Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Colombia's Green Revolution

"In a society where human life has lost value there cannot be any other priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main duty of citizens."
- Colombian presidential candidate Antanas Mockus
These are dark days in the world of politics. A replay of the Thatcher/Reagan tidal wave that drowned progress 30 years ago seems inevitable as the rightwing spin on the causes of the latest financial crisis seems to be gaining the upper hand. Once again, the UK is leading the way, ConDem'd by a lethal combination of a spiraling debt and a new government intent on reasserting the supremacy of the elite. In America, the Tea Party has become more than a cover for the sexually repressed teabagging of last spring and is now powerful enough to dictate who will run in many of November's mid-term elections. Meanwhile, continental Europe has decided the best way to save their currency is to print a trillion euros to hand over to the banks. Oh, and not fix anything besides cutting the benefits of those who will have to pay the money back. Fortunately, there seems to be one place where they've realized that when something no longer works, it's time to try something different. The May 30th Colombian presidential election may see the election of the world's first Green president.

It seemed a few months ago that Álvaro Uribe would be able to pull off the African dictator-for-life trick of changing the constitution to remain president, after all, he did it in 2006 to the delight of multinational corporations, the rich and paramilitary death squads. Miraculously, the supreme court ruled against his bid, yet it seemed even that wouldn't stop his policies from being continued as the initial favourite to win was Uribe's replacement candidate for the Party of National Unity, known as the Party of the U, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos. After all, Uribe won reelection in a landslide and with the continued support of the wingnuts pumping up the Hugo Chavez rhetoric only a superhero would be able to derail the status quo from further entrenching the might is right lunacy that ensures the perpetuation of hate and death.

There seemed to be no less likely candidate for national superhero in 1993 than Antanas Mockus. After studying mathematics in France he returned home to study philosophy. This son of Lithuanian immigrants has shown his flair for the unexpected and unpredictable, he and his wife took their wedding vows while astride an elephant inside a cage full of Bengali tigers. Yet he also served as vice-president and then president of the National University of Colombia and contributed to the formulation of the Colombian Constitution of 1991. But it was his eccentricity that launched his political career and marked the turning point for Bogota, at the time on of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was the early 90's, the university campus was in chaos thanks to anarchists and FARC rebels. Invited to speak before students, Mockus, a pacifist, had vowed not to be humiliated but was pushed to the limits of his patience as students booed and heckled. Suddenly, in the moment that changed everything, he undid his belt, turned, and mooned the audience. For whatever reason, his university, his city and perhaps in the future, his country, would never be the same again, as he was forced to resign and found himself swept into the mayor's office on a wave of public support. A born teacher, he changed everything by teaching the people how to live in society, from respect to conservation.

The best way to keep the military and her American arms suppliers happy though is to maintain the status quo. That means the Pablo Escobar image of Colombia as a dangerous place that produces cocaine and rebels and therefore needs to be ruled with an iron fist. Now in its tenth year, Plan Colombia, originally scheduled for two years, has seen the US pouring money into the country, sending more there than the rest of Latin America put together. Álvaro Uribe has presided over Colombia's continued capture by American foreign policy which has meant a staggering spike in inequality. Drug lords and arms dealers are part and parcel with subsistence farmers who don't even know who Mockus is as the live without TV's. Last summer the Colombians agreed to give the US what the MSM labeled narcotic and inusurgent aid but is simply cover for a dirty drug war that spawns FARCs and wacky neighbors like Hugo. Of course Chavez railed against the plan, but there were also reasonably sane leaders who opposed giving the Americans an increased free hand in the airspace of the region at the meeting of the Union of South American nations such as Argentina's Kirchener and Ecuador's Rafael Correa. Oh, and Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the guy who just struck a deal to partially solve the Iranian impasse, so good in fact the US had to move quick to emaciate it. Sovereignty was maintained per the letter of the accord, but the US was in fact given expanded access to airbases, an exception to the trend of losing friends and bases, Ecuador's Manta airbase joined the Central Asian losses. A 10-year lease gave the US access to seven Colombian bases - three air force, two naval and two army – stretching from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The 800 American soldier cap was maintained as well, but with private armies outnumbering government troops in most warzones these days, the 600 contractor clause seems to have little relevance.

