Monday, 30 June 2014

Colombia: Here come the good times?

So the World Cup party rolls on and, thankfully, Colombia is very much still in the mix. These heady times that the country is going through, something mentioned on this blog a few weeks back, are not only continuing but also appear to be increasing in magnitude.
Wrong Way in the Colombian jersey with the 'World Cup trophy'.
Colombia, World Cup champions? Why not?
Of course, having got to the last eight, should La Selección now fail to go further, the excitement and gushing pride and joy being experienced across the land will take a significant dent.

However, wherever the team finishes – here's hoping that's lifting the trophy – Colombians both near and far should, and no doubt will, be immensely proud of the efforts. They ought to be, especially so considering the lads went to Brazil minus their talisman Radamel Falcao, a loss that certainly dampened expectations ahead of the tournament.

In a number of ways, looking at events both on and off the field, this World Cup represents for Colombia what the World Cups of both 1990 and 1994 did for my homeland, the Republic of Ireland.

Granted, unlike the Republic in 1990, this is not Colombia's debut, but the country was a much different place back in the 90s when they last qualified. This time, like Ireland in the early 90s, there's a feeling that a bright new dawn is about to break. The football team could be seen not only as a manifestation of that, but also an important part of it.

For one, José Pékerman's side is, with merit, filling Colombians with an enormous amount of pride and a sense that they are finally being talked about seriously, in a positive manner, on the world stage. (Incidentally, Pékerman is an 'outsider', an Argentinian, who is now very much seen as Colombian – á la the Englishman Jack Charlton who managed Ireland in '90 and '94.)

Then you have the enormous support the team is getting at the tournament, mirrored by the outpouring of emotion following each victory back home. Colombians, as the Irish did for Italia '90 and USA '94, have made their way in droves to Brazil, getting there by any means necessary, sourcing money however they can. Some would even sell their grannies.

Heck, in a further similarity, for two peoples who like to have a beer or two, Dublin's barmen went on strike for Ireland's opener in '94, the victory over Italy, forcing inhabitants of the capital to booze up at home. Here in Bogotá we have to put up with ley seca (alcohol prohibition) for each game – it hasn't stopped the drinking or revelling though. Let's just hope La Selección doesn't suffer the same fate that befell the Republic in 1990 and lose to the hosts in the last eight.

This is all happening alongside a more general mood of optimism that seems to be sweeping over Colombia. There are green, or yellow if you like, shoots emerging signalling much better times ahead – economically, politically and socially. For sure, not everyone is sharing in that positivity and there are solid reasons for that, but there is a scent of peace in the air, that a solution to the more than 50 years of internal conflict can be found.
President Juan Manuel Santos and company celebrate Colombia's victory over Uruguay
President Santos: Leading Colombia to a bright new dawn? (Photo: Facebook.)

Linked to this, in a financial and social context, things are improving for many Colombians – although tackling the huge inequality that still exists must be one of the chief priorities for re-elected president Juan Manuel Santos.

This is all quite similar to the Republic of Ireland in the early 90s, just before the Celtic Tiger started to roar (remember that?) and politics largely took over from the gun in the Northern Ireland conflict. The island of Ireland was about to experience the good times for a change. Yes, they didn't last, but you can argue it was better to have them than not.

Thus, for what it's worth, the advice for Colombia right now from an Irish perspective, both at the World Cup and in general, is carpe diem.

In football terms, you're doing that pretty good so far. The other things might prove much trickier.

For more Colombia-Ireland 'links', check out Colombia & Ireland – a tale of two old Catholic countries.

Reeling in the Years: 1994 gives a nice snapshot of Ireland entering the 'good times'.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Ley seca – Bogotá's deprived spit back

This blog tends to look out for the underprivileged. So when the 'have nots' strike a blow against the 'haves', especially in a place riven with inequality such as Colombia, it's usually something to support. It's not often that happens here of course.

Millonarios fans 'celebrate' the club's birthday.
'I predict a riot.' Millonarios 'fans'. (Photo from

However, Bogotá's 'unwashed' masses have come up with a cunning plan to fight back against their wealthier 'superiors'. In fact, it's rather ingenious considering the power to use this 'weapon' isn't directly at their disposal. What they've mastered is akin to confronting a serial killer face-to-face and getting him to turn the gun on himself. Wonderful.

You see, some of my more hard-pressed Bogotá brethren have discovered a way to deprive the rest of us of the chance to occasionally, in a legal way, 'let our hair down'.

This is how it works: Come up with a reason to have either a celebration or a protest, take to the streets en masse, let things become a little boisterous, violent even (attack public transport vehicles, vandalise buildings and such like), and then wait for the authorities to play their part. That latter step is the key one. For once the city authorities act, and act they will, the standard response – what they see as a panacea it seems – is to introduce ley seca, that is to say alcohol prohibition.

With that, all law-abiding citizens (there are some I have been told) must make alternative plans, had they previously been thinking of socialising with a tipple or two in a bar or club. Meanwhile, those whose actions managed to get ley seca kicked into gear toddle back to their lightly policed barrios to enjoy a few beers practically as normal.

It's not a case of everybody being punished for the crimes of a few; it's a case of the wrong people being punished while the perpetrators lives are barely impinged.

Like many things in Colombia, the law in theory operates very different in practice. As regards ley seca, it's one of those rare occasions when something here works against the more affluent sectors of society. In the wealthier parts, breaches are unlikely as licensed premises fear sanctions. Moreover, in more exuberant locations it's not easy to operate clandestinely, as opposed to a small tienda bar with only one entrance/exit, where the owner very often lives in the same building.

Also, in a country where there is a 'healthy' underground market for a wide range of drugs and many of those involved in it come from working-class neighbourhoods, adding alcohol to the list isn't a major inconvenience for those 'in the know'.

The idea behind this alcohol prohibition is to aid in maintaining public order when the powers that be feel some people may 'lose the run of themselves'. It's introduced on a national scale for elections, while local authorities also have the power to enact it when and where they see fit. It's in the latter instance that we've had the most recent introduction of it in Bogotá.

Celebrating in a non-violent way after Colombia's opening World Cup win.
'Celebrating in peace.'
There are a number of reasons why city officials felt it was warranted. After Colombia's opening World Cup game, the victory over Greece, celebrations for some people got a little bit out of hand – besides the fact there was an election ley seca in place a few hours after the game. Nine deaths were attributed to the over-zealous football revelling. Of course at least nine people die in this city most weekends for various reasons, but we tend not to hear about them.

Then, a day before Colombia's second match, fans of Bogotá's Millonarios football club took to the streets to celebrate its 68th birthday – hey, when you're going through a tough time on the field of play, you have to find something to cheer about. That these 'celebrations' got out of control is putting it mildly.

Thus it was to the tried but not very well trusted ley seca that city mayor Gustavo Petro turned to, allowing Bogotanos to 'celebrate in peace', or so the slogan went. Did it work? Well it depends who you ask and what part of the city you're referring to. You kind of get the feeling that authorities are happy with themselves for being 'proactive' (just don't tell them they're being reactive) and taking 'effective' measures. Meanwhile for a nice chunk of the population the drinking continues, just in a slightly different manner.

Of course we're not condoning breaking the law, nor the thuggery and vandalism that a small number of citizens engage in, all in the name of 'celebrating'. But, to reiterate, ley seca misses its intended target.

Properly, rigorously enforcing current permanent legislation is one approach in the short-term.

Longer-term, education is the answer.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A lot done, more to do

What a heady few days it's been for Colombia. There's what you might call a giddy excitement about the place. Most of that, unsurprisingly, is emanating from La Selección's (national football team's) rather impressive start to the World Cup. After a gap of 16 years since their last appearance at the finals, seeing off a seasoned tournament side as Greece are 3-nil, the European's somewhat muted challenge notwithstanding, has to be applauded. And that it certainly was, and then some. You can only imagine what the celebrations would be like if Colombia actually went on to win the World Cup.

There was a carnival atmosphere all over Colombia after the soccer team's win over Greece.
Dancing in the streets for La Selección.
Then, just over 24 hours later, you had what for many is seen as a victory for peace – or at least to give it a chance – with Juan Manuel Santos' re-election as president. Sure, this hasn't united the country in anyway close to the way the football team has nor was it celebrated as universally.

A quick look at the numbers illustrates this: Taking the amount of votos en blanco (votes for neither candidate, at just over 4 per cent) and null votes together with the 45 per cent who sided with the challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, and it could be argued that just as many Colombians are against Santos, or at least indifferent to him, as are for him. A turnout of 48 per cent further muddies the water.

However there is a feeling that a Zuluaga presidency, with the hard-line, highly divisive former president Álvaro Uribe in the background, would have been somewhat of a regressive step for the country. It certainly would have been for the ongoing peace talks the current government is holding with the Farc rebels for one. While there have been false peace dawns here in the past, there does appear to be a majority of Colombians who feel this time could be different.

