Sunday, 30 March 2014

Colombia's presidential election: The candidates (and their Irish 'equivalents')

When it comes to politics, we Irish are as passionate as they come. Throw in an imminent election and our interest increases even more.

Back home, the European and local council elections will occupy some people's minds over the next few weeks. However, they're just not as 'sexy' as a general election, when we select the people to run (or not run, as the case often is) the state at national level. In this regard, Colombia's upcoming presidential ballot can fill that void for now.

So in a bid to help you know better those in the running for Colombia's top job, the following is a comparison between the candidates for Ireland's last presidential election in 2011 and those now doing likewise here.

Of course, the role of an Irish president is virtually ceremonial, with our prime minister more comparable to a Colombian president in terms of duties. But for character, background and in some ways affiliation similarities, this guide should be somewhat helpful.

The incumbent, President Santos. Set for four more years?
10 more years?
Juan Manuel Santos – Michael D. Higgins
This may seem a strange match up. Higgins of the left and eventual winner of the Irish contest with the centrist/centre-right (as far left as presidents go here really) Colombian incumbent now seeking re-election.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins with wife Sabina.
Michael D; least worst.

However, in the Irish case, after a fairly
tumultuous campaign for a presidential election, voters sided with Higgins as what could be seen as a 'safest pair of hands, not as controversial' kind of mentality. In less than glowing terms about Santos, the phrase 'best of a bad bunch' is one you'll regularly hear from many Colombians.

A problem area for 'El Presidente' leading up to the May 25 poll is his decision not to intervene in the controversial dismissal of the now former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, which could see some centre-left minded voters desert him. On the other side, the peace talks he has initiated with FARC guerillas haven't gone down too well with some centre-right leaning Colombians.*

Opinion polls suggest he should still pull through – but it's unlikely he'll get 50 percent or more of the votes to prevent a run-off election with his nearest challenger.

Colombian presidential candidate Enrique Peñalosa at 'full-throttle'.
Peñalosa: Freewheeling.
Enrique Peñalosa Londoño – Seán Gallagher
While Peñalosa has much more of a political pedigree – he was a congressman in the early 90s and mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2001 – than the entrepreneurial Gallagher, the link here comes from past associations with tainted (tainted for some that is) characters.
Seán Gallagher: Could have been king (well at least President of Ireland).
Gallagher: Toxic links.

Gallagher looked a shoo-in for the Irish presidency until accusations of dodgy financial dealings, linked with the once almighty but at the time (and still for many) pretty toxic Fianna Fáil party, dogged and eventually scuppered his campaign.

For Peñalosa, having previous ties with divisive former president and very much right-of-centre Álvaro Uribe could work against him. However, in a country such as Colombia where the left has traditionally been kept (often brutally) silent when it comes to having a say in elections, the Uribe link may not be as telling as you might think.

Indeed, that Peñalosa is running on a Green Party ticket could see him take a little bit more from the left than he might have done in another context.

Clara López: Facing an uphill battle to become not only Colombia's first woman president, but also its first leftist head of state.
López: Reawakening Colombia's left?
Clara López – David Norris & Martin McGuinness
As much as the Irish electorate might like to see itself as progressive and open-minded, the fact that David Norris is gay sat uncomfortably for many.
Senator David Norris at home in Dublin.
Norris (top) & 'missile' McGuinness.

'A nice guy, but you can't have a homosexual for president' was the general feeling, even if few admitted it publicly.

The above pretty much holds true in Colombia too, yet your prospects are probably a little worse being a leftist politician.
Martin McGuinness takes aim -- with a snowball that is.We're barely into double digits in terms of years passed since those from the democratic left were regularly, systematically even, gunned down due to their political persuasion.

Basically for those who held, and continue to hold, the purse strings and their supporters, left meant – and still means for some – guerilla, regardless of the actual truth. And being associated with guerillas while seeking high office in a country trying to put a deadly past behind it doesn't fit well with most franchised citizens – just ask Martin McGuinness.

Yes, things aren't as obviously bloody as they once were in Colombia and it's fair to say Ms. López probably never held a gun in her hand in her life.

However, 'left' is still a dirty word for much of the electorate in these parts. With that, Ms. López is in a battle she simply cannot win. Though like many in her position before, she'll put up a good fight.

Óscar Ívan Zuluaga: Old school but cool?
Zuluaga: Who?
Óscar Ívan Zuluaga – Gay Mitchell
Traditionalists with a powerful, popular party behind them. But dull and uninspiring. That pretty much sums up things here.
Gay Mitchell with many more Gay Mitchells.
Gays, lots of Gays.

Mitchell's campaign never really got off the ground; largely because he just couldn't connect with voters.

For Zuluaga, the popular joke among the Colombian press speaks volumes:
Each time he arrives home the security guards at his apartment complex ask who he is, such is his dangerously low profile.

Running for the 'Centro Democrático' (Democratic Centre) party and thus being in the shadow of the aforementioned former president Álvaro Uribe is both a hindrance and a help. It's a hindrance in that it's difficult for him to cut his own niche, be his own man. On the plus side, the Uribe link will land him plenty of votes from the multitude of right-leaning Colombians, ones he may not have got on his own standing.

For that reason, he can't be discounted as easily as Gay Mitchell was.

Marta Lucía on the campaign trail for the 2014 Colombian presidential elections.
Well, if the T-shirt fits Marta?
Dana Rosemary Scallon – scaling the heights.
Also-rans: Dana (top) & Mary Davis.
Marta Lucía Ramírez – Dana Rosemary Scallon & Mary Davis
Mary Davis: One of the also-rans in the 2011 Irish presidential election.A case of the also-rans.

Representing the Conservative Party (aren't they all Conservative bar López?) Ms. Lucía Ramírez's presence might have the effect of taking some votes off Santos and Zuluaga.

Hence, she may have more of an influence than either Rosemary Scallon or Davis had on the Irish contest. But she certainly won't be making Casa de Nariño her home for the next four years.

*For a background article on the peace talks, see Colombia's path to peace?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Transmilenio; a snapshot of Colombian 'organisation'?

“In Colombia, we’re more concerned with the idea and not so much with the execution. Additionally, time management is messy here.”

The Transmilenio -- looking good (well not quite).
The Transmilenio: It almost looks serene here.
The above sentiments aren't mine (although they could be). Rather they are that of a Bogotá native now living and working in the U.S.A. In so many ways they ring true in this land.

Let's start with a somewhat positive outlook. There certainly seems to exist a strong work ethic among the Colombian populace – from a Bogotá context in any case. Or a strong desire to get to work at least. All you have to do is try and squeeze yourself onto a city bus or the (much maligned) Transmilenio from 5 am onwards each weekday to see that most city residents are not slouches when it comes to early rising. Plus, it's not a case of early to work, early home. Many won't commence the return journey until at least 12 hours later, if not more. Slaves to their work or workaholics? Well yes and no.

Coming back to our opening quote, a lot of it is down to time management (or lack of management) and methodology coupled with, to put it mildly, a less than clinical execution, manifested in so many interlocking areas across the metropolis.

On the hours that many actually spend at work here, how productive they are with that time is open to much debate. Very often the answer is in the results; they're usually not jaw-dropping. It comes down to that difference between being at work and actually doing work. Many Colombian employers prefer to see their staff staying late at the office or wherever, having the 'look of work' about them, even if it is to the detriment of productivity. It's linked in with the inherent lack of trust that people here have in one another.
Inside the Transmilenio system.
Inside the Transmilenio system.

Now another reason why many may willingly stay late at work, especially those who face a public transport commute, is to avoid going home at peak times. The aforementioned Transmilenio is something I touched on some time back, however few will argue that the system has got progressively worse as it has expanded.* Not only is it severely under-capacity, but the behaviour of its users has deteriorated to sub-animal level compared to the last time I wrote about this.

Outside of more buses, station layout, with a special focus on the manner in which people enter and exit the carriages, is something that needs to be seriously addressed. Yet any new stations built are designed in the same way as the flawed current system.

On top of this, the state of the route corridors is generally shocking; buses often have to slow to a crawl to manoeuvre their way around massive potholes and uneven surfaces. An excuse given for the latter problem is that Bogotá is built on a swamp, thus maintaining smooth roadways is difficult. Well it's not the first city in the world to have to overcome such natural inconveniences. One thing that would help is for authorities not to give such work to cowboy construction companies, where the bottom line is lining one's own pocket.

You've also a question of focus. With the Transmilenio practically on its knees, the powers-that-be have decided making WiFi available in a number of stations a priority. Well, perhaps it's a way to pacify the masses as they hang around like cattle waiting, typically in vain, to cram onto the next bus.

Then you have the 'integrated' public transport system, or SITP, which has been 'rolling out' gradually since late 2012.** The idea is that it's meant to replace the myriad of private bus operators currently bringing the majority of the city's populace to and from their place of work. One of the problems with it, however, is that it's not really integrated. For starters, the card you need to use the SITP buses is not compatible with most of the Transmilenio services. This is down to the fact that they have different operators.

An inside shot of a less than full buseta/colectivo.
Colectivos -- better than the Transmilenio?
What's more, the SITP buses themselves are also operated by different companies, depending on which part of the city they serve. Have we lost something in translation between the Spanish 'integrado' and the English 'integrated'? Alongside all that, deciphering where each route goes seems overly and unnecessarily confusing. It's the busetas/colectivos for me still.

Taking all this 'on board' so to put it, as a friend opined about the transport system in Bogotá, “it's a microcosm of Colombian life in general; not a bad idea in theory, but how it's put into operation is, to say the least, incomplete.”

It's not that people aren't aware of the problems; it's just the attempted solutions tend to be ill thought out. Spend some more time at the planning stage – or indeed just try a bit of planning at all – and who knows what could happen? Probably not a lot though.

*See Bogotá's transport truths.

**For more on the SITP, read 'Dulling down' Bogotá.

A version of this story is also available on the El Tiempo web site at

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Bogotá's 'dark side' rises

There is no doubt that Colombia's image has changed, in a positive sense, over the last number of years. Not only has this happened from an external perspective, where this naturally stunning country was once seen as a war zone and best to be avoided, but also internally. Many Colombians now have a desire, and more importantly feel safe enough, to travel around and see the many sights this land has to offer; and on that front it has few equals.
One of the many locations in Bogotá where the city's homeless sleep.
Above is as good as it gets for some of Bogotá's homeless.

From a personal perspective, a few 'minor-ish' incidents aside, I've generally felt largely safe here, be that living in Bogotá or travelling independently to various parts of the country.* Of course at times it can be a case of ignorance being bliss. In terms of the capital city, since my first arrival in 2009, I've wandered about in areas that many longer-term residents, with memories of a not-too-distant deadly past, wouldn't let a rat roam in. For sure, I've heard the stories, but I find it best to judge from personal experience in the 'here and now', along with my gut instincts. Such an approach generally 'sees me right'.

To this end, I had always found Bogotá's historic centre, La Candelaría, as safe as any inner city neighbourhood can be. However, since returning to live there after a spell in some different sectors, it seems that there has been a growth in 'less desirable' types floating about the area. And, at the risk of being biased, their focus appears to be on the ubiquitous 'extranjeros' (foreigners) in this part of town. That's largely due to the mistaken (on this writers part anyway) belief that many of us have lots of cash to spread around. Not unlike many things here, they're honing in on the wrong targets really. How about trying to get the city's and Colombia's wealthy ruling classes to start doing something meaningful for you?

So while huge strides have been made to make downtown Bogotá more welcoming to both locals and foreigners, there is a danger that authorities are taking their collective eyes off the ball. In fact, I'm beginning to feel safer in what is generally recognised as much more of a crime hotspot barrio, La Perseverancia.

One of the potential reasons for this noticeable increase in insecurity in the centre is linked to the attempts to clean up the notorious Bronx barrio a little further to the south. Despite the optics and political backslapping, it really has been a case of just scattering a deprived, disgruntled, and potentially dangerous bunch of people across the city. The real social problems at root are what need to be addressed. City and government policy thus far is akin to spraying a shot of air freshener into an overflowing sewer. 

Now, lest I be accused of always finding problems but rarely offering solutions, here are a couple of simple things that could offer at least some modicum of improvement.

Bogotá's 'darker' south.
Bogotá: Getting 'darker' and more dangerous by the day?
For starters, provide some basic shelters across the city for the many homeless to rest, wash themselves, go to the toilet. It's not the most welcoming environment for tourists and residents alike to witness homeless people 'relieving' themselves in public in broad daylight. With time these shelters could even be turned into something like soup kitchens – the costs shouldn't be excessive. Once established and, hopefully, being utilised, such places could start providing basic education and other training programmes, as well as offering drug addiction services.

Furthermore, for the moment at least, a more visible police presence, especially at night time, would be helpful. And on what should be a less taxing note, ensuring all street lights are in working order would aid in reducing the amount of dark corners for 'ladrones' (robbers) to hide behind.

Whether the political will exists to undertake such modest measures is questionable.

What is certain however, is that the heretofore favoured policy of ignoring or just moving the problem won't make it go away. Come on guys, get those heads of yours out of the sand. If not, the 'shiny' new positive image will continue to fade.

*For a previous post detailing one of these previous incidents, see Fighting for 'Free Bogotá'.