Monday, August 17, 2009

El Petronio

It was a tough call. Last time I was in Cali, 2 weeks ago, I was sketching out my plans. The Mompox Film Festival was, like Parque Tayrona, one of the only clear things I really wanted to do while in Colombia - other than the last few weeks' commission - and look what happened there. So, no great surprise then, the Law of Plan B prevailed. It was described as unmissable - thousands of people dancing and stomping to marimba bands for 4 nights in a row.

I've just about caught up on my live music drought. Hermanos Lebron, the Cuban salsa band, in Santander de Quilichao last month was a start - but these last 4 days have been utterly amazing, reminiscent of Carnival in Panama. Last night had me actually welling up with tears, for the second time in as many years. Maybe it was the 'viche'... Around 9pm, this group appeared on the revolving stage, as the last were revolved away behind them, a troupe of about 60 kids, aged between 4 and 16. Playing marimbas, drumming, stamping, and singing, they made an emotional impact on me that I won't forget.

Petronio Alvarez is the name of the 13th Pacific Music festival of Cali. Busloads of Afro-Colombians from Choco, Buenaventura and communities all along the coast converge on Cali to witness this spectacular event. For 2 days, back to back bands from 6pm to midnight compete in various categories to see who gets to play on the final day. Saturday is the special invitations days, where famous bands & old winners play and Sunday is the final. The revolving stage ensures there is little more than a couple of minutes between acts.

We were lucky enough to have colour photocopied some press passes, and had access to the central arena. This free festival takes place in the Plaza de Toros - a huge bullring. The stage is set up at one edge of the ring, and about 40,000 people fill up the tiered stands. In the bullring we packed in about a thousand people on Sunday. The atmosphere is crackling with excitement, and the dance moves are incredible. I remember turning around at several points to see literally the whole panorama from top to bottom moving and arm-waving in step.

To me it seems like there are two types of bands - the marimba bands that generally have a lot of drums and those with violins. It's my theory that because this is only the second year with violin bands, that they need another few years practice and audience appreciation until they get better and faster - the rhythm is just a bit too slow on the whole and doesn't really get the crowd going as much as the drums - when they get going something magical happens and I just can't put words to it.

And then at midnight every night the whole place decants to Calle Pecao in the centre, and the Parquedero (the car park) around the corner. Last night there must have been 2000 people in the car park all shaking and moving to miramba sounds from a fat, very loud sound system.

The pacific drink of choice is viche - it's my informed guess that this is made from fermented sugar cane juice - it has that grassy earthy sweetness that French Agricole style rhums do - with a punchy rough kick. It's known as a Pacific aphrodisiac (on Saturday a beautiful latina testified to that) and they sell it in reused plastic bottles - proper homebrew.

Last night nearly didn't happen. We turned up at 6pm on the dot, along with 25,000 other people. The VIP (performers and press) queue was a mess, the cops just standing around and the security shouting at a raging mob of 250 people baying at the gates telling people to get organised and into queues without any success. Pisspoor organisation. After being in this writhing mob for an hour, finally made it into the outer enclosure, and were greeted by a 100 person queue to get into the inner arena. Finally at the front, the security guy took my pass out of the holder, said to me "es una copia" and put it into his hand with a wadge of at least another 50. My mate had just made it inside ahead of me, he passed his copy out (mine was a copy of a copy) and after another 20 minutes queueing made it in for the final night. I could only last until 2am this morning, I think some of the last viche I had was a little more potent than normal and dragged myself to bed.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How To Blow A Week's Budget in 24 Hours

1. Have a real pint of real ale - at Bogota Beer Factory - the first in over a year, while catching up with a mate you haven't seen in 4 years. 9,000 pesos (£3)
2. Have a cocktail in a bar on your first blind date. 12,000 pesos.
3. Taxi home. 8,000 pesos.
4. Buy nearly brand new Lumix camera, probably stolen, to replace the Digi-SLR that got stolen which you were borrowing because yours got stolen in the post. A bargain second hand at 115,000 pesos (£40)
5. Buy flowers for your friend's parents to apologize for waking them up and scaring the crap out of them at 2am because your key snapped in the lock of your own door, after walking around for an hour unsuccessfully trying to find mobile phone credit, but at least avoiding sleeping in the street. 5,000 pesos.
6. Buy a piece of acrylic to cover the hole in the door that you broke in the hope that the door wasn't double locked. 2,000 pesos.
7. Buy a ticket for the nightbus to Cali to go to a Pacific music festival. 55,000 pesos.

