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Everyday Violence – the Sad Life

In Politics, Poverty on August 10, 2011 at 5:52 pm

What contrasts the fantastically joyful spirit of the great majority of the approximately 45 million Colombians is the awful violence among the poorest spheres of the society. With violence, I will here only refer to unorganized everyday crime.

Living with and around the lower to upper middle classes, and following certain safety routines, it’s easy to forget that the city of Cali has among the highest homicide rates in the country, and thus, among the highest in the world. In my well over four years of moving around in the city, I’ve “only” been victim of four different non-violent incidents. The first incident occurred after having refused to give some coins to a random man, who opened the taxi-door for me, as I stopped by the grocery store in the middle of the day. This provoked him to tell me he was going to wait for me outside until I returned. A few coins seemed to keep that threat away. A little more serious was the second incident, when a smiling man started talking to me as he came towards me along a main street around nightfall (6:30pm) suddenly indicating he had a gun in his pocket and “politely asked” me to give him some money. Taking out the bills I luckily had in my pocket, in total 15.000 pesos (8.4 dollars) was fortunately enough to stay out of trouble that time.

At a later occasion, I was mildly robbed by a quite desperate guy who had spotted me after getting out of the same bus that he had been begging for money at. Following me at a distance while crossing the street, he suddenly appeared right behind me and had his hands in my pocket and grabbed my iPod that I stupidly enough had connected to my ears. Luckily, as he only concentrated on the device connected to my earphones, he left my wallet, my cell-phone and my laptop in peace. The last time, luck was with me again as a motorcyclist suddenly appeared from the wrong side of the street and, luckily enough, just ordered me to hand over my cell-phone, indicating that he had a gun in his bag. Having heard more than one story about motorcycle robbers ambitously stealing cars lately, besides their normal robbery activities, I didn’t hesitate at handing over my old, cheap cell-phone, which he incredibly enough accepted before hurrying away. He probably did not imagine that I, again, was also carrying my much more valuable MacBook in my Mickey Mouse folder.

Amazingly enough, when my iPod was robbed, Colombian police efficiency had the guy and his armed companion caught before I had finished a pleasant conversation with the nice lady who had seen and reported the incident. She had immediately called the police and helped me indicate to a police motorcyclist that appeared from nowhere in which direction the robbers were running. Despite this fantastic efficiency of the police work, the following 9(!!!) hours at the police station and the fiscal department (including a detour trying to catch another thief, who appeared on the way) did everything but give me a good impression of the administrative part of Colombian law enforcement. Adding that I, a foreigner, had to correct the police officer taking my report on his Spanish writing did not help much to reward my intentions of helping the police teach the robbers a lesson. My five-minute story took more than two working hours to get on paper, after three hours of pure waiting for the staff at the fiscal department to get available, after three preceding hours of waiting for something else at the police station.

Sadly, with administrative routines like these, it’s easy to understand the attitude of many to take the law in their own hands and try to revenge, no matter how dangerous, instead of letting the police and especially the fiscal departments do their job. In many’s opinion, too many resources are spent on the actual catching of the bad guys instead of preventing the guys from becoming bad. (In 2009, for the first time in Colombia’s history, investment in security and defense exceeded investment in education). No use is done “trying” to teach the criminals a lesson if the procedures to actually teach them a lesson don’t work. A focus is screamingly necessary on more effective fiscal work and even more on providing employment focused education and training, as well as on other constructive opportunities for the desperate and/or lazy youth.

The last time I was robbed, of my cell-phone, I just went straight ahead to recover my phone number at the operator’s main office, where I also bought a new phone. With a one-hour delay, I just continued my day as planned, without reporting anything to any authority, feeling both angry with and sorry for the people making a living robbing others. Sad.
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Statistics indicate that 58% of Cali’s inhabitants think everyday crime is the city’s major problem. In 2010, 53% of the caleños considered the city to be equally as safe as the previous year and 17% felt that the city had become safer. The remaining 28% considered that the safety had worsened since the previous year, despite all, a huge improvement since 2006, when a tremendous 40% considered that the safety had worsened since the previous year. An increased presence of the police force is a result of this perception, as 37% of the citizens consider the police to be the main reason for the safety. In other words, the presence of the police force has a positive image in Cali, more positive than that in the country on average.

The perception of security and actual security are of course two different things, however, but in 2008, the indicators of homicides were the lowest in the last 15 years in Cali (66 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants). Of the people interviewed, 26% affirmed having been victims of some kind of crime in the city. Of these, 79% had been victims of robbery on the street (national average being 72%), 15% robbed in their homes, 9% victims of fraud or deception and 7% had been victims of physical aggression. (Source: http://www.occidente.com).

A chat at the police station with three former police officers, about everything from basketball to how to avoid getting an iPhone robbed, although somewhat entertaining, did not paint a very optimistic picture of the rough areas of the city. Besides their stories, the fact that all three officers were now wheel-chaired as a consequence of having been shot in duty only confirmed that the crime statistics of the city should be respected.
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On Colombian development and opportunities,

Joni AlWindi

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Local Transportation – the Chaotic Life

In Politics on August 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Coming back to the issue of productivity and time efficiency, the topic of local transportation has to be brought up. Since last year, Cali is experiencing a phase of major development of the city’s infrastructure, mainly to improve the chaotic mobility in the city. For too long, old and independent bus companies have dominated the streets with their provision of the public transportation. A crazy kind of competition has, for some reason, not prospered much, with bus drivers being paid according to number of passengers transported. Instead of resulting in healthy competition, violation of speed limits and transit laws, as well as accidents, have been the major consequences. Additionally, lack of proper safety control measures has left hundreds of seemingly outdated vehicles still transporting around 300 million passengers yearly. Until recently, no decent alternative was left for the average citizen.

In March 2009, a massive transportation system started to function in Cali. This has renewed and improv ed the local transportation tremendously, with brand new and comfortably air-conditioned Volvo and Mercedes busses starting a takeover of the city. With several exclusive lanes on important routes, it reaches even European transportation standards at times.

Although the ambition is great of the present mayor to revive the city to a calmer heartbeat, a serious issue facing the transit situation is that a total of twenty-one mega constructions were recently initiated more or less at the same time.However, with the enormous amount of people in relation to the still relatively few busses, the queues are horrible at rush hours.

This is causing several roadblocks and sudden one-way streets that continuously redirect the traffic to cause tremendousconfusions. Instead of experiencing an improvement of the transit situation little by little, an even more chaotic situation has emerged, and the old busses with their more direct routes are still attracting enough citizens to stay in the game

Despite this, the development of the massive transportation system is very much needed in Cali, especially as the city’s safety and security issues are not improving. With all main stations being well monitored and controlled, a strong sense of protection is surrounding the new system. This sense of protection is completely non-existent in the old busses.

Taxi is still a great option for shorter distances, but too costly for distances across the entire city. The public transportation system has been so insufficient for so many years that ‘pirate taxis’, charging the same fees as the busses and with space for up to four passengers, have become a natural option even for the lower middle class, on occasions even for the upper middle class. This trend is threatening seriously the legally operating taxi drivers, who already have too much competition to fight with. Cali alone has about 16 500 registered taxis (compared with New York City’s 13 300)! The fare in the city is already so low that sharing the cost in three or four, the average caleños can get basically anywhere they want in their side of the city more cheaply and much faster with a taxi than with a bus.

Old bumpy roads make local transportation an adventure. Very little tax money has benefitted any real care even of the main avenues and highways. On any rainy day, with over-soaked streets, the many holes are dangerously covered and deadly motorcycle accidents can be witnessed. No matter how convenient it is to go by car, with the bad streets full of reckless motorcycle drivers, pressured buss drivers and rude taxi drivers competing for space, it is relatively safe to take shelter in the undisturbed massive transportation system. When it comes to time efficiency though, there are still lots to be done for a smoothly running system.

It will be interesting to see the progress in a year from now, when the mega constructions are supposed to be finished. A new Cali with a complete transportation system is definitely welcome and most likely to become a reality. The big question that arises concerns the old and independent bus companies and drivers.

Can hard working spirits compete against a massive transportation system with own roads that cover the entire city? For better or worse, this renewal is benefiting the great majority of the city’s population and it can only be hoped that the lost jobs will be replaced sooner or later.

On Colombian development and opportunities,

Joni AlWindi

War, Corruption and Inequality

In Politics, Poverty on August 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

To put the mystery behind Colombia’s terrible poverty rate in perspective – being as high as among the worst in Latin American together with Guatemala’s, Bolivia’s and that of the Dominican Republic – it’s important to know the following: i) Colombia has much more sophisticated public institutions than those of Guatemala, ii) Colombia is more urbanized than Bolivia and iii) Colombia has a more pushing business sector than that of the Dominican Republic. Although Colombia has duplicated its public social spending since 1990 (from 5.9 percent of GDP to 12.6 percent in 2008), this has not been reflected in less poor Colombians. (ECLAC Social Panorama of Latin America, 2010.)

One explanation is of course the eternal armed conflict of the country that according to a national survey has forced 760 000 farmer families to flee their homes to save their lives between 1998 and 2008, leaving behind 5.5 million hectares of land. Before this nightmare, half of these families were considered poor and a third had income levels at misery rates. The consequences have left 97 percent of these families in poverty and 80 percent in misery, a social catastrophe that continues until today. On a national level, poverty on the countryside is above 65 percent. (Source: Dane 2010).

The war has also affected in other ways. In the last decade, the presidency concentrated strongly on one priority, to reduce violence. The government of Alvaro Uribe invested an unprecedentedly high share of the public resources and institutional energy on this one priority. As I mentioned in a parenthesis in the section on Everyday Violence, Colombia’s investment in security and defense was budgeted to exceed the investment in education for the first time in the country’s history in 2009 (for the budget of 2010). Because of this, although having doubled the share of social spending, it is still lower than in countries such as Brazil and Costa Rica. (Source: http://www.elespectador.com, October 21, 2009.)

The other tremendous problem is corruption. Thousands of millions of pesos of public social spending money have been lost to scrupulous politicians or to armed actors, as was revealed in the para-politics scandal from 2006. According to Transparency International (which measures the perception of corruption of the public sector in 180 countries) Colombia has been worsening in the last years. In 2009, it went from position 70 to 75. This would be the exact opposite of what the country needs to successfully attack its tremendous problem with inequality.

Although the Uribe government between 2002 and 2008 was successful in increasing the number of places in education and health care – the latter experiencing a gigantic leap from 50 percent of the population covered in 2002, to 89 percent in 2011 – unfortunately, the coverage rate grew so fast that it put the system at risk. As to bring protection to the most marginalized, Colombia has followed the pattern of other Latin American governments; to give money to the people on certain conditions (that they assist medical controls, send their children to school, etc.).

However, the richest are still left with 30 percent of the public social spending, the main reason being that those with the highest salaries receive 86 percent of the pensions and those with the least, only 0.1 percent. The consequence of the economic boom is an even wider gap between rich and poor in Colombia. Starting the 21st century, Colombia was in the category of countries in the world with high indices of inequality, together with Peru and Brazil, the latter being the most unequal country in Latin America at that time. By 2008, Peru had advanced to the middle category and Brazil had left the category of extreme inequality altogether. Colombia, however, had dropped down to the even lower category of very unequaled countries. (Source: ECLAC 2010).

Poverty is a complicated issue in Colombia. Attempts of fighting it from different perspectives will be elaborated on in more depth in upcoming articles. Better investments in quality education for the poor as well as facilitation of entrepreneurial growth are examples on which I will continue to focus my personal attention. On a more general level, I will also try to give an updated account on the sitting government’s efforts and achievements in reducing the poverty rate and providing more Colombians with better opportunities. This will be presented in an upcoming article series following up on the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos.

Note: There are different definitions of poverty that affect the precise statistics to some extent. However, the numbers presented in the article are in line with the overall statistics found by the author.

On Colombian development and opportunities,

Joni AlWindi

New President, New Business, New Hopes

In Politics on September 10, 2010 at 10:52 pm

The elections are over. No president was declared on the first election day, but as very much expected after a most intriguing final between the two most popular candidates on July 20. With a sudden clear majority, the winner was Juan Manuel Santos, former defense minister and defender of Uribe’s Democratic Security. The second voting round didn’t receive nearly as much attention as the World Cup, but the election of Juan Manuel Santos as new president of Colombia marks an important milestone for all Colombians. He has been seen as an enemy by both Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, but thanks to among other things his diplomatic speaking skills, Colombia is now breathing fresh air both in the political sphere and in the business sphere. Exactly how fresh this air is and how long it will last remains to be seen, but for sure is that Colombia’s new government attracts positive energy and attention to many important issues not only for Colombia but also for the entire Latin American region.

Despite the madness of cutting the diplomatic relations completely with Colombia, two days after the election of Juan Manuel Santos, Hugo Chavez opened up for dialogue again right after Santos had been sworn in on August 7. Chavez didn’t show up for the presidential possession, which the majority of Latin America’s presidents participated in, but he did accept and attend with great spirit a personal meeting on Colombian grounds between the two presidents three days later, three years after his last visit to the country. The meeting now took place in the beautiful coastal city of Santa Marta, and maybe this was destined to symbolize greatness, since this was the very city where Simon Bolivar, the liberator of both Colombia and Venezuela, died in 1830.

Re-established relations with Venezuela will not only help the many Colombian exporters, to whom Venezuela has an outstanding debt of 800 million dollars – a major cause of up to 500 000 jobs lost – but the indirect effects of loosened tension between the two countries will give more space for external politics and expanded relations with other fundamental actors in the Americas as well as in other continents. (Source: Semana)

Despite this bilateral crisis, Colombia’s Trade Minister Guillermo Plata says the country is targeting exports of a record breaking 40 billion US dollars this year. Having lost 70% of the exports to Venezuela has had the positive consequence that business leaders have looked more intensely for other markets to diversify their exports. A total increase of 22% in exports is expected by the end of 2010. While manufactured and agricultural goods are down 4.5% due to the Venezuela problem, commodities like oil, coal, coffee and ferronickel have driven exports more strongly. Products that used to be sold to Venezuela have been redirected to Central America and the Caribbean and China has taken over the position as Colombia’s second largest trading partner after the US. (Source: MercoPress)

As mentioned in the previous column article, the former president Alvaro Uribe’s pro-business policies took the country a long way during his two presidencies, leaving office with an impressive approval rating of well above 70%. Juan Manuel Santos does not seem to have anything less in mind than to help continuing the development through pro-business governance, increased and diversified to as many new markets and continents as possible. Before starting his presidency, he initiated a traditional but uniquely prioritized tour around Europe to develop international relations with the leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Spain, focusing the dialogues on foreign investment, trade and the environment.

Significant advances in finding new markets and commercial partners were initiated with the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union being signed on May 18, and the one with Canada finally being approved in the parliament on June 21. Trade Minister Plata believes the latter is a ‘catalyst to move forward the FTA with the United States’ that remains to pass congress. (Source: ColombiaReports)

Since before, Colombia has deeper trade regimes established with Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and has been working to deepen trade ties with numerous global powers, including India, Russia and China. Whereas Colombia also hopes to be admitted to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the latest news come from Brazil and its president Lula da Silva, who just signed eight new cooperation agreements with president Santos in terms of business, border development and safety.

In light of Colombia’s 200th year of independence, the country finally seems to be well on track towards emerging as one of the new big developing economies attracting attention from the global market. For many, it doesn’t come as a surprise but as a joyful confirmation of great progress that the latest acronym for high potential emerging markets, CIVETS, where C stands for Colombia, has arisen in the financial news world as a possible or even likely replacement to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) phenomenon. Colombia and the other CIVETS countries have ‘large and young populations, diversified economies, relative political stability and decent financial systems’ free from ‘high inflation, trade imbalances or sovereign debt bombs‘ (sources: The Economist, HSBC, FT, Reuters, DailyMarkets). This news, adding to everything else written in the previous paragraphs, makes it safe to say that new hopes have reached this country of everlasting potential, hopes of a better future, more jobs, more development and more happiness for all.

With this I’ll say ,hasta luego’ and look forward to writing more specifically next time about the everyday life over here, the reality of small businesses and about the country’s amazing advancements and applications of Information and Communication Technology.

On Colombian development and opportunities,

Joni AlWindi

Elections towards Legality or Security?

In Politics on September 10, 2010 at 10:47 pm

In times of a historical presidency coming to its end with presidential elections around the corner, the big question that divides the majority of the Colombian people could be summarized in the following question: Is it time for democratic legality or for democratic security and prosperity? Since late February, when the Colombian Supreme Court finally decided that the century’s most popular and successful president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, cannot be re-elected a third time, the presidential campaigns have developed into quite an intriguing spectacle.

Uribe’s re-election in 2006 was historical. First of all, his was the first presidential re-election in Colombian history, having involved a change in the constitution to allow for a second term as president. Secondly, it was the first four-year-period since the largest guerrilla group’s formation in 1964 that wasn’t followed by a change of politics that so many times before had allowed for new wind under the guerrilla’s armed wings. The re-election had been possible because of the incredibly high popularity that the president had gained, primarily by virtue of his tough politics against the guerrilla terrorism.

Strictly economically speaking, it’s unquestionable that Colombia has enjoyed its best development and growth in many years under the ruling president. An increased emphasis on domestic security, pro-market economic policies, export growth and more openness to foreign investment were key factors behind the stable average growth rate of over 5% between 2002 and 2007. Since 2008, Colombia has also been one of the top 10 reforming economies in the world, with reforms that among other things have strengthened property rights and made it easier to start and operate a company. Thanks to this, Colombia is now the most business friendly country in Latin America with the Colombian peso recovering at one of the fastest rates worldwide from the global financial crisis (World Bank’s Doing Business reports and Bloomberg).

