Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tobacco's Tricks

Young people smoke on La Plaza del Chorro in La Candelaria.
 If this post looks familiar, don't blame me. Blame the authorities for a situation which doesn't change - or gets worse.

A cigarette 'display case', about a meter wide
in a La Candelaria Internet cafe/phoning place frequented
by young people. 
Today is world 'No-Tobacco Day', altho that's a real misnomer in Colombia.

Colombia has supposedly implemented World Health Organization anti-smoking policies. The failing, as usual, is enforcement.

The law prohibits the selling of cigarettes by the stick, known as loosies. But stores and street vendors continuing selling loosies openly and with no apparent fear of punishment. All the police need to do is hire some kid to try to buy loosies. Whereever he or she succeeds, take away the seller's cigarettes. On the second offense, close their business for a day. The loosie sellers are obvious, anyway, since they keep their cigarette boxes wide open.

Packs from contraband cigarettes. Notice that they
don't carry the Colombian health warnings.
Colombia's anti-tobacco law also prohibited tobacco advertising. But, 'where there's a law, there's a way around it,' goes the Colombian saying. The law apparently permits cigarette 'display cases.' Well, a 'display case' might be a meter wide and boast about 'Mentholated Mustangs with a capsule.'

A street vendor's box offering candies and cigarettes
by the stick. Why else would the boxes be opened?
To its credit, Colombia did require graphic warnings on cigarette boxes, and those have been enforced on smokes sold legally here. However, contraband cigarettes - which make half of those sold in some coastal regions - don't carry the required warnings. The flood of contraband smokes has received news coverage, particularly because many are manufactured by Tabacalero del Este, a Paraguayan company owned by Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes.

A young woman lights up a loosie on the Plaza del Chorro.
Notice the police in the background.
Most of the news coverage has concentrated on the huge loss of tax income because of these smuggled cigarettes - which, in addition, are allegedly used to launder drug money - but they also have big health impacts by making super-cheap smokes available, especially for kids. (For many years, multinationals Philip Morris and British American Tobacco similarly promoted tobacco smuggling into Colombia.)

In fact, according to El Tiempo, more than 27% of Colombian young people smoke, compared to only 17% of Colombian adults.

The results of all this aren't minor. El Tiempo reports that a every five seconds a Colombia dies from smoking - more than 26,000 people per year. This means a huge cost for the country's health care system and lots of lost economic productivity.

A vendor's cart on La Plaza del Chorro. The cigarette boxes have been opened, but reclosed, perhaps because there are cops nearby - or because it's no-tobacco day.
A man walks away from the cart smoking a just-purchased loosie cigarette.

Boys stand smoking outside the internet cafe with the Mustang ad. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Jailors Strike

'Let's go for peace.'
Employees of the National penitentiary Institute, the Inpec, are on strike demanding more money and better working conditions - including reduction in prison overcrowding. Prison overcrowding is a grave problem across Colombia, whose jails are packed with 58% more inmates than they were designed for. At least one has four times its intended population, according to human rights groups.

In addition to causing suffering of inmates, the huge prison population generates a huge economic cost and lots of ruined lives. Over the last year, the government has tried to reduce this overcrowding by releasing some people to home detention who've served most of their sentences.

Another policy option they might consider would be to relax prohibitionist drug policies, which funnel wealth to violent, outlaw groups and also mean the imprisonment of non-violent offenders.

I'm not sure why these guys made 'peace' the catchword of their protest. Perhaps they're Santos voters.

"The nation's prisons are a kind of torture center," leftist Senator Jorge Robledo was quoted in El Tiempo.

The workers' strike has already begun to address the crisis in a small way. Because of the resulting manpower shortage, some prisons have ceased receiving new inmates, and at least one inmate escaped while out for a medical appointment.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Colombia's Evolving Ways of Death

Check out these incredible graphics generated by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations, which show how Colombians - and everybody else - dies, by gender, in different decades, and analyzed in different ways.

The graphs track Colombia's health and even political evolution. Notice how violent deaths (rose colored bars on top) drop, while chronic illnesses such as diabetes leap (thank cars and McDonald's and Co.). AIDS (bright yellow) barely registered in 1990, but has since exploded into a major cause of death and disability. On the other hand, diarrhea killed lots of kids two decades ago, but has been reined in, altho it's still deadly.

Their software allows you to see the loss-of-years charts by gender (males are much more violent), by different decades and different countries. Thanks to Caracas Chronicles for turning me on to these graphs. On their site, you can see how violence has exploded in Venezuela during the Chavista years.

The first graph below shows how many years of life Colombians lost to premature death and disability in 2010 (for those without a magnifying glass, the bottom line lists age groups and the vertical one on the left years of life lost):

In 2010, above, fewer Colombians died violently compared to earlier decades, but more were killed and disabled by diabetes (dark green) and cardiovascular (dark blue) diseases.

And in 2000:

In 2000, above, many Colombians died violently (rose bars on top) and you can see the 'war deaths' in red at the very top. AIDS has appeared.

And back in 1990:

Back in 1990 fewer Colombians died of chronic diseases like cardiovascular problems and diabetes, but diarrhea (yellow bars on left) was a huge killer of children. But diabetes (dark green) is a minor killer.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 26, 2014

Where Will Their Voters Go?

In the wake of Sunday's surprising victory for right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, he and second-place finisher Pres. Juan Manuel Santos are scrambling to pick up the losing candidates' supporters for the second round of voting - as well as to hold onto their own supporters.

Where could those voters go?

Zuluaga 29.3%
Zuluaga's supporters seem likely to stick with their man in the second round. After all, someone who voted for a relatively unknown, extremist candidate probably did so for a reason. Even the hacker scandal doesn't appear to threaten his support.

Santos 25.6% 
Santos was undoubtedly the default choice for many, and so his voters could presumably defect if given a strong reason. On the other hand, many voters whose first choice was eliminated will prefer a known quantity to a leap into the relative unknown with a man like Zuluaga.

Martha Lucia Ramirez 15.5%
The Conservative Party's candidate is seen as closer to Zuluaga, and on election night even appeared with ex-Pres. Pastrana, who made a speech criticizing Pres. Santos. But the Conservative Party has been divided, with many of its representatives backing Santos. Ramirez's relatively strong showing might pull more supporters away from Santos. Ramirez and Zuluaga have both harshly criticized the peace negotiations going on in Havana, Cuba, perhaps making them natural allies. On the other hand, Ramirez made anti-corruption a major plank in her platform - potentially making it difficult for her to ally with the scandal-embroiled Zuluaga.

And many of Ramirez's voters likely supported her primarily out of loyalty to the Partido Conservador, one of Colombia's two traditional establishment political parties (along with the Liberales). With the Conservador label missing in the second round, will a lot of those voters stay home? And, these traditional, establishment Colombians may feel more comfortable voting for Santos, a member of one of Colombia's most important families, than a relative unknown like Zuluaga.

Santos's best strategy to capture Conservative Party voters could be to try to frame Zuluaga as a corrupt, right-wing nut - which may not be very unrealistic.

If Zuluaga can capture Ramirez's voters and hold onto his own, he'll have victory virtually sewn up.

Clara Lopez 15.2% 
If you want to bet on one thing, bet that Lopez's supporters will never vote for the right-wing Zuluaga.

Lopez represents the union of the Polo Democratico Party, which is often seen as sympathetic to the ideology of Colombia's leftist guerrillas, and the reborn Union Patriotica Party, which was linked to the FARC guerrillas in its birth during the 1980s, but was destroyed when thousands of its leaders were assassinated by right-wing groups, probably linked to the government.

While Lopez voters won't support Zuluaga, their far-left ideology and distaste for the establishment may prevent them from backing Santos, either.

With these voters, Santos gets a big boost from the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. The FARC clearly want Santos reelected, which is why they signed an agreement on ending the drug trade just a week before the first-round vote.

Will the left swallow hard and support Santos, who's generally seen as a center-right politician and who led the war against the guerrillas as Pres. Alvaro Uribe's defense minister? One sign that they could was the departure of several top staffers of Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro - himself a one-time M19 guerrilla leader - to work on Santos's campaign.

