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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Double Municipal Mural Disfunction

Where'd Lesivo's mural go?
Not long ago, the city called for proposals from graffiti groups and paid the winners to paint walls along Calle 26, beautifying the stretch of road between the airport and downtown. Now, for no apparent reason, the city - or some government entity - has decided to hide away the murals taxpayers paid for.

Or, perhaps those in power are covering the art up out of embarrassment. After all, these walls were exposed several years ago when the government demolished homes and businesses here during the construction of the Calle 26 TransMilenio line.

Since then, they've just left the space vacant.

Were these buildings destroyed because then-Mayor Samuel Moreno - who is now in prison on corruption charges - wanted to give work to some relative who owned a demolition company?

At the very least, the city might turn these empty areas into green space, instead of fencing them off behind barbed wire and, now, hiding them behind a plastic wall.

This guy, with his dog-powered bicycle, might like to walk his dogs in that green space.
Soon to disappear too?
Will Jaime Garzon soon be hidden away?
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Annual Skateboard Day

Skateboarding with a flag on La Ciclovia.
Today was the annual Skateboard Day, which strikes me as one of Bogotá's most refreshing events, thanks to its combination of youth, spontaneity and a healthy defiance of convention.

Hundreds or thousands of skateboarders on Plaza del Rosario.
A wheelie in the Parque Nacional.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Outlaw Economy

San Andresitos workers fill Simon Bolivar plaza in protest against an anti-contraband law.
They're scattered across Bogotá, with names like San Victorino and San Andresitos - the latter named
Protesters wearing shirts charging that the anti-contraband
law would mean monopolies and destroy small businesses. 
after Colombia's Caribbean island of San Andres, which are notorious for smuggling. These stores' cheap imported goods carry a reputation for being contraband and often serving for laundering drug money.

At least, that's what many authorities believe. And perhaps the best evidence that they're right came the other day when thousands of owners and employees of the San Andresitos filled San Victorino and Simon Bolivar plazas with a deafening protest against a law raising penalties and jail terms for buying and selling contraband goods.

Colombia's huge contraband industry might seem innocent enough: It provides cheap imported running shoes, electronics and refrigerators, not to mention all of the gasoline consumed in regions near the Venezuelan border. It also employs many thousands of Colombians.

San Andresitos stores on Calle 13 in Bogota.
However, cheap smuggled goods don't pay taxes, depriving the state of money for schools, roads and police and hurt domestic manufacturing. This is felt particularly in provincial health programs, which are financed by duties and taxes on cigarettes and whiskey - two heavily smuggled items. The cheap, smuggled, untaxed products are also particularly cheap, placing them within the reach of children.

However, contraband's worst impact might be its role in money laundering. Drug cartels find it difficult bringing their illegal millions in profits back into Colombia thru the banking system. So, they convert them into legal goods, which may be either legally imported or smuggled in thru places like the La Guajira peninsula and marketed in the San Andresitos.

For years during the late 1990s and early 2000s, cigarette makers Philip Morris and British
Cigarettes, many of them smuggled, for sale
next to candy in La Candelaria.
Many of the boxes carry warnings in
English instead of he required
Colombian ones.
American Tobacco facilitated cigarette smuggling into Colombian, flooding the country with cheap smokes and helping terrorist groups launder drug money, according to investigators and Colombian government officials.

The San Andresito businesses skirt around the fact that so many of their products lack documentation. But, if those products aren't illegal, why are the San Andresito people so up in arms against it?

That cheap camera, pair of jeans or MP3 player may not be so innocent.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Police State?

Police watch a demonstration by displaced people on Plaza Bolivar.
One of the first things which foreigners remark about when visiting Bogotá is how many police and soldiers they see on the streets. There is a reason for this, of course - Colombia's terribly
 high rates of street crimes such as muggings, even murder.

Police detain a man on Carrera Septima.
However, the ever-present police could become scarier. Even tho they are frequently accused of abuses against the public, a new Police Code now in Congress would enable police to enter private homes without a judge's order when the officer feels it's case of 'hot pursuit'; the code would also enable police to detain someone 'for their own protection' or that of the public. And the code authorizes police to use polemical electric stun guns, known as tasers. Public protests would be illegal without previous authorization.

Altho some say that the police already have some of these powers, the code has generated protests from opposition politicians and civil rights groups, who say that it opens the door to more police abuses.

The reform bill is still under consideration in Congress. Expect protests if it advances.

Posters protest police abuse.
Anti-riot police along Carrera Septima.
Police at night in La Candelaria.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, June 15, 2015

Thank The Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta in this mistaken portraya. In fact, he sealed the document.
Article VII - No man can be accused, arrested nor detained but in the cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed. 
Article IX - Any man being presumed innocent until he is declared culpable...
Article XVII - Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage...
Article XIV - Each citizen has the right to ascertain, by himself or through his representatives, the need for a public tax, to consent to it freely,
 - Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Paris, 1789.

Those basic citizens' rights and others are inscribed on the wall of the Universidad de America's Casa
The Rights of Man and the Citizen, just off of Calle 10.
de los Derechos del Hombre, sadly hidden away on Calle 10, just above the Plaza Bolivar.

That resounding list of rights, issued by the French Revolutionaries in 1789, was secretly brought to Colombia in 1794, translated and secretly distributed by Antonio Nariño. The Spanish royal government, which held that the king ruled with divine right and could do whatever he pleased, confiscated and destroyed the documents and sentenced Nariño to 10 years imprisonment. Nariño escaped royal arrest twice and returned to Bogotá to help lead the revolution in La Gran Colombia, becoming one of Colombia's most important but less remembered heroes.

As imperfectly as those principles have been honored, they still provide a basis for rule of law in Colombia today.

The Right of Man are hidden back there.
And those principles emanate from an even older document: The Magna Carta, sealed by the lousy English King John and the barons exactly 800 years ago on June 15, 1215 in the field of Runnymede, outside of London.

The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was nearly stillborn: King John soon repudiated it, and the Pope ordered him not to obey it. Rule by divine right and rejection of citizens' rights would continue. Yet, successive kings reissued the Great Charter, it helped inspire the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the United States Constitution and the United Nations' Charter of Human Rights, not to mention the laws of innumerable other nations.

Antonio Nariño brought
over the rights.
You might not have a chance to visit Runnymede this week, but it's worth passing by the hidden
Plazoleta on Calle 10 and taking a look at the principles which enable you to demand a trial before punishment, to defend your property from arbitrary confiscation and to have a say in how you are taxed - at least in theory.

The Magna Carta, not a very impressive-looking document.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours