Sunday, 31 March 2013

Latinos on the rise

These are, it seems, especially exciting times to be Latino. Once seen as one of the poor relations of the globe – apart from producing world class soccer players (or footballers if you will) and some pretty tasty lady models – the sub-continent is making itself and its people heard on other fronts of late.

A photo portrait of Pope Francis for sale on the streets of Bogotá during Holy Week
Pope Francis - bigger than Jesus
The most obvious and celebrated of these has been the election of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or now known simply as Pope Francis, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Not only is he the first Latino to take up this position – it’s not important that Argentina is seen by many as the most European country in this part of the world – but he’s the first from all of the Americas as well as the first from the Southern Hemisphere.

Now as momentous an occasion as it has been made out to be, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised considering that South America is home to what’s believed to be almost 300 million Catholics, making it the most ‘Rome lead’ region on the planet (how that actually manifests itself is something different as we’ve documented before – see http://bit.ly/13VtSAZ). When you take that into account, it makes sense that there should be a South American native holding the top job at the Vatican – although, you’re right, sense and the Catholic Church don’t always go hand-in-hand.

As outwardly important that religion appears to be for many Latinos, perhaps the biggest and most significant rise of this varied group of people can be seen to the north of their homeland – North America to be precise.

As was the case for the Irish Catholic immigrants in the same part of the world up until the early part of the last century, the Latinos/Hispanics* in North America, more specifically the USA, have been looked upon with suspicion and mistrust from the United State’s founding fathers, the WASPs** and ironically enough many Irish and Jewish Americans that are now very much part of the country’s fabric.

The discrimination towards them might not have been as obvious as it was to other groups in previous eras, but it certainly has existed.

That though is rapidly changing. The similarities with the Irish Americans’ transition from social outcasts to big players in the political and economic worlds are apparent.
A bilingual 'I voted' sticker from the US
Crucial vote (pic from ivn.us)

By sheer force of numbers alone the Hispanic vote is something the traditional power holders in the States can no longer ignore – they are due to be the largest voting bloc come the next US presidential election in 2016. That’s just counting the documented or ‘legals’ – should some sort of a solution for the undocumented/’illegals’ be found during President Obama’s final tenure, the numbers of Latino origin residents in the country would rise considerably. It’s widely accepted that they make up the bulk of the estimated 11 million undocumented in the USA.

As much as we like to think differently, the politicians, or at least their advisers, aren’t stupid. Most US immigrants tend to vote Democrat in any case, but if the Obama administration can fix the undocumented problem, this should ensure that trend is enhanced for some time to come.

Even the traditionally inward looking Republicans are doing their bit to find favour among the Hispanics. The party’s official response to Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year was given by the Cuban American Florida senator Marco Rubio, with his speech in both English and Spanish. Indeed Rubio is tipped by many to be a future presidential candidate for the Republicans. A Republican Latino version of JFK perhaps?

It’s not however just the power of numbers that have aided the Latino/Hispanic rise. They’ve also shown themselves to be more than capable of mixing it with the best that the US has to offer. The typical image of the Spanish speaking cleaner or nanny or general labourer isn’t fitting the narrative as easy as before. No, they’re becoming high-rollers. Again like the Irish Americans, through hard work and perseverance they are becoming more and more accepted into US society.

The WASPs ‘et al’ fears that Hispanics would dilute the vibrant, strong work ethic culture that made the USA the self-proclaimed greatest country on the planet are being unfounded.  
Pitbull - one of the Latinos' 'finest'...
Pitbull - also bigger than Jesus it seems (from Pitbull website)

In fact, from a Colombian American perspective – as we alluded to in ‘Colombia’s dissenters’ (see http://bit.ly/13X1AXb) – many of these immigrants adapt to the prevailing culture pretty well and actually thrive in it. Yes, they bring their own Latino colour just as the Irish have ‘greened’ up the place, especially around St Patrick’s Day, but they also bring an appetite for work and success – qualities the first European settlers in North America prided themselves on.

