It’s now been five years since I stopped driving; that is, since I stopped owning and using a private, personal car. Instead, I walk and use public transportation (far from perfect in Bogotá, my city). This is a decision I reaffirm almost everyday, in spite of the occasional inconveniences it might produce. I certainly reaffirm it today, and I hope to explain convincingly the reasons behind it.
Why have I decided to write this explanation? For one, it will come in quite handy every time I’m asked why I don’t drive a car. People ask me this question very often; some ask nicely, some don’t. Here, the latter represent a culture I hope will disappear with time: people who view car ownership as a symbol of status, of social differentiation. I also expect to persuade others.
I’ll start with a basic premise. I believe, out of scientific reasons, that each one of us should make a contribution to the preservation of the environment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an environmental activist or an anti-capitalist. On the contrary, I’m strongly in favor of technology and economic development. In my view, however, there is a convincing and solid body of evidence which shows that, to conserve a society that benefits from technology and progress, we should take care to eliminate or reduce all unnecessary stresses on the Earth’s balance. We need to evolve toward a society that enjoys the fruits of a vibrant economy while preserving the environment.
It is almost tautological to say that Colombians desire peace. Who wouldn’t, especially in a country that has suffered decades of internal confrontation?
Desiring peace, however, is not the same as desiring a peace process, or desiring any peace process. Rushing into peace talks lacking a clear strategy, proceeding upon false assumptions and believing that good will alone is enough to secure peace has been the fatal flaw of all recent attempts to end Colombia’s conflict by agreement rather than by force. High enthusiasm followed by bitter disappointment has been the mark, at least in the most prominent cases: the peace talks conducted under President Belisario Betancur in the 1980s, and the infamous process that took place during the term of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).
Common sense would indicate that President Santos is not bound to repeat these mistakes, as he walks toward what seems to be his greatest personal goal: to preside over a successful peace process with the FARC and the ELN, Colombia’s remaining left-wing guerilla organizations. Lessons from the past must have been learnt, and, in any case, Santos has proved to have a more strategically oriented behavior than some of his predecessors.
Nonetheless, at times it seems like the Santos administration is again rushing carelessly: proof of this would be the so-called “Legal Framework for Peace,” a constitutional amendment introduced in Congress by the Administration, which is close to being approved. The “Framework,” which aims at removing legal obstacles for the demobilization of guerilla members and commanders, has drawn criticism from many corners. From the Right, former President Uribe and others regard it as an excessive concession since it would grant perpetrators of horrific crimes the possibility of even being elected to public office. From a different perspective, Human Rights Watch has severely criticized the amendment, claiming that its outcome would be full impunity for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The “Framework,” many others claim, is premature: it should be introduced at the final stage of a negotiation, not before it has even started.
Last weekend, Colombia, headlines announce the worst in a series of military setbacks for the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos in its fight against the FARC.
In a rural area of the department or Arauca, 10 soldiers and a corporal were killed when their unit was ambushed by the FARC. Arauca has remained a tough zone for the government to control: even during the heyday of former President Alvaro Uribe’s military offensive, the FARC maintained a considerable military power in Arauca. The ELN, a very weak group, has its only stronghold in that region.
Both groups have benefited from the fact that Arauca has a long border with Venezuela: a few years ago, when Venezuela had a policy of supporting Colombia’s guerilla groups, the FARC and the ELN established a sort of strategic rearguard beyond the border. Now that such policy is uncertain, they nonetheless take advantage of the border to escape the Army’s persecution, and to establish camps in Venezuelan territory.
How will this incident affect Santos’ policies?
“If you want peace, prepare for war” is a strategic maxim first written by Vegetius, a relatively unknown Roman author, who wrote treatises on military strategy and veterinary medicine. Such maxim can be interpreted in two ways. First, if you want your potential adversaries not to attack you, increase your military power so you will deter them. Second, if you are already involved in war, and you want to reach negotiated peace, you must build strength so that your enemy will conclude that talks are the best option to end the conflict; and you will have leverage at the negotiations.
