Tag Archives: politics in colombia

Ten Years in Colombia

It’s more or less ten years to the day from when I stepped off the plane having decided to move my life to Colombia. It had been a rollercoaster ride up until this point, near death experiences, the life of a freelance vagabond and journeyman journalist and plenty of tall tales to share over a drink or two. I was prepared for Colombia, or so I thought, after seven years on the highways and byways of the Americas. Certainly, Colombia was not foreign to me with a work trip to the Pacific for WWF in the late 1990s under my belt and various other visits prior to my move in 2007.

La Paz

Ten years ago I would never have taken this photo. Ten years in Colombia

So, as I sit here at my desk in my Bogotá apartment, I move from one opinion to another about my life in Colombia, perhaps displaying all of the loyalty of a brood parasite. I am not Colombian, I will never be a Colombian and I will continue to be infuriatingly punctual to almost any appointment. Some things you just cannot shed. But, I live here, have a Colombian family, own a business, pay taxes and therefore, have the right to share an educated opinion on the goings on in my adopted homeland.

I realize that this narrative stream of consciousness reeks of creeping narcissism. It’s our need these days to convert from “being”, to always filling time with “doing”. It’s as if our society is on course for a precipitated catastrophe due to our all-out hedonistic quest for self-exploitation and relevance.

Which brings me neatly to the subject matter of my doomsday entry reflecting on how life has changed after ten years in Colombia. Not only life has changed, but I have changed too, of course. Everything is a spectacle today. We are all armchair activists, although this was momentarily lifted when we marched the streets to push for Colombia’s Peace 2.0 after the plebiscite referendum was rejected back in 2016. The peaceful demonstrations long now resigned to our collective imagination we are back to believing the illusion of a digital reaction making a difference. To quote President Trump: “Wrong!” Virtual hordes are one thing, but the actual physical presence of thousands of people united for a just cause and flooding the streets and present, demonstrates a much stronger social cohesion.

Ten years in Colombia

“Wrong!” Ten years in Colombia

Studying Colombia, the politics and the country’s culture transports me through periods of naïve optimism, paralyzing pessimism and punctuating my days with academic prophecies of potential outcomes. That it has now been reported that the contracts for the construction of the Zones of Concentration organized to receive the FARC guerrillas across the country were fed out as political favours to companies with no business in this field has left me disillusioned. What of this now? And so, we mobilize on Facebook, Twitter and all of the other platforms in what is then declared as an unstoppable social movement proving that this “democratization of the debate” will herald a new way of thinking and will enforce a new degree of transparency on those insistent on manipulating further an already corrupt system for personal gain.

Ten years ago, I would never have spoken out so vehemently against unjust behaviour. Back then it was simply a reflection of the “Colombian condition” and normal conduct here. And yet, our moral outrage is designed to bring about change but without a physical presence it is presented with a feeble social cohesion. And before I continue, remember that these outbursts of indignation are spread on platforms which are all owned by someone. These owners all have an agenda too. There is no democratization of the debate.

Let me clarify this. I use twitter almost religiously and this allows me to replicate what I want to read. That’s why I am led to believe that my side will win the Brexit vote, the Yes vote in the Plebiscite and bury Trump in the elections.

“As is so often the case in a foreign country, even in one that starts to feel like home, the compiled differences in language and life experience isolate you, making you hyper aware to minute details.” wrote Nolan Peterson in Newsweek.

So, ten years in and with no plans on going anywhere else, unless of course the dream job pops up and permits us to transfer en famille to Rio de Janeiro, part of the package is to grapple with the local politics in all of its complex morass of intrigue. And once you come to terms with this, remember then that the act of governing itself is an act of marketing. Political opinion polls are equivalent to market research and…we are no longer active agents but passive consumers. Just like what is today known as” Public Relations” would have been referred to as “Propaganda” in the past.

1984 Graffiti in Bogotá. Ten years in Colombia

An older generation of gents in suits found conversing in downtown Bogotá speaks of an “impoverished” culture. But they are mistaken as this is to bow to an extremely bourgeois definition of the concept itself. If there’s a message to be delivered or a lesson to be learnt from a reflection on ten years, it’s that you must be adaptable to different forms of eclosion which are today’s cultural expressions and demonstrations.