Will Lopez herself campaign for Santos? Perhaps - if only to stop Zuluaga.

Enrique Peñalosa 8.3%
After almost pulling even with Santos in some polls early in the campaign, Green Party candidate Peñalosa, en ex-mayor of Bogotá, really tanked on election day. Nevertheless, Peñalosa's voters will be crucial on election day because they're the most up-for-grabs. 

Despite its name, the Colombian Green Party, an artificial creation, has a confused ideology (if it has any ideology at all). Peñalosa has in the past allied himself with ex-Pres. Uribe, an arch-conservative. During this campaign, he allied his party with leftist Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro.

Despite this ideological confusion, Peñalosa was certainly closer to Santos than Zuluaga, particularly Peñalosa's support for the government-guerrilla peace talks in Havana. 

Santos needs to court the often-difficult Peñalosa (perhaps by offering him a position as minister?), to have a chance of getting over the top. 

To cobble together the 50% of voters he needs to win, Santos must hold onto his own 25%, capture a substantial portion of Conservative voters, get most of the Polo/UP's supporters and get Peñalosa's people behind him. But even all of that might not add up to 50%.

The Abstainers 60%
A record 6 out of 10 eligible voters stayed home on election day. Those millions of potential voters probably represent more of a potential for Santos than Zuluaga, since conservatives and supporters of more extreme candidates tend to be more dedicated voters. Therefore, a much higher proportion of Zuluaga supporters than Santos supporters likely voted on Sunday. Can Santos get the barrios and university students to turn out for him?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Uribe's Magic - or Demonic - Touch

Watching the returns come in in a central Bogotá grocery.
Until recently, he was little known. And the Centro Democratico political party didn't even exist. Now, he's on the verge of becoming Colombia's next president.

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
Last year, ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe created the Centro Democratico party from scratch to be his vehicle for returning to power, or at least to influence. At the party's recent inaugural convention, Uribe pulled strings to get his one-time minister of finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga nominated as the party's presidential candidate over the better known, more popular and more charismatic Francisco Santos, who'd been Uribe's vice president.

Then Zuluaga became embroiled in a spying scandal in which he appeared to lie shamelessly to his country.

Out of this formula for disaster, Uribe has produced the leading candidate to be Colombia's president for the next four years.

Pres. Juan Manuel Santos,
a sad second.
Uribe himself withstood enough scandals to sink a hundred politicians. There were his alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups, which he continues fighting in court. There was the Falsos Positivos tragedy, in which military units murdered thousands of young men and disguised them as guerrillas in order to earn bonuses and time off. And there was the DAS spying scandal, which many observers compared to Watergate.

But none of those things dented Uribe's popularity. He had, after all, earned Colombians' gratitude by
beating back the guerrillas which had kept the nation under siege.

By the same token, Zuluaga's own ongoing scandal, in which he met with a since-imprisoned computer hacker in an apparent attempt to sabotage rival campaigns, spy on the military and interfere with the peace negotiations going on in Havana, doesn't seem to have cost him support, either.

“Voters see this as a battle between Santos and Uribe, not Santos and Zuluaga,” pollster Javier Restrepo told the Washington Post.

That makes this election a real testament to the continued popularity of Uribe, who himself was just elected senator.

I happened to be in a corner grocery store when the results came in on their television.

"We're a nation of masochists," the storekeeper said.

But a Zuluaga voter who owns a small fish restaurant expressed confidence that the scandal wouldn't hurt the candidate. Rather, the restauranter yearned for a repeat of the Uribe presidency.

"We've got to hit those guerrillas hard," he told me.
Enrique Peñalosa: Kingmaker?

But could Zuluaga conceivably militarily defeat the guerrillas, who have withstood the government for a half-century?

And Santos, who was Uribe's minister of defense, has arguably hit the guerrillas very hard, killing several of their leaders. Paradoxically, however, he doesn't seem to have gotten much public credit for that.

Santos is also carrying out peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, which have advanced further than any previous peace talks. Under a Zuluaga presidency, those talks would likely founder.

But Zuluaga's victory is far from sewn up.