So while the Latino stock is rising outside of their original homeland, what about things inside? Being such a diverse land with many different countries, it’s not something that can be easily summed up. However, while many from the Western world may be flocking to the place to escape the ‘misery’ of their lives in the rat-race, a large number of ambitious Latinos still look to leave their homeland to ‘better’ themselves.

In similarity again with the Irish, a good number of Latinos still believe they have a better chance of realising their potential outside of their birthplace. That may be steadily changing though.

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*For a more detailed account of the terms 'Latino' and 'Hispanic', see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hispanic_and_Latino_Americans

**WASPs - 'White Anglo-Saxon Protestants' for any of you that were wondering.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Venezuela - deepening the divide?

It’s just over five months since we wrote that the time perhaps was right for a change of the guard in Venezuela*. That was of course ahead of the October elections when the then incumbent President, the late Hugo Chávez, was facing his toughest democratic challenge for the country’s top job since he first took office in 1999.
Nicolás Maduro speaks with a photo of the late Hugo Chávez in the background
Past & present - Cházez (l) & Maduro (from paraguay.com)

Despite leading a solid campaign which garnered widespread support – his 45% share of the votes testament to that – challenger Henrique Capriles fell short, Chávez retaining his post with 54% support. Venezuela, especially the current administration’s key voter base of the lower/working classes, clearly said it wasn’t ready to say goodbye to ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’ at that time.

So as the country prepares once again to go the polls on April 14th – constitutionally necessary following Chávez’s death – is there any reason to think that the challenger can turn the tables in just six months?

Undeniably, the ruling party is weaker without its charismatic and hugely popular deceased leader calling the shots. You don’t lose a chief such as Chávez without this having some adverse effect. However, it might be too soon to see that cost just yet.

It’s difficult to improve on an 80% turnout, as was the case in October, but if there are new votes and voters to be found, they may go the way of president-in-charge and Chavez’s ‘anointed’ successor, Nicolás Maduro. While a dull figure compared to his predecessor – who wouldn’t be – he should still be in a position to benefit from Chávez’s popularity, with the former leader’s figure still shining bright for many. Indeed, early opinion polls suggest Maduro has a lead of up to 15%. If this was to be the actual result on polling day, it would be a bigger endorsement for the socialist government than that it received just months ago.

In such a politically divided country – you are either with the revolution or against it, there is very little room for those in the middle ground – it’s hard to see where Capriles can add to the support he gained last year. Focusing the campaign on the abuses of the Chávez administration – the more than questionable human rights record, an increase in homicides and an absence of general security, press and judicial interference, currency & economic problems – abuses highlighted by a number of non-governmental organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, is one avenue of attack.
Locals dealing in oil on the Colombian-Venezuelan border
'Black gold' on the Colombian-Venezuelan border

There is also the issue of Venezuela’s over-reliance on oil to keep the economy moving. In the short-to-medium term, this is fine, but, like the oil resources themselves, how sustainable is it?

Yet, for the thousands of people that have seen an unprecedented rise in their general standard of living and their access to education and health improve under the current socialist government, this approach in focusing on other policy areas, however justified, is unlikely to yield much electoral dividend.

What’s more, with a population – especially those in support of the revolution – seemingly convinced by the political elite that the nation, at any moment, could be attacked by ‘Western imperialists’, anti-US discourse continues to excite and impress many. Thus, the ‘them-versus-us’ mentality, which Capriles hopes to weaken should he get elected, has been promoted heavily by his opponent.

However for any neutral observer, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you lie, Maduro’s inconsistent and lurid pronouncements in this regard in recent days have been nothing but playing to the gallery. From firstly claiming there was a CIA/Pentagon plan to assassinate his rival Capriles in order to cause chaos in the country, he flipped the next day to a story that the US was encouraging the opposition to withdraw from the elections. If the White House is planning something, it doesn’t seem to be very consistent if Maduro is to be believed.

Throwing all these factors together, it is difficult to see anything other than a relatively comfortable victory for the interim president.

Indeed for the time being, for the general stability of the region, especially in relation to the border with Colombia, a Maduro victory might be for the best. If the socialist revolution was stopped in its tracks now, democratically, it’s unclear how the current administration and its supporters would react, especially so soon after Chávez’s death. A second defeat in six months for Capriles would no doubt leave him and his followers disillusioned, but a violent reaction to such an outcome is unlikely.

In terms of Colombian relations, with the ongoing, largely fragile peace talks continuing between President Juan Manuel Santos’s government and the left-wing guerrillas FARC, instability in Venezuela is the last thing that process needs.
Presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles reaches out to supporters at a rally
Support - but is it enough for Capriles?

Yes, it’s widely accepted here that the Bolivarian Republic has supported the FARC rebels in terms of ammunition and security, but the fear is that if an unfavourable government for them was to be installed in Venezuela, it may have a negative influence on the peace negotiations.

That’s despite the fact that the majority of Colombians, arguably the most pro-USA Latin America country with a history of centre-right administrations, would find more favour, in general, with Capriles in power than Maduro.

Whatever the case, it appears the mantra from the current office-holders in Venezuela, that the country’s ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’ is bigger than one man, is set to be put to a stern test in the coming months and years. It may be more of the same after April 14th but perhaps with even deeper division.


*See 'Time for change' http://bit.ly/TLNgLn
*For another Venezuelan related article see 'Venezuela - South America's North Korea?' http://bit.ly/OLR2Ev

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Ireland's calling

Bringing an Irish 'feel' to Colombia
'A few of our favourite things'
A frequent question that travellers or expats get asked by the locals in their new location is ‘Do you not miss home?’ It’s no different here in Colombia – the Latinos strong sense of family often has many of them scratching their heads as to why some of us ‘Westerners’ can just take flight indefinitely, seemingly without a care. The immediate response then, of course, is that we miss our family and close friends (well those few that remain in Ireland) – honestly, we do. There are times though, and these vary, when we long for other, what we’ll term less emotional things. So for the time of year that’s in it – the St. Patrick’s festival that is (why just celebrate one day when you can make a week or more out of it?) – we’re going to take a look at some of the aspects from Ireland that we miss every now and again. Some of these, as you’ll discover, are purely specific to the old country, others a bit more generic.

Draught Guinness
Can you hear us St. James’s Gate*? Please send over a few kegs of your finest black stout – this ‘draught in a can’ never worked. In any case, it’s too expensive to buy here, so we stick to the local beers. They fill the void somewhat, but a proper pint of ‘The Black Stuff’ from time-to-time would see us right. There’s a growing market for it here from what we can see (at a reasonable price that is). You know where to find us. Oh, and in a sop to our Belfast days, a keg of Harp wouldn’t go astray either.

The Guinness draught can
Just not the same in a can
Seasons
Right, in terms of weather these days Ireland might only have two seasons – rainy and rainier. But it’s the daylight changes we’re referring to here. This time of year back home is generally a more positive time – yes even for the Irish – as the days grow longer and a bit warmer and we anticipate the ‘hot’ summer days ahead (we like to dream). Yes, we have to suffer the dark, cold winter nights, but we get through them with the thoughts of the ‘brighter delights’ from May through to September.
The yearly sameness in daylight hours and weather (it’s either sun or rain, no more) in this part of the world is a bit stale as far as we’re concerned. This might explain why nothing changes that much, in terms of the way of doing things. On the other hand, it may also explain why some of the people are a bit emotionally unstable, to make up for the boring seasonal conditions.

