Forwarded from Anthony (Bogota)
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 6 16:58:11 MDT 2002
Bogota: An Island in a Land at War Two Mayors, Armed With Civic Pride,
Transform Colombian Capital
By Scott Wilson Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, September 6,
2002; Page A16
While the article is mostly accurate - as far as it goes - it is part of
a promotional campaign outside of Colombia for the 'progressive reform'
wing of Colombia's bourgeoisie. Previously you sent me an article from
the Atlantic puffing Mayor Mockus that was an even more transparent
piece of one sided promotion.
From the start it should be noted that the 'progressive reformers'
(Mockus, Penalosa, Sanin, et. al.) support Uribe Velez (something the
Post fails to mention). The other things the Post article leaves out are
also important, and the Post reporter is wrong on a few important points
(but probably out of ignorance rather than mendacity).
So, here is my annotated version of the article:
"BOGOTA, Colombia -- More than a thousand people lined up outside the
austere National Museum on a cool evening here last week for a chance to
gaze at hundreds of Rembrandt engravings on the opening night of a
traveling exhibit. They stood only a few miles from where Marxist
guerrillas had attacked the presidential palace with rockets three weeks
earlier, killing 19 people on the day President Alvaro Uribe was
"The violence that marred Uribe's swearing in made headlines around the
world. But the museum crowd offered a view closer to the daily reality
of Bogota. This city of 7 million people has become a pleasant anomaly,
not only in a country where 3,500 people died in war last year, but also
across an unsteady continent whose capitals often are urban horror stories."
My comment: There is a lot of truth in these paragraphs. Bogotá is a big
city, full of high culture, low culture, pop culture and you name it
culture. People here are very nervous about street crime, but not very
nervous about the war - although general fear of an escalation is felt.
However, Bogotá is not a universally 'pleasant island'. About 40% of the
population live in serious poverty and insecurity, and 10-20% suffer
from some symptoms of malnutrition. Unemployment is official around 17%.
The article continues,
"Thanks to two mayors who have constructed a tentative civic spirit to
help mend the traditionally fractured city, Bogota has grown
significantly safer, smarter, more polished and less congested in the
last decade despite the worsening realities of war unfolding just off
this plateau 8,000 feet up in the Andes.
"The growth in the number of cafe-lined parks, 120 miles of bike lanes,
a murder rate lower than Washington's and an increasingly cosmopolitan
cultural life make the country's mostly rural conflict all the more
remote. Now the lessons of Bogota's success, financed largely by taxes
on the wealthy, are being followed by a new president as he seeks to
instill a national spirit similar to the tentative one that has taken
It is true that, "Bogota has grown significantly .... smarter, more
polished and less congested in the last decade", and that, "The growth
in the number of cafe-lined parks, 120 miles of bike lanes ... and an
increasingly cosmopolitan cultural life make the country's mostly rural
conflict all the more remote."
But it is probably not possible to tell what Bogotá's murder rate really
is, though it may be lower than Washington DC
Police here are under tremendous pressure to report 'good statistics' to
make the mayor look good. If they do not, they are transferred, demoted,
etc. The public hospitals are in a shambles - mostly because of cuts in
public health budgets directed or supported by Mockus and Peñalosa. Many
have closed, many have gone through long strikes, and occupations by
Doctors, nurses and other personnel who have sometimes had to wait more
than a year to receive a paycheck (I still can't believe they continued
to work without being paid for such a long time.)
As a result, counting the dead and determining how and why they died,
isn't always very accurate.
By the same token it is probably impossible to tell if Bogotá is
significantly safer, but probably it is significantly more dangerous
than it was. The most common type of crime here is robbery.
The 'millionaires ride' is the most famous form of robbery. It has two
forms. Type A happens to taxi passengers. The driver takes a detour off
of a main street, and then suddenly stops. Two armed men jump into the
cab on either side of the passenger. The passenger is then taken on a
quick tour of ATM machines, where debit and credit cards are maxed out.
The passenger is relieved of any valuable items she or he may have, and
dumped in a far away neighborhood. Sometimes the robbers drop them off
directly in front of a police station.
Type B is a carjacking. A car pulls in front of the victims vehicle and
stops suddenly. Armed men jump out, and order the victim out of the car.
Then the victim is put into the thiefs car, while the victims car is
driven away. Then the rest of the millionaires ride follows the same
pattern as in Type A.
Personally I knew three victims of Type B, one of whom escaped but had
their windshield blown out by shots (luckily they were not hurt), and I
know a lot of victims of Type A.
Of the people I know who were robbed in this manner, only two tried to
report it to the police, and in both cases, the police were very, very,
reluctant to file a report.
Newspaper statistics on crime in this city are the subject of frequent
As for the 'reporter's' comment, "Thanks to two mayors who have
constructed a tentative civic spirit to help mend the traditionally
fractured city ..." In my humble opinion, the reporter is simply
demonstrating ignorance, naiveté, or his political commitment to the two
mayors (or all three). Peñalosa and Mockus are merely the two public
faces of a powerful faction of the Colombian bourgeoisie, which you
might call the 'modernizing neo-liberals'.
This faction has a strong social base in the university graduates from
the 1970's - the decade of Colombia's great student upheaval. Having
taken off their Che t-shirts, and put on a suit and tie, some of them
still wear long hair, and even beards - just like Mockus. They still
ride bicycles, are against the corrupt old politicians, and would like
to have a better world. The corporate and government bureaucracy of
Bogotá are filled with these people - cured of their dream of socialism,
but not completely cured of trying to make the world a little better -
maybe with a coke or a pepsi, maybe with a vacation to Havana, maybe
with a joint, or maybe with a Mockus.
But this social base is only one of the key ingredients in the rise of
the dynamic duo of Mayors. Two other ingredients were needed. The most
important power behind the municipal throne is Don Jose Maria Santo
Domingo, the richest and most powerful man in Colombia, and the
principle shareholder of Valores Bavaria which owns many of the biggest
companies in Colombia, including Cerveceria Bavaria and Avianca. Don
Jose Maria, of course, has strings attached to every political faction
here. Nevertheless, neither Mockus nor Penalosa would have had a prayer
of even being noticed by the local newspapers, if they had not had the
behind scenes backing of Colombia's godfather.
Don Jose Mario would like Colombia to be a modern consumer society so
that his mass market consumer products will have a constantly growing
market. He would like his banks to make steady profits lending money to
build new buildings, roads, and transportation systems. And he would
like the capital of HIS country to be a show place.
However, Don Jose, the leftish yuppies, and the two mayors, had another
important unseen partner - the World Bank. For whatever reasons, the
World Bank chose to make Bogotá - and Colombia, into a showplace of
neoliberal reform. It invested a lot of money (and lent a lot more), and
devoted a lot of intellectual talent, to putting into place a complete
set of neo-liberal institutions, and neo-liberal reforms spanning the
range of themes from privatization and union busting, to the formation
of model government regulatory bodies, to building infrastructure with
the money received from privatization, etc. On the national level Cesar
Gaviria was the political conduit for most of these measures (while he
was president and after) and on the level of the city of Bogotá Mockus
and Peñalosa were the ones who carried out the schemes thought up in the
seminars of the World Bank
The article continued,
"But increasingly, the war is testing the Bogota miracle. Deepening
recession and rural violence have increased the number of jugglers and
beggars at crowded stoplights. The homicide rate crept up slightly in
the first half of this year. And as the guerrillas' rocket attack
demonstrated, puncturing Bogota's protective shell has become a priority
for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main
guerrilla group, armed with a strategy of national demoralization."
My take on the rocket attack is that it was a demonstration of the
FARC's extreme weakness in Bogotá, and in the cities in general. My take
on the FARC's strategy is that they want to demonstrate three things to
the bourgeoisie to make them return to the bargaining table: A) The
bourgeoisie will suffer personally from the escalation against the FARC
through kidnappings and assassinations. B) The military will suffer very
high casualties from any offensive, and the paramiltaries will suffer
higher casualties. C) The FARC can not be defeated militarily.
The article continues,
"Kidnapping also remains a looming menace and a chronic housing shortage
keeps many of the 150,000 immigrants who arrive here each year from
shelter. Most of Colombia's 160,000 private bodyguards and building
watchmen -- a contingent larger than the army -- work for Bogota's rich.
In the last five years more than 12,000 people have been kidnapped. Fear
of kidnapping among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie was the single
biggest reason Uribe Velez won the middle class over to his side - even
more important than the failure of the 'peace process.' The glue that
holds the middle classes here behind Uribe Velez's authoritarian,
militaristic, and anti-nationalist course is their resolve to end
kidnapping. There is a real move to the right within the urban middle
class that has not stopped yet - even though many of Uribe-Velez's
measures have hurt the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes
economically, and others have insulted their democratic and nationalist
sensibilities. There is no housing shortage in Bogotá. New immigrants to
the city just don't have enough money to rent a decent place to live.
Hundreds of thousands of houses and apartments are vacant, even as an
artificial building boom is creating hundreds of thousands of new units
on the Western edge of the city. The author is probably simply ignorant
Private security is big business in Colombia, that's for sure. Not only
drug dealers drive around in convoys with bodyguards, so do business men
and top government officials. Apartment buildings have doormen who are
often armed, neighborhood associations routinely hire armed guards, etc.
Uribe Velez would like all of these people to become official government
informants. However, Colombian security guards - except for the body
guards of really rich people - are for the most part poorly paid, not
trained at all, and not motivated at all. Incidentally, Uribe Velez'
plan for 1,000,000 government informants preceded Bush's plan for a
network of finks.
Following a few paragraphs of fluff, the article continues,
"Bogota has been a bureaucratic hub since its founding by the Spanish in
the early 16th century. Set on a high, verdant plain that once took days
to reach from even the closest provincial capital or port, Bogota was
simply a collection point for taxes levied by the Spanish on the
This reporter is definitely shallow and ignorant. the 'high verdant
plain' was for centuries the bread basket of Colombia. You can grow
wheat here year round, there is no winter, the average annual
temperature is 17 degrees F and there is rain almost every day, but
usually not torrential. The altiplano was the population center of the
indigenous peoples, and remained the population center after the Spanish
Bogotá was never just a bureaucratic hub - it was always the commercial
center of an important agricultural region and still is. The cut flowers
you buy in New York most likely came from one of the gigantic industrial
greenhouses of the alitplano around Bogotá. Some of them are a mile
long. Cut flowers are, after coffee, the second most important legal
agricultural export of Colombia.
Because it has always been the population center, Bogotá has always been
the most important market in Colombia. This, combined with the expense
and difficulty of transport, turned Bogotá into the most important
industrial city of Colombia.
The article continues,
"Like many capitals, it has also been a magnet for migration, often for
provincials seeking an education in the city's universities. Those early
immigrants had money -- they were sons of rich ranchers and farmers --
and their arrival with fat bankrolls stirred resentment that would shape
life here for centuries. So Bogotanos decided their city would be the
most cultured on the continent -- the cradle of arts, protector of the
language -- to make up for their paltry bank accounts."
No doubt the reporter didn't have a lot of space to cover the whole 400
year social and cultural history of Bogotá, but he did a pretty good job
of mangling it in brief. Immigration to Bogotá, always included more
poor than rich people. The big landowners of the altiplano were always
among the richest landowners in Colombia, and they traditionally divided
their time between their city home and their country home. The petty
bourgeoisie of the city here has traditionally invested its savings by
buying land until the present day. The middle kulaks - especially in the
20th century - sent their children off tot he universities to become
priests, engineers, doctors, lawyers and dentists. And Colombia does
have, and has had for a long time, a large classes of medium and small
So the relation between 'town and country' - or rather the antagonism
between city bourgeois and country landowners - has never been the
central antagonism in Colombia - despite the attempts of various
historians - including Marxists, to try to make it appear that way.
However, for whatever historic reason, it is definitely true that
"...Bogotanos decided their city would be the most cultured on the
continent -- the cradle of arts, protector of the language." And that,
"Of course, no one else in South America agreed to anything of the
sort," Personally I have no idea which city on the continent (and for
Colombians the continent extends from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego) is
the most cultured - probably New York - however, Bogotá certainly has
more universities per square inch than any place I have ever visited -
including New York, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and a few others.
Taxi drivers and waiters here are economists, industrial engineers, and
chemists, just like in every other center of world culture.
The article continued,
"The country's violence, particularly over the last century, accelerated
the urban migration and undermined the city's already tenuous civic
identity. Bogota became a stew of regional rivalries. Then demographics
and politics began to remake the city, which by the mid-1980s had become
a reflection of a country at war -- violent, corrupt, soulless. Nearly
4,500 people were being murdered each year; displaced children could not
find room in classrooms and unending traffic plagued rich and poor alike.
"In 1985, the national census showed that for the first time a majority
of Bogota's population was born in the city, marking the start of a
shift in civic attitude. By the time another decade passed, an eccentric
son of Lithuanian immigrants with an Abe Lincoln beard was elected mayor.
"Then rector of the National University, Antanas Mockus won the city's
middle- and upper-class vote after vividly demonstrating his own fatigue
with the status quo.
"Mockus installed his own, mostly young technocratic staff and assumed
the role of the city's lecturer-in-chief, beginning a mix of
money-saving measures and new taxes that fell hardest on the wealthy, to
pay for benefits primarily directed at the poor and middle class. But it
was not a hard sell. By then, the rich had become prisoners in a city
they once fled every weekend for nearby farms. But those farms had been
rendered off-limits by an increasing guerrilla presence on the roads."
The following is false on two counts, "...(Mockus began) a mix of
money-saving measures and new taxes that fell hardest on the wealthy, to
pay for benefits primarily directed at the poor and middle class."
first, the tax and budget reform of the city was accomplished by the
Mayor prior to Mockus, not Mockus who had virtually nothing to do with
the reforms. Second, the four most expensive programs of the city
government: the reconstruction of the city's streets, the Transmilenio
transit system, reconstruction of the city water and sewer system, and
the huge expansion of the city library system - were initiated by
Peñalosa, not Mockus. Third, and most important, there were financed
largely by the proceeds from the privatization of the city owned
Telephone company and electricity company, not principally by tax
revenues. Those privatizations - only partially carried out, also
involved efforts to break the powerful unions of public utility workers.
those efforts were also only partially successful.
As for fear of going to the country farm, the reporter is correct, but
wildly exaggerates. every Friday afternoon the highwaysleading out of
Bogotá are jammed with cars and buses headed for the country. On average
a million people leave the city every weekend, and return Sunday
evening, at least according to El Tiempo. At any rate, the traffic jams
are definitely endless. A drive out of town that takes one hour on
Wednesday evening, takes three hours on Friday.
I have already commented on most of the rest of the article. However,
the final quote of the article, from some architect named Higuera "Now
it is resurgent. If there is one thing to say about this city, it's that
we're moving ahead." is an accurate reflection of the way most of the
bourgeoisie, middle class, and much of the working class feel about Bogotá.
This feeling however, may have just hit the wall. Uribe Velez's national
state of emergency has hit the bourgeoisi and middle class hard in the
pocket book. His war tax is directed mostly at them, the fall of the
peso compared to the dollar has hit them even harder. Uribe Velez is
slashing government jobs - he plans to reduce the presidential staff
from 2,000 to 200. Mockus is trying to do the same with the city
bureaucracy. Ironically the easiest cuts to make are with his political
appiontees, who are losing their jobs right and left (left more than
right, however.) The ex-lefty soft envirnonmentalist, sort of feminist
yuppies who made up the social base of the muniicpal reofrmers are
becoming disillusioned - because they are losing their jobs, and having
their salaries cut.
Wehre they will go next, is anyone's guess. But Mockus and Peñalosa will
have a hard time wooing them back.
All the best, A
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