The almost half of voters who supported one of the minor candidates will now have to choose between Santos and Zuluaga. Most of Conservative Party candidate Maria Lucia Ramirez's 15% support will likely go to Zuluaga, while the 15% of voters who backed the Polo Democratic/Union Patriotica candidate Clara Lopez will shift to Santos - if they vote at all. Key could be whether ex-Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa endorses an ex-rival, as well as whether leftist leaders actually urge their voters to back Santos (or, more accurately, to oppose Zuluaga).

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, May 23, 2014

Peñalosa's Last Run?

A Peñalosa campaign rally in Bogotá's Parque Nacional.
Try and try, again. That's been Enrique Peñalosa's political strategy.

But this go around, it doesn't appear to be working.

Peñalosa's story is one of contradictions. Born in Washington D.C. of a high-powered father,
Semana magazine compared Peñalosa to a
phoenix bird. But his flight was short.

Peñalosa got his undergraduate degree from Duke University in North Carolina and then at the University of Paris.

Despite this elite background, back in Colombia Peñalosa made a name for himself by by meeting people on the street and riding public buses while campaigning for mayor of Bogotá in 1991 and '94. Despite his fame, he lost both times.

In 1997, Peñalosa won his only major political victory, being elected mayor of Bogotá. As mayor, Peñalosa won international renown with his innovative urban policies, such as the TransMilenio express bus system, new public schools, libraries and parks, and the city's bike lane network.

His success as mayor made Peñalosa a popular speaker on urbanism and sustainable development and earned him professorships at universities in Colombia and abroad. My parents went to hear him talk once in California and were impressed.

But that success didn't translate into further political success at home. Peñalosa's political career since then has been another series of losses. He lost races for mayor to Bogotá's current mayor Gustavo Petro, who was briefly ousted from office by the procurador, and also lost to previous mayor Samuel Moreno, who is now in prison on corruption charges.
'With President Peñalosa we can.'
A Peñalosa campaign
poster across the stree from
Bogotá's City Hall.

Many bogotanos probably regret not having voted for Peñalosa.

Peñalosa also ran for the Green Party's presidential nomination in 2010, but lost to Antonus Mockus, who himself was overwhelmed by now-president Santos.

As a bicyclist and sustainable growth advocate, I tried voting for Peñalosa for mayor. (Foreigners living in Colombia have the right to vote in local elections.) But at the polling station I was informed that my cedula number was registered as 'deceased,' perhaps an inheritance from its previous user. All my efforts to demonstrate to them that I am still breathing and walking didn't help.

In the current presidential campaign Peñalosa is the Green Party's standard bearer. Polls briefly had him in the running to make it into a second-round run-off against Pres. Santos, but more recently Peñalosa has been in a distant third or fourth place in polls. The current scandal engulfing right-wing candidate Zuluaga might boost Peñalosa, but not likely enough for him to make it to the second round.

Despite campaigning on a bicycle and smiling a lot with barrio residents, Peñalosa has not been able to shake his reputation for arrogance and self-interestedness. And perhaps it's deserved. As a journalist and bicycling advocate, I've had a few brief interactions with him. I and some other central Bogotá residents are fighting to stop the Universidad Externado, a respect university, from building towers on Bogotá's hills. The towers would contain huge car parking facilities. Knowing Peñalosa's advocacy of alternative transit and sustainable growth, I sent him an e-mail asking for his support. To his credit, he replied. But in his response, Peñalosa said he 'couldn't believe that the university was building on the hillsides,' - even tho I'd sent him photos showing that it was.

Peñalosa also lamented that the universities were building these car-centric campuses, but seemed to shake his shoulders and resign himself. So much for passionate idealism. (The fact that Peñalosa was a Externado dean and professor may also play a part.)

Perhaps the same arrogant personality that sinks Peñalosa's campaigns keeps convincing him that he can actually be elected to something. Instead, Peñalosa, a talented man and capable administrator, should look for other ways to contribute to his country.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What's Your Smoke Say About Your Brakes?

What do your emissions say about your brake pads?
I happened to be behind, and beside, this 'rolling chimney' on Ave. Septima today.

Believe it or not, Bogotá does have pollution laws, and vehicles are supposed to have passed a test and carry a certificate saying they meet pollution regulations.