Hey it's just a drug war, after all about 90 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia is smuggled into the United States, despite more than $6 billion of American security aid to Colombia over the last decade to combat insurgents and trafficking. Oops more MSM lingo. The now 46-year old conflict needs to be brought to a close, it makes the Afghanistan war look short. It's not about Chavez though the wingnuts like president Uribe (oh yes, I'm afraid Álvaro is one, fits my classic definition of one who perpetuates ideas that don't work) would have us think by saying things like, "On various occasions Mr. Chávez has said that at any moment he’d turn on his Sukhois and in a few minutes they are in Colombia". In fact Venezuela remains Colombia's second biggest trading partner. Though yes, the Russians are keeping Venezuela's armed forces looking good.

Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, called for a continent-wide referendum on the plan, saying "If the Colombian president wants his bases to be used, I say I want a referendum in South America so the people of Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina all 12 countries can decide." You see this came hard on the heels of the Colombian armed forces almost provoking a regional war by crossing into Ecuador and killing the Farc second in command. "Alias Raul Reyes has been killed in combat," a beaming then defense minister now presidential hopeful, Juan Manuel Santos, announced at a press conference in March 2008. Raul Reyes, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was the first member of the secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, (Farc) to be killed in combat with Colombian government troops in the four-decade-old history of the rebel army. As spokesman and leader of the political wing of the guerrillas Reyes was believed to be first in line to take over from legendary Farc leader Manuel Marulanda. Sixteen other rebels and one solder died in the raid, Santos said.

Based on what the two-time mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus did over his terms, he would do things differently than the former defense minister's promised continuation of Uribe's policies. Reyes was the Farc's top negotiator during failed peace talks with the government of Andres Pastrana from 1998 to 2002, during which he led a Farc commission on a tour of several European nations. The death of Reyes came two days after the Farc unilaterally released four civilian hostages who had been held for more than six years in jungle camps. Mediators working for the liberation of those and dozens of other hostages had met with Reyes to negotiate their release. Mockus condemned such an aggression into a neighbour's soil and said he wouldn't do it.

His wacky style led to landslide victories and um, creative solutions to problems. The list of achievement by Mockus during his time as mayor read like the magical realism quality of a novel by compatriot Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
  • he helped solve a water shortage by appearing on TV showering, showing Bogotanos how he turns off the water while soaping up - within two months a 14% reduction in water usage had been achieved
  • he asked the city's richest residents to pay an optional 10% tax and more than 60,000 volunteered to pay helping the city triple it's 2002 tax revenue from 1990
  • taming traffic turmoil by deploying teams of street mimes to show both drivers and pedestrians how to behave, so successfully he was able to dispense with the corrupt municipal traffic police and employ more mimes instead
  • in an effort to reverse aggression and violence in the city, he carried out a massive educational initiative. City government worked with prostitutes, the homeless and prison inmates. Policemen were obliged to attend training in conflict resolution. Children were encouraged to report domestic violence
  • as women were afraid to go out at night and realizing that seeing them in the streets creates a safer atmosphere, he asked men to stay home and reflect on women's role in society. An estimated 700,000 women strolled the newly created pedestrian central boulevard the first night to enjoy open-air concerts and ladies only promotions
  • intent on getting the homicide rate under control and reducing late night fights, Mockus pushed for the so-called "Carrot Law" which obliged bars to close at 1am. (A "carrot" is slang for a healthy person who doesn't smoke or drink.) The homicide rate saw a reduction from 80 per 100,000 in 1993 to 22 in 2003
  • to convince taxi drivers to hand over their guns he allowed them to up their fares while creating a report an honest taxi driver campaign which resulted in 150 of them being dubbed "Knights of the Zebra" to advise the mayors office on taxi 'etiquette'
  • raising awareness by painting stars on the pavement where pedestrians are killed and seeing a reduction in traffic fatalities from 1300 to 600 a year
  • -more initiatives here
Today, Bogotá is a radically different place with 400,000 bicycle users. Car use is down, 1.6 million people travel on the Trasmilenio daily and Bogotá is automobile-free on major streets on Sundays. Traffic fatalities and homicide have been drastically reduced. A whopping 98.5% of kids attend school.

Wait, it gets even cheesier. Mockus encourages his staff to hug each other while the regime that Santos represents establishes the Justice and Peace Law (yeah, I know, how could something with a name like that not be nefarious?). It demobilized many paramilitary members and guerrillas but also granted them de-facto amnesties while allowing the groups to continue their war of terror against the left. No, not only the military left, more importantly, the labour left. Colombia under Uribe has stretched it's commanding lead in the trade unionists murdered charts, the highest clip in the world, every year, teachers to miners. In fact the first close collaborator of the 12 Apostles, a paramilitary group so-named because one of its members is a priest, has just spoken out in Argentina about Uribe's brother Santiago's direct payment to death squad members. At the very least President Álvaro knowingly granted them amnesty back in 2005.