Thanks to this stable growth since 2002, Colombia’s root problem, poverty, is said to have reduced by 20% and the unemployment rate by 25% (2010 CIA World Fact Book). The country, however, suffers from a stark polarisation between the people who are in favour of and against the ruling president. The major disagreement would lie in the people’s perception of and benefit from the domestic security versus the continued high poverty and unemployment rates. On the one hand, Colombians enjoy an increasingly high sense of security at moving around both within the cities and between cities, without fearing guerrilla attacks. On the other hand, the number of displaced inhabitants who have lost their homes due to the war against the guerrilla is still around 4 million, and in total 46% of Colombia’s 44 million people still live in poverty, with nowhere to turn but to the armed guerrilla for help.

Nevertheless, a popularity level of more than 60% is unique for a president on the verge of leaving office in Colombia, and the issue is now how to go about after him in the years to come, with what priorities and with whom as a leader.

The last months have seen a dramatic and intriguing development of the campaigns and quite some changes in the candidates’ outlooks to win. Before the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate Uribe from the candidate list, no one was a particularly interesting candidate. Even the most popular potential successor, former Minister of Defence, Juan Manuel Santos, claimed that he wouldn’t run for president if Uribe was allowed another re-election. But then, the race started for real. Suddenly, as many as 10 candidates from different parties or movements were campaigning fully, from the extreme left, represented by the supposedly Chavez-friendly Gustavo Petro, to two university professors with previous terms as mayors for the capital cities Bogota and Medellin respectively, to such an unknown candidate that his most publicly known about achievement is his current hunger strike chained to a statue of Colombia’s liberator, Simon Bolivar, protesting against the lack of media attention. Another candidate is the former ambassador of Colombia in both the UK and Spain, Noemi Sanin, who quickly became the second favourite as the strongest of two female candidates, promoting beautiful human values and continued work with strong hand against terrorism. She managed to win the internal pre-elections within the conservative party but let an incoherent enthusiasm take over and so started to lose votes.

Things started to become really interesting when the two university professors joined forces representing the Green Party, and all of a sudden initiated a green wave that during the last month and a half has resulted in the seventh largest politician page on Facebook. With more than 650 000 fans in little over two months, “Colombia’s Obama”, Antanas Mockus, has attracted an unprecedented number of young and first time voters to join a Colombian election campaign. In some of the latest polls, he was shockingly enough already ahead of the thus far leading Juan Manuel Santos. His proposal, Democratic Legality, is necessary to prioritise, he says, through all levels of the society for a more civilised nation before any Democratic Prosperity, part of Santos’ proposal, can be achieved without being labelled “corruption”.

Concerning the highly important aspect of continued and improved Democratic Security, both leading candidates promise to continue the struggle intensely, although Santos’ credibility to achieve this is much higher. During his time as defence minister under Uribe, he managed to execute noteworthy operations against the guerrilla terrorism, including the rescue operation of the former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, and, an unauthorized bombing of a guerrilla camp on Ecuadorian grounds killing a key terrorist leader. Instead of being seen as a great regional anti-terrorism triumph, the latter event turned into a regional crisis that shook profoundly Colombia’s relations with its Latin American “brothers”. In-numerous other political disagreements between the current government, which Santos still represents, and Venezuela’s Chavez have made the countries’ business relations suffer immensely. On several occasions has Chavez frozen the bilateral relationships completely, this time until a new president (supposedly other than Santos) has been elected.

Antanas Mockus’ educational proposal is to a large extent believed to come too soon for Colombia, a country in a never-ending status of internal war. Although this war is quite invisible to the urban middle-class, the fear of the guerrilla is still present, no matter how far it has been pushed back in recent years. Many are those who remember the time just before Uribe’s first presidency, when the streets of Colombia in basically all cities were unsafe to walk, when the shopping malls were main targets of bomb attacks and when any multinational company’s workers ran the risk of having their children kidnapped.

Elections on May 30. More than 50% of the total votes is necessary to win directly, and avoid a second round final on June 20. At this moment, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it looks like both leading candidates are equally likely to remain standing as the new President of Colombia. The question of what might be most appropriate for Colombia at this moment in time is not an easy one: democratic legality or democratic security and prosperity? Well, that’s up to the Colombians to decide. I will just sit back and observe the spectacle and write how it ends afterwards.

On Colombian development and opportunities,

Joni AlWindi