Peaks and troughs, ups and downs but they have been rewarding, these past ten years in Colombia.

 

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2017, Colombia’s Year of the Morrongo

I know, I know, I have been circulating this word for a few weeks now – Morrongo, but it’s the best, if not the only way, to spew out a gristly morsel of what lays ahead of us here in Colombia in 2017. This is Colombia’s Year of the Morrongo, or can I say…we are going to face a great deal of Morrongismo?

morrongo

Etiqueta a un que creas morrongo

 

Tune in to my short intro podcast No 169 about the Year of the Morrongo on Colombia Calling.

First and foremost:

Tourism and Travel

I have addressed this issue on prior occasions on this website, but, this is as good a time as any to reignite the debate. Colombia, and rightly so, has been listed by Bloomberg, NatGeo, Lonely Planet, CNN and others as the place to visit in 2017. And, Colombia will benefit from this, speaking from my perspective as a small business owner here, the reservations for my little Casa Amarilla in Mompos have been through the roof, allowing us to improve and lathe down issues and perhaps even embark on further refurbishment and restorations.

The word is out about Colombia and about time too. With the Peso currently riding at 3000 to the US Dollar, hopefully all of this positive press and the favourable exchange rate can convert into more visitors from our neighbours to the north. And beyond Cartagena too! Just the mere mention of the peace agreement with the FARC after so many years should do the trick as a headline to entice more travelers down.

Where Colombia needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps or fall in to a Morrongo trap of saying that we offer top end and then deliver something significantly average.

 

Luxury travel and service

Just because we’re awesome and Colombia is incredible, breathtaking and surprising and every superlative available (infuriating too!), the tourism industry is not yet ready for the top-end and luxury market. And before I am trolled within an inch of my existence and end up looking like the skinless cadaver on “that” Robbie Williams music video – there are hotels, restaurants and travel agencies which do make the grade and admirably so. But, overall, we are not there.

Let’s keep on improving and not be drawn in to believing our own hype and that which is kindly written about us. We have to grow together, see the big picture and get it right in a steady and sustainable growth plan. And let’s not dupe our visitors either, explain the situation, clarify what Colombia is really about and sell them the real deal.

 

The Economy

You’ll have been on holiday or dead if you missed that a Tax Reform was passed – cynically some might add – on December 23 as we were all deep into Christmas mirth and not thinking of 2017. This tax reform is obviously needed, however, does it and will it address the country’s economy in the way we need it to? I don’t know. I suppose time will tell but for the moment VAT has now been increased from 16% to 19% and those evading paying their taxes are set to serve jail time. If a new reform is required in 2019, I think we’ll be able to class this one as a failure. The country needs to make up the shortfall from the drastic collapse in the oil market…and is banking on the “post conflict” period to encourage further foreign direct investment.

How will the economy be affected in a Morrongo fashion? Peace does mean investment, of course it does, or at least it will encourage some investment, but please don’t sell it as the whole package! Temper those expectations Messrs. Santos, Cardenas and co please! There will be economic growth over time.

 

The “Post Accord” or “Post Conflict” or perhaps “Post Peace” situation

I added that last term ironically, but if you want to use it…then I claim it now! Don’t hate me for saying this but there is never going to be a true “peace” in Colombia as we from the northern hemisphere interpret the term. Colombia can try to imitate a Scandinavian nation but will come off as a pale imitation at best. Like Panda Cola to Coca Cola. Things are going to be tough here in Colombia, there is already a heady game of misinformation underway between all sides about how the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of the FARC is meant to take place. Expect more of this to occur in coming months, and in particular, watch out for “fake news” or better yet, dumb ass news meant to outrage us and cover up the real dramas damaging to the government.

Who is being Morrongo now? While Colombia and President Santos continue to enjoy the fortunes cast on a country and an individual for the Nobel Prize, nothing is being done to eradicate the systematic, calculated and unhindered assassinations of leftist community leaders across the country.

 

Politics

2017 is a campaign year. We know the identities of most of those in the running for the top job in 2018. The worst kept secret, so badly kept in fact that it was never secret is the inevitable run at the Presidency by current VP Vargas Lleras. One wouldn’t bet against him in any contest since he has been travelling the length and breadth of the country ostensibly on VP duties and using the opportunity to advance his position. You could say that ever since he was discharged from hospital he has been on an unofficial presidential campaign trail. The machinery behind his campaign is pretty formidable. That slap delivered to his driver in public came too early to damage his chances overall.