El derecho a la ternura (The Right to Tenderness), a book that argues in favor of treating thy neighbor kindly, was somewhat of a local bestseller in Colombia in the mid-1990s. Its author, Luis Carlos Restrepo, had already been mildly successful with another book, La trampa de la razón (The Trap of Reason), which develops the quite original subject of how excessive reasoning is bad in fields like love, sex and friendship. Restrepo, a psychiatrist, became a somewhat successful public lecturer, and a frequent guest of morning radio and TV shows.
But he is now a prominent fugitive, wanted by the Colombian authorities, after his polemic term as Peace Commissioner during the Uribe administration. Restrepo, however, had fled the country, his whereabouts being completely unknown, and according to a statement released yesterday, is now seeking asylum.
The current situation dates back to 2002 when Álvaro Uribe announced he would appoint Luis Carlos Restrepo to lead his peace initiatives. It was a generally well-received choice: Restrepo’s experience as a psychiatrist and an author, dealing with issues such as friendship, tenderness and reconciliation seemed fit for the job.
The following is not yet another tirade against President Hugo Chávez. Instead, it is a warning: recent developments suggest that, in the case that Chávez does not manage to survive his illness, his successors could turn Venezuela into a narco-autocracy run by corrupt military officers who care more for money and riches than ideology or revolution. This would be of great concern for my country, Colombia.
When it was first announced that Chávez was suffering from cancer, conjectures started to arise as to who could succeed him in case he died, or he had to step aside. Two sides were identified. First, a group of high-ranking government officials, all civilians, who are very loyal to Chávez, apparently favored by the Cubans and strictly committed to the ideology of the revolution. The feisty Nicolás Maduro, minister of foreign affairs, and the left-wing intellectual and activist Elías Jaua, vice-president, were seen as the captains of such group. Initially, my own bet was that they would be picked by Chávez, with the blessing of the Castro brothers, given the likely potential that they would continue the revolution.
From any objective point of view, Chandler Burr would have been rendered fit to be a father. A successful journalist and author, Burr has written for The New York Times since 2010. He is regarded as a decent man with no criminal record. Earlier this year, the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (Colombian Family Welfare Institute, or ICBF), Colombia’s social services bureau, had approved Burr’s request to adopt two neglected children, ages 10 and 13. Burr filed for parental guardianship because according to him, these children were “abandoned at birth [and] they were starving.”
Then the nightmare began.
Burr, now a happy adoptive father (as of yesterday), was preparing to travel to the United States with the children. But after casually mentioning to an ICBF official that he is gay, the ICBF suddenly decided to step in again. According to Burr, the children were interrogated separately by an official, who asked them if they know their new father was a homosexual. Both children responded that yes, they knew, but that they didn’t care. Still, the ICBF decided to prevent Burr from keeping the children as a “protective measure.”
The case became national news when Burr was interviewed on W Radio, one of Colombia’s most influential media outlets. Diego Molano, the ICBF’s new director who was unaware of the Burr case, had to rush to the media to explain a decision that he had not made. After some initial stumbling, Molano came up with an explanation that stuck: the ICBF decision was undertaken because Burr had “omitted information” during the adoption process. That is, Burr’s children were being returned to the orphanage because he had never revealed his sexual orientation.
Was this a case of discrimination? First, a working definition of the concept: discrimination exists when a person is deprived of a certain right granted by the Constitution or by the Law, only on the basis of particular personal features, such as race, religion or sexual orientation. If Burr was denied adoption solely because of his sexual orientation—after originally being granted parenthood in due legal process—discrimination is the only logical conclusion.
Three weeks ago, breaking news announced the killing of Alfonso Cano, commander of the FARC, during a military operation in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia. Questions were raised about the effects this could have on the possibility of peace negotiations with the FARC, a scenario considered by some as the only possible way to end Colombia’s enduring conflict.
Then, a few days later, the FARC announced the appointment of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry (a.k.a. “Timochenko”)—a somewhat gray personality—as successor of Cano in the FARC’s top command position. Analysts approached the news from many points of view: among these, they wondered what would be the effect of such designation in the possibility of peace negotiations with the FARC. Oddly enough, only a few days later we are forced to raise the question again; this time, however, due to horrific news.