A wintry scene in the west of Ireland
Snow, super snow!
GAA
The old craic and banter of an Irish sporting summer – in terms of our native sports that is, Gaelic football and hurling – is hard to beat. Hailing from a mediocre county (Roscommon – no sniggering) in terms of our football prowess means our championship run doesn’t last that long – but there’s always our neighbours Mayo to fill the void of heroic failure that bit longer when our own boys, true to form, tamely exit.
We do miss playing as well of course – the pantomime of the local club championship is where it’s truly at really. We’ve suffered more bad days than good on that front, but it’s all about character building, right?

'Wrong Way' in action for Belfast's Naomh Bríd
'When we were kings' - well, not quite
Driving
Not at all specifically Irish this, but it is another thing we miss from the home sod nonetheless, considering it was the last place we drove for any meaningful length of time. Spinning along the open road with some good tunes can be a nice way to relax. You just have to avoid other road users, the potholes, cattle and/or sheep, the Gardaí (not that we’d be doing anything illegal, but it’s just good practice to dodge them at all times) and, for your own safety and that of others, the pub.

Grub
As we’ve written about before* we have no problem with the food in Colombia, however there are a few old Irish staples – preferably cooked by mammy – that you just can’t replicate in these parts. The bacon and cabbage for one would certainly go down well on the many rainy Bogotá evenings. Same goes for a hearty Irish stew; although we have experimented with our own meatless version of this and it fills a hole at least – an average alternative we’ll call it. Then there are the tried and tested Sunday roasts – beef, lamb, pork even, with all the extras. Snack wise, some decent brown bread (O’Hara’s of Foxford, your only man!) wouldn’t go astray as well as a good lump of soda bread. Um, guess there’s a reason we’re losing weight these days.

Our meat-free version of an Irish stew
Tasty!
Countryside
Again, it’s not like this doesn’t exist in Colombia – far from it of course, you’ve some of the best untouched countryside on the planet here. However, due to work ‘commitments’, the concrete jungle of the country’s sprawling, smog-filled capital is where we spend the majority of our time right now. So having relatively unrestricted access to wander carelessly (or, when we’re feeling energetic, kick a ball) around the fields and bogs of our home place is something we do miss. As long as, that is, we don’t have to do too much physical work on them.

The place we call home
Home sweet home
Bookies
Might seem like a strange one, but being able to pop into Paddy P – er, I mean Ladbrokes, the old employer (see the 'parting' screen below) – on the odd occasion and waste away an hour or so while losing a few euros has left a little hole in our lives. Yes, you can gamble anywhere in the world now with the online facilities, but it’s just not the same as handing over your money, usually never to be seen again, in person. Plus, a bookmaker (for the uninitiated, this is a place where you can gamble on sports and much more besides) is what you might call a ‘healthy’ buffer between the house and the pub.

Ladbrokes says 'goodbye' to Wrong Way
Leaving Ladbrokes :-(
Just for the record, Barry’s Tea would have made the list too had it not been for a special delivery of same from Ireland in January – plus we were gifted Irish tea last year too that kept us ‘tied over’ on that front. Cheers Podge, David and Olivia – much appreciated!

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*For those wondering, St. James's Gate is the home of Guinness in Dublin - 'The Black Stuff' has been brewed there since 1759.

*As for previous snippets about Colombian food, see 'Six of the best in 2012 (well kind of)' http://bit.ly/VQGxxo & 'Horse it into ya' http://bit.ly/WhbuAE

Monday, 11 March 2013

Colombia's dissenters

Colombians have many things to be proud of in terms of their country. For one, a stunningly diverse landscape – from dense jungle to sparse deserts, serene coastal settings to entrancing rolling hills leading to snow-capped mountains and much more in between. With such a contrasting topography comes an array of different and colourful flora and fauna – in this regard, it’s one of the most varied places on the planet.

Spying the ocean from the hot Colombian jungle near Capurganá in the north of the country
Unspoilt beauty.
Add to this a largely helpful, welcoming populace – at least initially* – with an easy going nature and you begin to see why many of the locals speak very highly of their land and its people. Indeed, for those of us who are uneasy with gushing praise in any context, such talk from some Colombians about their hallowed place, which can often descend into hyperbole, can become a little unsettling. We can all get carried away though from time-to-time.

In this regard, bearing in mind the number of locals we’ve met who won’t hear a bad word said about the country, it can be a tad refreshing to hear some born-and-bred Colombians speak in not-so-glowing terms about their homeland. A bit of balance brought to proceedings in a sense.

Perhaps for every ten natives we meet that fall into the ‘Colombia can do no wrong’ category, we encounter about three that, if not utterly critical of the place, are certainly more focused towards its faults.

The truth – if such a thing can even be measured in this context – generally falls somewhere in between. The fact that our prime residence throughout our time in Colombia has been in the nation’s capital and largest city, Bogotá, helps to explain in some part our encounters with the more ‘negative’ (or is that realist?) elements.

Many of them are not Bogotanos, generally hailing from warmer, less crowded and, usually, environmentally cleaner parts of the country. They had to relocate to the metropolis in order to study or find work – nothing unique there of course; an internal population flow to a country’s biggest, economically most important, city.

The majority of these Bogotá ‘blow-ins’ though would generally prefer to be living elsewhere, back in their place-of-birth for one, and this contributes to the ill-filling many of them develop towards their country.

Even Colombia's 'stars' have a laid back approach to work so it seems
Eating on the job.
As mentioned above, most of them come from warmer locations, so the relatively chilly Bogotá nights don’t help in building a ‘loving’ relationship with the capital either. The minus points thus start to grow; unfriendly, untrustworthy people – a big contrast with the ‘official line’ that – disorganised, backwards, dangerous. In some of the conversations we’ve had with these ‘dissenters’, an actual hatred is palpable.

Again though – the disorganised, backward labels apart – such feelings, especially of unfriendliness, are commonplace in many heavily populated cities across the globe. You tend to get a truer reflection of the soundness of a country and its people outside of the big urban centres; and in this regard, Colombia scores relatively well from what we’ve experienced and indeed written about.**

Another aspect of what we’ll call a more rounded appraisal of the country is what Colombians now living abroad say about the place. In a recent book editing project we undertook which featured interviews with such types, there were some common observations made.

Chief among those was the work ethic – or lack thereof to be honest – of their compatriots back home. Now on face value, this may surprise some people that visit the major Colombian cities. The locals generally rise very early to go to their place of employment and return pretty late – 12 hour plus days are commonplace here. There is a difference though of course between being at work and actually doing work.

As their fellow nationals, now plying their trade outside these borders, noted, there exists a more ‘relaxed’ approach to getting things done here. A ‘What’s the rush?’ style mentality you might call it. You only need to look at the ongoing infrastructure works in downtown Bogotá to get an idea of this – they’ve been at it since before our first visit here in early 2009 and there still seems to be no end in sight. Sure it’s only the capital’s city centre.
The ongoing, seemingly never-ending, infrastructure works in Bogotá
Never-ending works.

We’re all on for having a more laid back life, but when you’re still spending most of your time at your place of work but just not doing a lot, that doesn’t sound like much fun. For our Colombian expat interviewees who have discovered the art of efficiency elsewhere, coming back to the typical way of doing things in the old country is something they’re not too keen on.

Yet despite the faults and oft-frustrating idiosyncrasies of the country and its people, for us, the many plus points outweigh the bad. It’s why we’re still here we guess.***

For some of the locals, however, getting out of the place can’t come quick enough. Sometimes to truly appreciate your birthplace, you need to leave it – if only for a short time. You might find though, that the grass is indeed greener on the other side.
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*For our take on some of the less positive aspects of Colombian friendships, see http://bit.ly/LbcE9V

**A host of previous posts to choose from in this regards, including 'Finding Filandia' http://bit.ly/W1qXDw, 'Buenaventura's dirty delights' http://bit.ly/11ksFmP, 'Dirty Old Town' http://bit.ly/VG94Ho and 'Turbo Living' http://bit.ly/SVtkWW

***We did address this in some way in 'Por qué Colombia?'  http://bit.ly/W1t3DF

Monday, 4 March 2013

A rare 'horse before the cart' moment in Bogotá

Change very often takes time. That’s especially the case here in Latin America. A good few months have passed since we wrote about Bogotá ‘dulling down’ (see http://bit.ly/XdUg5U) in terms of, for one, the introduction of a new integrated, more organised, less colourful mode of transport for the city.
A couple of Bogotá's SITP buses, practically empty as per usual
Unpopular - Bogotanos remain frosty towards the SITP

Take up though of the SITP* and its cashless, card operated system has been a slow burner to say the least. When you can hop-on and hop-off the ‘old school’ buses anywhere you want throughout the city i.e. there are no designated stops, and at times for not even the full fare, it’s hard to swap such a service for one, let’s say, ‘less flexible’. Plus with no visible reduction in the number of the private buseta/colectivo operators, commuters in the Colombian capital aren’t exactly being forced to change their ways.

There has, however, been more proactive action on one of the areas that we mentioned in “‘Dulling down’ Bogotá”. In the past few days authorities have begun taking some of the old and not-so-old workhorses off the streets – no we’re not referring to people here (not yet anyway) but actual horses and the carts they’ve been pulling around the city’s highways and byways for years. It’s all part of Mayor Gustavo Petro’s plan to eradicate the maltreatment of animals in the metropolis, something these equines often suffer from. Indeed it’s not just the horses that are forced into heavy labour; we’ve witnessed the odd dog being used as a substitute from time-to-time – however, the canines’ day for salvation will have to wait it seems.

Since it was first announced a few years back to take our hoofed friends off the tarmac, the move had been put on hold for some time which led a number of the city’s residents to believe that it would never happen. However, it’s now in full swing, with already more than 50 horses taken into safekeeping, away from the madness of the concrete jungle where they once had to compete with wildly driven, carbon-spouting buses to name just one of the many hazards. It’s expected that most, if not all, of the over 2,800 of these animals will be in greener pastures and more tranquil surroundings on the outskirts of the city and beyond by September of this year.
A couple of 'free-roaming' Colombian horses
Brighter future ahead for Bogotá's horses?

Now for some the removal of the horse-and-cart from Bogotá’s streets takes a little bit of colour away from the place – a throwback to more innocent times perhaps is being lost. Yes, there may be something in that, but considering the loads, many of them were being forced to carry and the aforementioned craziness of the drivers of motorised vehicles in the city, for the horses own well-being this move has to be welcomed.

As for their owners, who are now without a valuable ‘work colleague’ you might say (or slave as others would point out), they haven’t been completely forgotten. They are due to receive 36-times the minimum salary for each horse they own, with the money to be used to invest in a mechanically operated cart, a business plan, or for pensioners and people with a disability they have the option to put the money into improving their place of residence.

Indeed with this financial compensation, the owners of these horses, after understandably being opposed to the measure when it was first mooted, seem largely cooperative now. A rare win for everybody it seems – the city and its residents, the horse owners and, most importantly for many observers, the once hapless horses themselves.
A homeless man finds a strange place to kip on a busy afternoon in downtown Bogotá
Down and out, without much help

What next? Could the authorities in Bogotá now turn their attention to taking the thousands of homeless and deprived human beings in this city off the streets? Let’s not get too carried away now. While this equine move has been a rare 'horse before the cart' moment for these parts - a positive measure - some of the actual cart owners and many others continue to be forgotten about.

If you’re of a certain standing in this city, you’ve a better chance of being recognised and helped if you’re on four legs rather than two. Alas, many barely have any leg to stand on.

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*SITP: 'Sistema de Transporte Público de Bogotá' or Bogotá's Public Transport System if you will.

For more horse-related stories, see 'Horse it into ya' http://bit.ly/WhbuAE