Tuesday, 24 April 2018

'Right you are, Colombia'

There is very often a significant difference between what one might like to see happen and what actually does transpire.

In this regard, in relation to our previous post, lest there be any confusion, we don't expect Humberto de la Calle to be Colombia's next president. As much as we may like what he's about, the majority of the Colombian electorate, those who actually matter in this, don't. Or at least they don't want him as their next president.
Iván Duque: Colombia's president-in-waiting ...
Iván Duque: The 'right' fit for Colombia (photo from Facebook).
In fact, de la Calle himself more than likely realises he won't be taking up residence at Palacio de Nariño.

The man who will be doing that, barring what would amount to a significant sea change in the state of play, is Iván Duque.

It's pretty clear why.

Firstly, in 'normal' circumstances, those who bother to vote in Colombia look to the centre/centre-right when electing their president.

Taking that as a given, there are really only two other 'serious' challengers to Duque: Sergio Fajardo and Germán Vargas Lleras.

Yet, if we are to trust the majority of opinion polls, the country's left, or more socially-democratic minded we could say, are behind Gustavo Petro in significant numbers. For many in this bracket, it's Petro or nothing (or certainly not Álvaro Uribe's protégé Duque). So this large minority, if they get out and vote, should do enough to get their 'messiah' into the decisive second round vote.
The thing is, faced with a split centre-right vote, the Petro ticket does well.

However, in a straight shoot-out against just one, let's say more 'acceptable' candidate for this country, Petro's a losing bet. This is especially so when it's seen as a black-and-white contest, left versus right, as it will be with Duque.

It seems safe to assume that the majority of Vargas Lleras votes would transfer to Duque. Some Fajardo voters might swing to Petro, but certainly not all of them.

Thus, for the many 'Anybody but Duque/Uribe' Petro voters, their best chance of keeping the Centro Democrático out might be to opt for Fajardo in the first round. That is, try and make it a Duque-Fajardo head-to-head. In that scenario, some more centrist-type voters who wouldn't contemplate siding with Petro, might be more inclined to go with Fajardo rather than Duque.

Of course this sort of tactical, second-guessing voting largely based on opinion polls is risky. It could all backfire.

Nonetheless, regardless of how the others line up, this looks to be Duque's contest to lose.

This brings us on to the broader issue of why Colombia tends to shun anybody with a hint of 'left' to him/her when it comes to its president.

The fact that the state has been battling leftist insurgents since the 1950s is a significant factor. For this particular election, the murderous activities of Farc dissidents on the Ecuadorian border, the controversial arrest of a high-up ex Farc guerrilla on drug trafficking charges and the stop-start peace talks with a still active ELN reinforce the commonly-held view that 'left is bad'. The political and social turmoil in neighbouring 'socialist' Venezuela is also playing its part.

Yet other Latin American countries have had to deal with a violent left without this resulting in such political thinking being pretty much dismissed outright.

One of the differences for Colombia is due to the fact that the state, with significant help from right-wing paramilitaries, systematically destroyed the political left, rendering it no more than an irritant. The discourse has been dominated by the victors, the rightist state and its media friends.

Those on the left are subversives, a threat to the Colombian republic. So the narrative goes anyway.
(It is important to note here that the United Nations estimates that the Farc and ELN accounted for 12 per cent of civilian deaths in the conflict up to 2016, with 80 per cent attributed to right-wing paramilitaries. The government was responsible for the remaining eight per cent.)

Thus, with the recent violent events mentioned above, Colombia's rightist guardians look as appealing as ever to urban dwellers across the stratum divide.

Now is not the time to rock the boat. Better the devil you know guys.
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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Colombia, de la Calle

OK, we may need to change our preference. While we still have plenty of respect for V.E. Blanco, the sad reality is, for, um, existential reasons 'he' won't actually physically make it to Palacio de Nariño, Colombia's presidential palace.

That being so, you still have to admire his performance ahead of the presidential first-round vote on May 27. He's doing better than four of the seven actual candidates in the race. Only Iván Duque, Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo (just about) are more popular according to the opinion polls.

Colombian presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle: A good compromise choice?
De la Calle: As his name suggests, he's right at home on the streets ... (Picture from Facebook.)
Yet, taking Dr Blanco out of things, who do we endorse for Colombia's top job? For many locals it's either the rightist Duque, the candidate of former president, the divisive Álvaro Uribe, or former Bogotá mayor and once leftist guerrilla with the defunct M-19, Petro. The never-again-to-be-trusted opinion polls have Duque ahead, a man who has promised to make significant adjustments to the peace agreement outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos signed with the Farc.

In many ways it would be interesting to see how Colombia would operate under a leftist president, something it has never really had. Now how left Petro actually is depends on who you listen to. He talks a somewhat leftist game in any case, yet he certainly doesn't dress like a man at one with the impoverished masses.

For sure, all candidates realise the need to address the vast inequality Colombia has, and have various ideas in this regard. Yet proposals on paper are one thing, putting them into practice quite another. Needless to say there's no simple solution.

Notwithstanding that, considering Duque-Petro is seen as a battle of the extremes — "a hawkish Duque presidency will result in deepening political and social division, a Petro administration will see the country slide towards socialism and potentially cripple the economy" — more moderate Colombians are looking for the centre ground. On this front, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia department governor Fajardo appears to be the preferred candidate.

He's promising to be a "president of reconciliation", playing in a way to that concern that a win for either of the current leading candidates will dangerously divide the country.

Of course, he's not the only 'centrist' candidate. However, the polls have him comfortably ahead of both Germán Vargas Lleras, who had a stint as vice president under Santos, and the Liberal party's Humberto de la Calle, whose last political role was government chief negotiator in the Farc peace talks.

That the two men had important posts in the Santos administration is no doubt working against them. The electorate is looking for change and both Vargas Lleras and de la Calle have been too close to the outgoing crowd.

Yet, the country could do worse than taking stock of things after a few rocky years. For one, there's been that aforementioned controversial peace agreement which ended up being rejected in a referendum yet its implementation went ahead anyway. We've also seemingly never-ending corruption scandals and the delicate issue of streams of Venezuelans continuing to enter the country as they escape the mess they have at home.

In such an environment, an experienced, largely respected pair of hands in the shape of Humberto de la Calle could be seen as a good compromise, interim choice.

At almost 72 years of age and his moderate background, he’s not exactly in the same mould as a Putin or Uribe. A ‘president for life’ by whatever means possible he will not be.

He's unlikely to dramatically change things, for better or for worse. However, at a time where the tendency across the globe seems to be to run to the extremes, de la Calle offers Colombia a little breather from the madness, and maybe even a bit more.

Humberto de la Calle: Steady as she goes for four short years?
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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Serene Suesca

In terms of little escapes from Bogotá, generally speaking we prefer to hit for one of the many lower-lying, warmer locations dotted all around the metropolis.

This is even more so the case when the capital city is going through one of its somewhat depressingly grey, wetter-weather phases, as it has been of late.
Suesca, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
A view of Suesca with Las Rocas in the left background.
The thing is, when it's public holiday time in Bogotá, most people have the same idea. Thus, you have a run on the likes of Girardot, Melgar, Tobia and Villeta to name just a few. And with that the prices for hotels and other tourist-related things shoot up.

In fact, if you're your own boss and can take holidays more or less whenever you want, staying in a much more relaxed Bogotá during these peak holiday times is an appealing option.

Nonetheless, not every town in a 200 kilometre radius or so of the capital sees an influx of tourists when work's out for a few days.

A 90-minute bus drive from the north of Bogotá, the quaint, tranquil town of Suesca is one of them. At about 2,600 metres above sea level, it certainly does not fall into the 'warm-weather escape' category.

One of the main — if not the main  — pull-factors is the alluring cliff rocks, 'Las Rocas', on the town's outskirts. These imposing cliffs stretch for about four kilometres and are popular with rock climbers. Many visitors avail of the camping facilities alongside them as an accommodation option; there was a steady stream of crusty campers about when we were there in any case.

Yet around Suesca's picturesque main plaza it still has very much a local, 'unspoilt' feel to it. This we very much like.

Now in similar style to our San José del Guaviare trip, we just rocked up here with little or no prior planning.

So the fact that the tourism office was closed didn't help things in terms of finding out what's to do and see outside of Las Rocas.

Armed with contradictory information, we did set off on an ill-fated wander to Laguna (Lake) Suesca. Had we been unequivocally told at the start that it was at least a three-hour trek and that the lake was pretty much dry — it had been dry season despite the bit of rain and overcast conditions we had for most of our stay — we probably wouldn't have attempted it on foot at all. (My fellow Irish companion wasn't up for a long, potentially fruitless hike; tut, tut Finbarr.)

So after an hour-and-a-half's walk that culminated in stumbling across a 'hidden gem' of a tienda bar, where the owners told us we were still some way off the lake, we paused for a liquid refreshment before returning to Suesca. We did get some nice views along the way, as well as discovering the aforementioned tienda, so it certainly wasn't fruitless.
Suesca, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Wandering the hills around Suesca ... Reminds us of home, kind of!
Speaking of watering holes, Suesca could be seen as the home of the tiendas. It appears that every second establishment is one where you can sit in and have a beer. However, while we're not averse to a Poker or two, Suesca's rather chilly weather and exposed tiendas aren't conducive to knocking back a few cold ones. Not wanting to be rude, we did give it a go all the same.

Sipping on a tasty and very-reasonable-priced coffee whilst watching the day go by in the panadería (bakery-cum-café) 'Las Rocas de Suesca' on the main square is a decent alternative to the tiendas.

Whatever tipple you choose, as refreshing, short breaks from Bogotá go, weather aside (it's not that bad either, especially from an Irish perspective), Suesca is as good as they come.

*The rather expensive Hotel Casona Quesada aside, there aren't too many obvious budget accommodation options in Suesca. However, with a bit of persistence we found a well-kept house-cum-hotel for 30.000 COP per night for a three-bed room. It's located on Calle 4, just off Carrera 5 next to a little park with a basketball court.
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