On the morning of Saturday, November 27, news media reported that in Caquetá (in the southern region of Colombia) the FARC had shot and killed four members of the Army and the police who they had kidnapped more than 10 years ago. An army sergeant and three members of the police (a colonel, a major and an agent) were shot at close range—in the head and in the back—when the FARC members sensed the proximity of an Army patrol. The Colombian Army had been searching the area, trying to establish the precise place where the FARC kept hostages. Apparently, the purpose was to provide Special Forces with this information so that they could execute a commando raid similar to the one they performed on June 13, 2010, which resulted in the liberation of four hostages in a similar area.
Incredibly, one of the hostages in the group, Police Sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo, managed to escape the massacre. As soon as he heard the first shots, he instinctively ran into the jungle. According to Erazo, FARC members had told them to stick by their side in the case of combat, promising not to hurt them and to release them if they could no longer keep them. This turned out to be a cruel scam: had Erazo followed those directions―as his fellow hostages apparently did―he wouldn’t be alive today.
It is often said that the FARC is the oldest guerrilla group in the world. That may be true. It also may be true that, along with Hezbollah, the FARC exhibits the most sophisticated organizational design of any irregular armed group in the world. This is one of the reasons –a crucial one, though—why the group did not fall apart after the killing of its top commander, Alfonso Cano, on November 4, 2011.
The resilience of the FARC is indeed a fascinating fact for any social scientist. Not only has the group survived a number of military offensives, it also survived the fall of the Communist bloc and the disappearance of most Latin American guerilla organizations. It could even witness the eventual downfall of the Cuban regime.
The FARC were born under the most hostile of circumstances. Their “baptism of fire” came in 1964, with a huge military offensive against a region in the south of Colombia, where a number of small guerrilla groups had converged, initially seeking shelter from Conservative partisan persecution. This region was denounced as an “independent republic” by politicians who demanded military action. The group took heavy losses but was not annihilated, and its members, operating in “columns,” retreated to nearby regions where they would regroup and would declare the birth of the FARC.
More military setbacks were to come. In 1968, a failed venture by Ciro Trujillo, the FARC’s second in command, resulted in the loss of nearly 70 percent of the group’s manpower, including Trujillo himself. Between 1970 and 1983, the FARC would remain a low-profile rural organization, eclipsed by other groups such as the M19 and the ELN. They were, however, silently working in strengthening their forces. Between 1983 and 1987, taking advantage of a truce with President Betancur (1982-1986), the FARC tripled the number of their “fronts,” and got involved in the drug business.
In 1990, President César Gaviria ordered a massive surprise military operation, attacking the FARC command centers with the best units of the Army and the Air Force. Optimism, fed by the fall of communism, was fully in fashion. Gaviria declared the FARC to be “…a dinosaur in extinction.” Celebrations were nonetheless premature. Not only did the FARC manage to survive the offensive, they lost none of their commanders. They then took the initiative: the 1990s would witness a drastic military campaign by the FARC, reaching a climax between 1996 and 1998.
One year ago, Gustavo Petro, a former senator and presidential candidate, called a press conference along with his friend Carlos Vicente de Roux (a member of Bogotá’s city Council) and Senator Luis Carlos Avellaneda. At this conference, Petro and his friends presented the results of an inquiry, conducted by themselves, on what by that time was already known as the “Cartel of Contracts,” a multi-million dollar racket involving the infamous Nule Group, a network of corporations that had been awarded important contracts in Bogotá. Gustavo Petro and his friends, all of them members of Polo Democrático, Colombia’s biggest left-leaning party, demanded the prosecution of two prominent members of their own party: Samuel Moreno, the mayor of Bogotá, and his brother Iván, a senator.
From the beginning, this request faced a hostile reaction from the ruling group in their party. Partly due to ideological paranoia, Senator Jorge Robledo, for example, labeled the accusations as a far-right conspiracy.
Early on June 14, the FARC attacked again, this time near the village of Puerto Rico in the Colombian department of Caquetá. Puerto Rico is very close to San Vicente del Caguán—one of the five municipalities that were demilitarized by President Pastrana in 1998 under peace talks with the FARC. Caquetá, a region of vast plains, located several hundred miles south of Bogotá, has been a FARC stronghold since the late 1960s. The FARC prospered there over four decades, under the cover of the jungle, and exploiting the lucrative business of cocaine that flourished in the region. Nonetheless, these types of guerrilla attacks had almost been eradicated during the administration of Álvaro Uribe. He had listed the FARC structures in Caquetá as main targets in his counteroffensive.
In principle, this single attack on June 14 would not justify wondering whether the FARC have successfully reactivated. But the FARC had executed more than five attacks in the past week alone, including the kidnapping of a number of Chinese oil workers in Caquetá and the virtual siege of the village of Caloto, in the department of Cauca. More attacks to police headquarters have taken place in villages of Cauca such as Argelia and Morales. Three weeks ago, in the coastal region of Chocó, the FARC kept a number of civilians under hostage for two days.
In the past seven years, after Uribe’s military offensive began to show results, guerrilla attacks occurred seldom; whenever they happened, reaction by the military was quick and effective. But reaction by the current government under Juan Manuel Santos has been slow, confusing, and often politically charged. For example, some observers perceive the minister of defense, Rodrigo Rivera, as being more concerned with image matters than actual results. Rivera has often downplayed the magnitude and the seriousness of the FARC facts.
Is the FARC undergoing a successful reactivation process? At this point, two things can be asserted. First, the FARC has decided to circle back to a guerilla-warfare model. Second, it has carefully chosen several areas of the country where such model can have a greater efficacy. Caquetá and Cauca are clearly two of them.
President Santos’ policy of rapprochement with Venezuela has suffered a significant and unexpected setback: the resignation of José Fernando Bautista, Colombia’s ambassador to the Bolivarian Republic.
Bautista submitted his farewell letter anticipating revelations of deals with the infamous Nule Group, whose owners, two brothers and their cousin, remain in prison while they face trial for what will perhaps be the greatest corruption scandal in Colombia’s history. The case involves multi-million bribes and illegal commissions in public contracting. The Nule scandal has also resulted in the suspension of Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno, the arrest of his brother Iván —a senator— and the imprisonment of a number of second-rank officials.
At this point, it’s still not clear what kind of job Mr. Bautista did for the Nules. A long-time successful lobbyist, he might have sold his ability to be influential in the highest circles of fovernment. But concerns have arisen that he might have gone beyond this, and that he could have been involved in an alleged plot to discredit Sandra Morelli, the Colombia’s comptroller general. Mr. Bautista claims in his letter that he did nothing but advising what at the time was a successful and respected corporate group. This defense leaves a question open: if this was the case, why did he feel compelled to resign? It’s hard not to suspect there’s something more.
No member of “The Worst of the Worst”—a list put together by George Ayittey for Foreign Policy—would be expected to address the legislature of his country with an open attitude and with calls for democratic dialogue. “The Worst of the Worst” is a list of the world's tyrants, autocrats and dictators. Prominent members include, among others, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (indicted by the International Criminal Court), Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe's last and only dictator.
But just recently, while addressing Venezuela's National Assembly, President Hugo Chávez, a member of the list, spoke with a tone of reconciliation, made repeated calls for dialogue with the opposition and even pledged to end in five months the 18-month special decree powers conferred to him by the Assembly in December 2010.
What does this say about the nature of Chávez' regime? Ayittey included Chávez in the list for having “...jailed opposition leaders, extended term limits indefinitely, and closed independent media.” All of that is true. But at the same time, it's true that all this has been done in a way that makes Chávez quite different from most members of the list.
While it's true that opposition leaders have been persecuted, it's also true that opposition parties are permitted in Venezuela, and are in fact very vocal and active. It's true that Chávez sought (and got) indefinite re-election. But at the same time, it's true that he has won a number of elections that are presumed fair, since no credible evidence of fraud has ever been presented. Chávez did even allow international observation at some of these elections.
Last November, in an unprecedented display of force, the Brazilian authorities performed a spectacular crackdown on criminal gangs operating in the Complexo de Alemao, a big system of favelas in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro. Such display of force is by no means excessive: some of the gangs in Rio's favelas are well-armed, equipped with assault weapons, rifles, and in some cases with anti-tank and anti-aerial rockets. All of those, of course, bought with the proceeds of the drug business.
An interesting feature of this operation was the involvement of several agencies and forces. In addition to local police and the famous BOPE (portrayed in the acclaimed movie Tropa de Elite), military forces, including even the navy, participated in the crackdown. Reports say that the Army has been given the mission to preserve law and order in the favelas in the aftermath of the operation.