Claudia Lopez, a progressive business-like senator threw her hat into the ring early in January and while she may be popular amongst urban liberals, her image and name don’t hold much sway in the regions. Who will be the Uribista candidate…I suppose there’ll be a tussle between the former presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and the former Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez. We can also expect the popular and efficient (housewives’ favorite for his mildly Byronic appearance) Governor of Antioquia and former Mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo to pitch in with a bid too. The former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro will  call out to the populists from his balcony but I fear the wind will be sucked from the sails of his political ship by the popularity of Claudia Lopez.

Morrongo? All of them of course! Ordoñez, Lopez, Vargas Lleras, Fajardo, Petro and beyond are all capable of being Morrongo in the battle for the presidency. As Colombians say, a Morrongo is capable of throwing a stone and then hiding their hand to avoid capture. A Morrongo will express shock and outrage at corruption but will endorse corrupt regimes or businesses and on the examples go.

 

So, here’s to 2017 the year of the Morrongo in Colombia.

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A Year of Transition

This will not be the final blog entry of the year but, as I reflect on the year that has been 2014, it is hard for me not to use a startling cliché, but it really has been a year of transition for me. When I think back of how the year started, I really took a long time to push the lift-off button and get into the flow of things. We remained in Mompos until late January and then went on holiday to Brazil!

Images that detail this year 2014

Images that detail this year 2014

Of course, the usual existential concerns plagued me as a freelance journalist. Where would the next piece of work and subsequent pay cheque come from, and there would be the invariably techy emails back and forth with “friendly” editors. But, as always rather than through my own productivity, work fell from the sky and I continued as an OpEd writer for Bogota’s City Paper (which got me in trouble on one occasion!), as the Colombia correspondent for the Turkish Anadolu Agency and indeed had a fulltime job in the Alcaldia Mayor de Bogota for all of a whopping 12 days.

Tricksters and hope

Tricksters and hope

Colombia Calling, my niche market online radio show and podcast has continued to grow and we are routinely pulling in 6000 downloads per week. I am happy to say that as I write this I am prepping episode 76 and when the year is out we’ll have completed 79 episodes. Keep on listening folks and please get in touch and recommend people who you would like to hear from and to be interviewed. I was particularly touched to be sent some recording headphones/ mic and a book by different listeners out there.

Love Bogota

We Love Bogota

So, the transition of 2014. I really thought I would move away from journalism but it appears to have pulled me right back in. For this I am thankful. More literary circles appear to be opening up here in Bogotá and so it seems to be a good time to be in the writing circus. On that note, I am plugging away trying to get the first draft of “the Mompos Project” done for the end of the year and there is one publishing house prepared to look at it. So, please, keep the good vibes coming for that dream to materialize.

Solidarity

Solidarity

Of course, the political situation in the country has kept me busy with the peculiar elections and the intrigue surrounding them and then the, at times justified, bullying of Bogotá’s Mayor Gustavo Petro. The peace dialogues have been a source for both despair and hope and 2013’s Specialization in Conflict Resolutions has come in quite handy for background knowledge to what is going on.

has anything changed?

has anything changed?

There are further projects in the pipeline in addition to my own book, the updating of the Bradt Guide to Colombia, some work on a Gabo Anthology, some guiding and other restorations in Mompos to keep me busy in addition to the initially small yet massively impacting news that Alba will be having a baby boy in mid April.

Rebellion

Rebellion

So, the year of transition is coming to an end and heralds another year of transition really. I shall see out 2014 fittingly with some Suffolk Cider, imported and provided by the Great British Cider co. If that doesn’t represent a transition in Colombia from the ubiquitous aguardiente and warm Old Parr, then we’re all in trouble.

Stay tuned for my final piece for 2014 which is going to be a reflection on the peace dialogues taking place in Havana, Cuba between the FARC and the Colombian government.

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The Fug of an Election in Colombia

Perfectly timed to generate the most impact as Colombians go to the polls to vote in elections for members of Congress and the Senate on March 9, protestors have been creating chaos in the streets of Bogota and around the city’s limping mass transport system the Transmilenio.

Bogota's award winning transmilenio system

Bogota’s award winning transmilenio system

Troubles peaked on Tuesday with scuffles between masked and organized agitators and the riot police as commuters reported journeys of under a kilometre taking the better part of two hours all of which led to Bogota’s harrowed mayor Gustavo Petro to confront embittered parties in the northern district of Suba where the protests were at their most potent.

Away from the capital, in the oil rich department of Arauca located on the Venezuelan border, the news is no less worrying with a presumed guerrilla attack on leftist candidate Aida Avella of the Union Patriotica – a party with strong links to unions, workers groups and formerly made up of demobilized FARC guerrillas. Avella narrowly escaped certain death from a volley of bullets on her convoy.

And in the Palacio de Nariño, the traditional seat of power, President Juan Manuel Santos has managed to evade prying questions regarding the recent scandals accusing the military of having embezzled state funds and the wiretapping – chuzadas – of both sides of the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba where peace dialogues are continuing between top ranking leaders of the FARC guerrilla group and the government’s mediators. Watergate seems pithy alongside such controversies.

Given the aforementioned blemishes on the democratic process in Colombia – a country which often proudly claims to be cultured in that she possesses the longest running and most stable democracy in the Americas – it perhaps comes as no surprise that the figures for a voto en blanco literally referring to blank votes and abstentions is increasing and official polls (Cifras y Conceptos, Ipso-Napoleón Franco, Gallup) have it ranging from anywhere from 20 to 24 per cent for Sunday. More informal polls are suggesting it to be higher given the grave levels of disenchantment with the Colombian political class.

Maybe President Santos got the message?

Maybe President Santos got the message?

So why now is there such unrest in Colombia when there should be a distinct feel good factor? The Colombian economy continues to strengthen with figures from the Banco de la Republica showing foreign direct investment to the country in 2013 increasing 0.87 per cent on the previous year to a total of US$16.8 billion. The FARC rebels who have been at war with the state for over 50 years are at least involved in peace dialogues, tourism reached an all-time high peaking at over 2 million foreign visitors and the national soccer team have reached the World Cup Finals for the first time since 2008. There is much to be happy about in Colombia.

While we can laud Colombia’s progress over the last decade, if you were to travel around Colombia and take a straw poll of Colombians, much of the country’s mood would be revealed and this in turn reflects on the political and emotional climate here. There is a resounding feeling that ordinary Colombians are being priced out of the cities where they work with property prices increasing – largely due to investors from neighboring Venezuela keen to move their money out – a staggering paucity of rural and urban infrastructure and a continual feeling of insecurity. Colombians are not themselves experiencing the benefits of this rapid growth and rural and urban Colombia are more divided than ever as demonstrated by the nationwide agricultural strikes of 2013.

Poverty on the streets of Bogota

Poverty on the streets of Bogota

So each time the increasingly out of touch and technocratic President Juan Manuel Santos declares the potential gains for Colombian businesses as he signs another high profile international free trade agreement there is a ready bandwagon of support in his contra. Masks are donned, paint is flung and buildings are left smarting from graffiti as hardworking citizens try and make their way to and from work through tear gas. The national electorate feels abandoned to the whimsy of Bogota and disenfranchised from the political class accused of being embroiled in a mermelada of votes – corruption and kickbacks. To date some 60 per cent of those running this weekend have not disclosed the origins of their campaign funds.

That increased marches are planned to protest Bogota’s lack of infrastructure by an underclass of unrepresented citizens should come as no shock to anyone. The left has its hands tied with the continuing problems of Mayor Gustavo Petro and his apparently inevitable ousting from power and the right seems content to be the spoilers with former president Alvaro Uribe at the helm leading the charge by lambasting any action or utterance made by his former ally and protégé President Santos.

graffiti and riot police in Bogota

graffiti and riot police in Bogota

Worryingly herein lays the problem, the average Colombian feels that their vote will not result in any transformation that may deliver the necessary change in the country. With such a disconnection between the ruling elite and the Colombian everyman, what reason is there to vote? The ugly reality of a feudal society inherited from Spanish colonial rule is once again raising its fearsome head in Latin America and there is no clear solution.

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