The bizarre quality of the election story was enhanced by the presidential debate question posed by a doll asking, "Little ball, little ball for two hundred. Mr. Candidate how can you help me. I want to study but I have to work." Oh yeah, Mockus was abused as a child and has recently announced that he is in the first stages of Parkinson's Disease. If anything, Antanas seems to have picked up support since he announced that he had the disease on a talk show. The last poll results were announced on Friday, they won't be conducted for the last week as a twist in election law bans them along with campaigning. So, theoretically, Sunday's rallies were the last chance for the candidates to make their pitch. A Mockus victory would give hope that the next stage of Colombia's history will be written in pencil, not with blood. In 25 years, 5 million have been displaced by war ensuring 60 percent of rural Colombians remain poor, according to Ricardo Bonilla, an expert on poverty at Bogota's National University. A country where at least 2742 trade unionists have been murdered since 1986. A place where each of the six banana companies operating pays between 3 and 4 cents for every banana produced directly to support death squads. This helps to ensure that 79% of the Afro-Colombian population has been internally displaced through massacres, killings, threats and intimidation so the companies can move in and use the land. A country that doesn't respect international borders, launching cross-border attacks into foreign territories to achieve military objectives.

Mockus, the philosopher-mathematician of course has a vice-presidential candidate who is a fellow mathematician and ex-mayor of Medellin, Sergio Farjado. He took what was described by Time as the worst city in Colombia and succeeded in reducing crime, cleaning the streets and turning the city into a modern metropolis with a state-of the art metro. The last polls showed Santos in a statistically insignificant lead, around 34-32%, but with neither reaching the 50% threshold, a second round will be needed, one that is polling 45-40% in favour of Mockus as he'll pick up more of the non-incumbent vote. You would vote for change too with a 43% poverty rate as the never-ending war is nothing but an American exported cause of extreme inequality, the only major country in Latin America in which the gap between rich and poor has increased in recent years, according to a report by the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America. The percentage of Colombians who are indigent also rose from 20.2 percent in 2007 to nearly 23 percent in 2008, nearly double the region's average. Where the power of the state is used to conduct illegal wiretaps on political opponents and journalists. Even more seriously, about 90 members of Congress, most belonging to Uribe's party, are being investigated or are already in jail in conjunction with the "parapolitics" scandal linking government figures to paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Even more seriously, under Santos' watch, the army has developed a body bag culture where success is measured in killed enemy combatants with the inevitable result of a "false positive" scandal. Civilians are rounded up, dressed in rebel uniforms, and turn up dead in the countryside. The attorney general is investigating cases involving over 2,000 victims.

To Uribe supporters in Washington, and to investors the world over, the Colombian government touts its success in delivering blows to a guerrilla movement that once seemed invincible, an effort carried out with $7.3 billion in U.S. aid since 2000. The economy has since flourished, more than doubling output since 2002 when Uribe took office. Foreign investment in Colombia is the fourth-highest in Latin America which ensures the rich receive grants while the poor burden tax and death squad law. That philosophy was crystallized through the Insured Agro Income program, which provided most of a $250 million annual fund to sugar, palm oil and other large agricultural sectors. Even government officials acknowledge that poverty remains widespread in the countryside. Indigent sharecroppers are relegated to the poorest soil, working land without title, while a swath the size of Virginia is in the hands of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, said Alejandro Reyes, an expert on land and author of a recent book, "Warriors and Peasants: The Plundering of Land in Colombia." Reyes said the Uribe administration places a priority on funneling aid to the biggest farms because the government believes they are best suited to revive the rural economy. "The government thinks that the peasantry are not good producers, that they don't know how to save, how to assimilate technologies," Reyes said.

What Mockus may deliver is a change that sees the legitimacy of law reinstated. Enough of the shrug of the shoulders when human rights are taken away along with the "es que's". Success in pushing rebels into the jungles has come at too great a price in human rights and the message of an outsider who promises to deliver order within the rule of law may carry the day. Give people dignity and they will return it as Antanas has proven works in Bogota. Who's to say if his social experiment on a city will translate to a national stage, especially with so many rebels and vigilantes controlling so much of the countryside, but Colombia deserves to find out from a man whose overwhelming goal is to teach about the sacredness of life.

For the doubters, there's five more parts to convince you: