transgenic organisms and demonization of Monsanto Corporation have become deep-rooted, self-perpetuation psychosis which is going to be with us for a long, long time.

But the specific criticisms of transgenics seem completely baseless. I asked several of today's demonstrators why they opposed transgenics. 'They're damaging our health,' they told me; added another 'We're being invaded,' and 'They're manipulating our food.'

'Because of love for life.'
Except that humans have been manipulating their food genetically for at least the past 10,000 years, since agriculture began. For hundreds of thousands of years before that, nature was manipulating our food thru evolution and random genetic mutations.

Transgenic methods are faster, more dramatic and less random - but not fundamentally different.

Do transgenic techniques have dangers? Sure, just like anything else, altho they're far outweighed by the technique's potential benefits for humans and the environment. And what the protesters were objecting to: coporate agriculture, loss of traditional biodiversity and the proliferation of unhealthy, processed foods, aren't caused by transgenics but by wider economic trends like globalization, monoculture agriculture and mass marketing. Transgenic crops may have accelerated those trends, but that's all.

Free seeds now!
As for transgenic foods infiltrating your genes and creating a third eye sprout on your forehead - that's impossible. A transgenic food's genes get digested your stomach, like all proteins, and broken down into their basic building blocks. If transgenics did cause health damage, don't you think that lawsuit-happy North Americans, who've been eating transgenics for decades, somebody, at least once, would have been able to prove some harm? But they haven't.

Eating ice cream. Transgenic or not,
too much junk food is bad for you.
Transgenic crops do have environmental impacts - but many of them are positive. For example, some insects have recently begun to develop resistance to Monsanto's BT crops - and that's causing farmers to return to using old fashioned pesticides. Those pesticides are bad for the land, rivers, ocean and plants and animals, including people.

Tragically, the U.S. and other parts of the world are experiencing a wave of extintions: Bats, honeybees and many kinds of amphibians are going fast - and they're only the ones we've noticed. In the bees' case, at least, pesticides are a leading suspect.

'Monsanto out of Colombia and the planet.'
Certainly, loss of seed biodiversity and junk food are real problems - but focusing on transgenics as the villains just hides the true, fundamental threats.

But transgenics make a wonderful enemy because the concept is new and strange and in Monsanto opponents have a great big corporate villain with a strange-sounding name to attack.

By groundlessly attacking transgenics, activists are depriving many millions of people, including perhaps malnourished children in Colombia's El Choco Department, of cheaper and sometimes healthier food. Take, in particular, the insane campaign against golden rice, a transgenic seed fortified with vitamin A, which has the potential to save the lives of millions poorly-nourished children the world over - if only anti-transgenics activists quit standing between kids and their health. Opponents of Golden Rice have blood on their hands, just as surely as do the paranoics who oppose a life-saving vaccination.

'Yankee corn out of Colombia'
But, to me, the most tragic part of this is that intstead of fighting a life-saving solution, these activists could instead be fighting against the the real threats to the environment and our health which are all around us - but go ignored because their not so simplistic and exciting as fighting an imaginay boogeyman.

Can anybody say air pollution? Deforestation? Fast food and sedentarianism? Smoking? Climate change? Malaria?

Sunday's New York Times contains this tremendous commentary about how, since the beginning of agriculture, humans have selected vegetables, including corn and potatoes, to make them sweeter and softer - and much less nutritious.

Transgenics and genetic manipulation have likely accelerated this trend, a case in point being the conversion of nutritious Indian corn into low-nutrition sweet corn. But transgenics probably offer the best way to put nutrients back into vegetables.
Different kinds of potatoes, as well as corn, yucca and other fruits and vegetables in a Bogotá market. None of these are transgenic, but all undoubtedly have been genetically manipulated by farmers.

Danger - Monsanto.

'Out with Monsanto.'

Traditional seeds. 'Seeds are the real gold in life.'

'Do you know that your food could be poisoned?'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, May 23, 2013

When the 'Solution' Becomes the Problem

When the city introduced those blue SITP buses last year they were to be the solution to Bogotá's chaotic, inefficient and very polluting public bus system - and they may yet be. But so far they aren't showing it.

Most of the SITP buses travel empty, or nearly so. That was supposed to be a start-up problem - except that after months of operation, their ridership has approved little.
A SITP bus takes off with a blast.
But, at least, officialdom promised us, these new buses wouldn't ignore emissions laws, as the regular buses and TransMilenio buses so flagrantly do.
'Really, honestly, cross our hearts, we're actually enforce the environmental laws this time.'
Except that, as these photos show, they haven't.

Anybody in there?
I can see right thru you.

The motor's on, but nobody's home.

Bogotá's ancient, dirty and chaotic private bus fleet certainly needs replacing - but are more polluting buses - which are also usually empty - the solution?

Should we have expected anything different? After all, the TransMilenio system - an icon of Bogotá - belches out smoke pitilessly.
False advertising? A SITP flyer protrays the bus as clean (tho apparently empty).

By Mike Ceaser, of
Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Importing the American Way of Death

Future fat? Young women leave a Bogotá McDonald's
with ice cream cones. 

This NY Times story has got to be one of the most startling (and ignored) pieces of news reported in recent years: Immigrants to the United States, despite better education, nutrition and health care, are dying younger and suffering more chronic diseases than did their parents and grandparents back home, mostly in Latin America.

That's because, along with the benefits they find in the U.S., these immigrants also adopt U.S. habits, including too much food, especially fatty foods, and a sedentary lifestyle. The predictable results include obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Celebrating American culture! Lots of Dunkin' Donuts in
Bogotá, too. 
So, will somebody please explain to me why Colombians (and others across the planet) are embracing this deadly American lifestyle?

(Hint: Maybe because corporations make huge profits from it.)

The recent book 'Salt Sugar Fat,' by Michael Moss, documented how big corporations aggressively market unhealthy foods to kids and adults with few scruples. Why should we expect companies to behave any better in Colombia?

On the path to the American Way, forget traditional
fruit markets like Paloquemao....
United States fast food chains such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts are invading Colombia, hand in hand with sugary drink makers Coca Cola and Pepsi, promoting chronic diseases which rob years from people's lives. El Tiempo editorialized last month that more than half of Colombians are overweight or obese. (In contrast, one of every six children under age five and one out of every six pregnant women is anemic, numbers which are particularly high in rural areas.) Convenience stores, like the Oxxos colonizing Bogotá, hawking unhealthy processed foods, are trying to drive out traditional mom-and-pop stores which feature breads, fruits and vegetables.

...and head to processed, fat-packed products at chain stores. 
Already, several Latin American countries, including Chile, Argentina and Mexico, are among the world leaders in per-capita cola consumption. Colombians consume about 50 liters per capita per year - just a little more than one third of the 130 liters an average Argentinian drinks - but you can be sure that the soft drink companies are doing their best to make Colombians drink more sugar.

The chronic diseases caused by overeating create huge costs for health care systems and are compounded by trends toward sedentarism, fueled by increasing car use.

These two people just bought churros -
deep fried fat in batter. 
El Tiempo reports that in 2009 Colombia's Congress passed a law intended to combat the country's increasing junk-foodedness, but that it was never regulated or enforced.

Peru recently passed such a law, which restricts advertising to children and the sale of unhealthy foods in kiosks. The law is, naturally, opposed by stores and advertisers, which make lots of money by pushing harmful stuff onto children. But, incredibly, a Catholic Church leader also attacked the new law as a restriction of freedom and parental authority. Strange, isn't it, for a church that's so eager to prohibit so many other things. Or is it that abortion, euthenasia and gay marriage are moral issues, but child obesity and heart attacks are not?

In practice, the avalanche of junk food advertising just leaves both kids and parents at the mercy of predatory corporations.

Vitamins! But the churros seller has the nerve to label their junk food 'nutritional.'

Another goal of the American way of death is to stamp out low-profit habits such as bicycling... 

and walking...
and replace them with the profitable car driving. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours