Forwarded from Anthony (Bogota)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
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 
hold here."


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 
and shallow.

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 
indigenous population."

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


Louis Proyect

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