What's pretty much assured is that it's something that is effectively going to define Santos' legacy. At his victory speech, he spoke about how any peace achieved is not going to be that of 'Juan Manuel Santos or of this government.' It will be, he said, 'peace for all Colombians.' That of course is true. Yet as president, Santos is the man leading the way. Rightly or wrongly, it will be at his door praise or criticism lands. Fail and he'll be seen as another Colombian leader duped by the guerillas; succeed and a Nobel Peace Prize surely awaits.
Peace is the word: Juan Manuel Santos' re-election victory speech.
Peace is the word. Is it within reach however?

Whatever your thoughts about Santos, he has certainly proven himself to be astute when dealing with both colleagues and potential rivals. He was happy to use his Uribe links to help him claim his first term; then he washed his hands clean of them once the job was done.

To this end, questions are being asked about what, if anything, he has in mind for Clara López. The defeated leftist candidate from the first round very publicly endorsed him for president, replete with a TV ad, once she exited the race. It's hard to precisely measure how much this helped, but it didn't do any harm. So is there a seat at the cabinet table for López after showing such support? Or will it be a case of 'thanks, now off with you'?

Then there's the Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro and his faction, again from the political left, who also supported the Santos ticket. It's hard to believe that all this was unconditional; not in these parts.

At what could be seen as hints as to what he has in mind, and for the weekend that was in it, Santos spoke about learning from La Selección. 'Our players', he said, 'taught us that it's not possible to arrive at the big leagues playing as individuals; it's indispensable to work as a team.' Thus, he added, 'we are going to form a national selection government to continue building a country more just and egalitarian.'
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos heads off into the night after his re-election victory speech.
El Presidente: Off to work, we hope.
This begs the question: Is his 'national selection' going to contain diverse elements, a counterpoint to the traditional centre-right that Colombian politics is chiefly made up of? We'll have to wait and see on that one. Furthermore, that 'more just and egalitarian' country might be harder to achieve than peace with the Farc; and, perhaps, less sought after.

One of the Santos campaign slogans was 'A lot done, more to do.' As is the case for the national football team at the World Cup, the greater challenges lie ahead. For now optimism remains, and with mostly good reason.

However Colombians from all backgrounds don't need to be reminded how hope can quickly turn to despair. In many ways, on all fronts, the work is only beginning.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Soccer, some sun and samba; it's over to you Brazil

'If you can't beat them, join them.' So considering our own crowd, that is to say the Republic of Ireland, couldn't beat them, the choice for most Irish, even those with just a token interest in soccer (football if you will), is to join them and get roused up in this year's World Cup.

Past World Cup winners. Who will it be this time around?
Who's it going to be this time around? (Pic: Fifa World Cup Facebook page.)

This is made much easier too when you're in a country that is taking part – one that's not England that is. Plus, from this perspective, it's not just any country, it's Colombia. That rather odd but at the same time enjoyable game of tejo may be seen as the more authentic, national 'sport' for some, but there's no disputing what the real passion is.

Indeed, such is the importance of the game to the masses, had La Selección's (the national team) luckless superstar, Radamel Falcao, known a few months ago that he wouldn't make the finals, he could have ran for president where he would, without much doubt, have been elected at a canter. There'd be no need for this upcoming second round of voting, and with it La Ley Seca, which we now have to 'suffer' through on the World Cup's opening weekend.

Colombia's luckless superstar, Radamel Falcao.
President Falcao? (La Selección Col.)
Of course, it could be argued that without Falcao leading Colombia's line in Brazil, fans could be set for more suffering watching events on the pitch. Time will tell on that one. For now, hope springs eternal.

So as we ready ourselves for four weeks of what will hopefully be a memorable football feast, here's the Wrong Way 'sideways' take on things.

'This World Cup, I'll be mostly supporting...'

I'd probably be doing Colombia a service by not supporting them, given how most teams I want to see win never actually do. But it is my 'second home' these days, so one must do one's 'patriotic' duty.
Outside of Colombia, I've always had a soft spot for Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica – oddly enough these three teams happen to be in the same group as England.

Put your money where your mouth is
If you're betting thinking about how much you're going to win rather than what you might lose, then lumping, significantly, on the winner coming from South America, at odds of about 10/11, looks a nice option. That's going by the fact that European teams have never won the tournament when it's been held in the Americas.

Nice colours: The Ivory Coast flag.
Looks familiar... (
More specifically, for many this is Brazil's tournament to lose, so you could just cut to the chase and take the 3/1 on the Samba Boys lifting the trophy on July 13.

All those might seem a little boring, aimed more at the professional, heavy punting gamblers. So for a fun bet, where a small stake could win big, an each-way dabble on Ivory Coast at 150/1 might give you a run for your money; there's something about the national flag that resonates. The 40/1 about Colombia is also interesting. Yes they must face Ivory Coast, but both teams can emerge from the group. Plus it gives an added incentive to feverishly support my adopted country.

Brazilian babes; not bad...
'Very good.' (
Battle of the anthems
While football/soccer national teams rarely sing their respective anthems with the same gusto as their rugby equivalents, it's still nonetheless very much part of the build-up to kick-off. When it comes to this side of things, I'm very much a traditionalist and stick with the tried and trusted. So in the absence of the Celtic nations, it's hard to beat either France's La Marseillaise or Il Canto degli Italiani for the Italians

Whisper it, but due to constant exposure over the last couple of years, even the Colombian anthem is beginning to sound semi-decent these days.

Brazilian babes
World Cup cameramen are usually pretty adept at picking out the attractive ladies watching in the stands. Down through the years the majority of these have tended to be Brazilian. So what a 'tough' assignment those working behind the lenses will have this year. Who do you leave in, who do you leave out? If any TV company needs assistance in this area, I'm willing to lend a hand – on the ground, in person of course, it's the best way. Wrong Way – always here to help.

Right, time to let the football do the talking.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Unreliable Republic

Things have started to stabilise a little for me here of late. Well about as much as they can stabilise for somebody with a wanderlust mind in a not very reliable and at times frustrating country. Everything is relative.
The Colombian-Venezuelan frontier.
Wrong Way's back! And almost getting used to how things operate here – almost.

A major part of this stabilisation has been securing a visa; and at that, appropriately enough, an independent one. No relying on an unstable (here we go again) 'Colombiana' to say that we're 'together', a route favoured by some other expatriates, nor being beholden to a close-fisted company. No, for now I'm just depending on my own 'closed fist' to get by – as well as the help of some friends of course.

Even before the visa was bagged, I took a calculated gamble and invested in what practically all enterprising (and the not-so-enterprising) Colombians have – business cards. At $30,000 COP (about €12) for a thousand not-bad quality ones, it didn't seem that much of a risk anyway.

You see not only are they a nice, somewhat professional, 'weapon' to have when in the company of people who you could possibly do business with, but they also come in handy in a wide range of social scenarios. Plus, when you're a hard-pressed journalist/writer, any opportunity to spread your name and potentially attract new followers has to be taken; one might as well try anyhow.

Now it must be pointed out that they're not being fired out willy-nilly. In a city and country where the level of English in general is quite poor, it obviously wouldn't be the wisest thing to give them out to all and sundry. There are certain criteria, with a chief one of these being that the recipient has to have a pretty decent level of English so he/she can actually read my articles here and elsewhere. Yet I wouldn't be being entirely truthful if I said I apply that criterion equally between the sexes; I can be a little bit more accommodating towards some ladies.

Indeed in relation to making contact with women here, business cards or not, best practice it seems is to cast the net far and wide. Like bungling fishermen in overfished waters, what you get back is often disappointing. Or it might initially look good but on closer inspection it lacks any real substance; badly damaged leftovers from another's catch.

But, as we've always been told, there are 'plenty more out there', so the net invariably goes out again.
Norte de Santander, Colombia.
The Colombian landscape usually doesn't disappoint.

A good rule of thumb when you do get what seems like a nice 'return' is not to discard any, even if you think you have your hands full. That's because, as alluded to, some of those juicy looking ones will turn out to be experienced 'game fish' – slimy operators who like to play silly games, which tend to lead to frustration. Therefore it's essential to have a healthy number to pick from. That way you might just avoid a famine; you're certainly unlikely to have a feast.

This also works in many other spheres here, such as private English teaching. On an average day if you were to schedule at least three classes for the exact same time you more than likely won't have a problem – in fact if you're lucky you'll just manage to land yourself one class. On other occasions you'll be left with none.

It can take some time to get used to it but you don't come to Colombia for life on easy street. Sure it's good to challenge yourself and all that. For, its conservative politics excepted, about the only other thing you can rely on here is the unreliability of the place.

Once you reach that 'epiphany' and come to accept it, things can then begin to, erm, 'stabilise'. Everything is relative after all.