This particular bus obviously: Either didn't take the test, bribed the certificate issuer, cheated at the test, or used some other stratagem to keep polluting.

That's bad enough, as is the authorities' deliberate ignorance of polluters (this bus was on it way to pass by the Ministry of the Environment's HQ on Ave. Septima), which contributes to thousands of premature deaths each year from dirty air.

But there's an even bigger issue here. If this bus was able to ignore pollution laws, then what about its mechanical condition? Its steering? Its brakes? Is its driver licensed?

Days ago near Bucaramanga a bus carrying kids from church burst into flames, killing 23 children and severely injuring many others. The bus did not have its mechanical revision certificates up to date, its driver had no license and it was overloaded, amongst other violations.

How many of Bogotá's old buses and other vehicles are potential death traps because their owners and operators have ignored the laws and authorities haven't bothered to enforce them?

How's your transmission today? How many of Bogotá's old buses comply with the law?
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Displaced - Yet Again

A displaced man holds his son on Plaza Bolivar this evening.
They were campesino farmers, living all over Colombia, raising cows and chickens and planting and
A displaced man uses a piece of cardboard as shelter from
the rain on Plaza Bolivar today.
harvesting potatoes, yucca, maize and tomatoes. Around them swirled Colombia's half-century-long armed conflict, involving guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug gangs and the Colombian Army. Then one day, an armed group appeared and ordered the farmers to abandon their land and their lives.

The guerrillas "killed my father and brother and took the land for themselves," said Ligia, who fled her farm in Tolima eight years ago.

"One group arrives and demands something," recalled 78-year-old Pastor Oyuela, who was driven from his farm near Villavicencio a decade ago; "then others arrive, and if you don't give them what they want, they kill you."

Pastor Oyuela, 78, left, was driven from his land more than a decade ago.
Oyuela found refuge on the Caribbean coast, where he worked as a scavenger, selling recyclables he scrounged from the garbage.

The terrified campesinos gather a few belongings and run, usually to cities, where they struggle to survive in these strange and frightening places.

"In the city, a campesino is lost," said Alberto, who fled his land a decade ago and has since sold empanadas and washed cars.

Displaced people huddle under plastic
sheeting in the rain on Plaza Bolivar.
According to a recent United Nations report, Colombia has 5.7 million displaced people - the second-largest number in the world, after only Syria - and some 150,000 additional people are displaced every year.

A few days ago, displaced men set up another
tent on Plaza Bolivar.
Over recent months, displaced people have gathered in Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar, forming a growing tent community demanding assistance from the government. Colombia has aid programs for its millions of people displaced, but those people often complain that the assistance is too little or doesn't arrive at all.

Late Tuesday night police arrived on Plaza Bolivar and knocked down the tents and took away mattresses and other other belongings, which were thrown into a garbage truck, the displaced people said. Wednesday evening, under a cold rain, many of the people were still on the plaza, huddling under plastic tarps and wondering where they could go next.

When presidential election voters go to polls on Plaza Bolivar on Sunday, they won't be reminded of this huge tragedy. Presidential candidates have barely mentioned the problem of forced displacement during the campaign.

The encampment that was.
The peace talks in Havana, Cuba between the government and FARC guerrillas hold out the hope that a deal will at least reduce the violence and free up money to aid the victims. However, the guerrillas, who have caused tremendous suffering, may get off with little or no punishment.

Oyuela puts little stock in the peace talks.

"That's great that they're negotiating," he said. "But what kind of peace can there be if people are dying from hunger? If they're searching for jobs and there aren't any?"

A cross rests against a tent on Plaza Bolivar
a few days ago.
The violence reduces many hardworking people to beggars.

"Here we are begging for help from the government," said Oyuela, "I was never like this before."

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tents and clothes hanging on Plaza Bolivar, under Garcia Marquez's portrait.

Lining up for soup by City Hall.
Receiving soup by City Hall. They said it was donated by neighbors.

Dislodged people with their mattresses beside the Simon Bolivar statue on Plaza Bolivar.
Packing up to go.

Police watch over recently dislodged displaced people.