No dinner for a month then.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Colombia Solidarity Campaign - Comission 2009

Here is a clickable summary of the six parts of my report in order - as brief as I could make it.

1. In At The Deep End - 16th-17th July, Bogota
2. Organise & Resist: The Minga - 18th-21st July, Bogota, Cali & Cauca
3. 117 Families Facing Eviction - 22nd July, La Toma, Suarez, Cauca
4. Caminando La Palabra (Walking The Word) - 23rd-26th July, Cauca
5. 4 Days & 4 Places - 27th-30th July, Cauca
6. 19 Days And Still Standing - 31st July-4th August, Cauca, Caldes, Tolima

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

19 Days And Still Standing

mining community at La Marmota

weighing up 2 days work

Well, a day off after 19 days of meetings on the trot. Nothing like it after a year long break from it all. And I spend it writing about meetings. Sucker! Back in Cali, in the tropical heat...

So last Thursday after leaving Cais Maloka, we came back to Cali, where we had a couple of meetings with some local trade unionists. Then that evening, we took the 5 hour bus to Manizales, in Caldas, ready for our meetings with communities around Riosucio, where AngloGold Ashanti are active.

Friday was a packed day, with 2 days worth of stuff squashed into one, as the next day we were invited to Cajamarca for a symbolic action of resistance against AngloGold. We were whisked to the first Indigenous Reserve of Escopetera Pircie, for breakfast with the local human rights groups. The general format for meetings is that we have a go-around, everyone introduces themselves and gives a summary of what their interests in the meeting are. I've got my patter pretty down by now, and it's funny how the 4 of us change our intro depending on what order we are sat in.

This area, the department of Caldas, is a particular hot-spot thanks to its geostrategic location in the middle of the gold triangle of Bogota-Medellin-Cali. Nonetheless, the usual topics came up, AngloGold Ashanti active in the area, Smurfitt-Carbon also active with their massive mono-culture pine forests, and water issues. 3,500 people have been displaced from the Reserve in the last 20 years and there have been 450 assassinations recorded. Since the 2003 Inter-American Court of Human Rights case about the area, there have been 167 assassinations. 80% of these have been declared "crimes of passion" by the state. All this, and the area is now declared a "post-conflict zone". So AngloGold can come and sweep away the remaining people and tear up the stunningly beautiful countryside to create open-cast gold mines for their shareholders to line their pockets. Post-conflict...

After breakfast, we were taken to the town centre, and into a building with stunning views of the surrounding hills through the large windows. The visit was very ceremonious, with generous helpings of a panela-clove drink that reminded Andy of cough syrup. A lady in long white robes stood at the back of the room blowing cigar smoke over the heads of the audience with a cleansing wave. The meeting was opened by the governor, contextualising present day defense of territory and biodiversity within 500 years of resistance to imperialism. Now, the community's position on mining is a clear no to multinationals. However, a more complex explanation of how they are resisting was lacking.

After lunch of rice, plantain, potato, yucca and chicken wrapped in banana leaf, we got back in the 4x4 (paid for by a recent EU project) and were taken to the San Lorenzo Reserve. Here we met 25 local community representatives, 90% men, in a school classroom. The conversation here was a little more pointed, looking at strategies of resistance. First, the local tradition of mobilization means that they seem to be ready if things kick off. The trouble is that the plunder is usually given a veneer of legality, so that by the time evictions come they are backed by the long arm of the law. Really, mobilization needs to be pro-active and national, rather than local and reactive. Second, the role of the guardia has the potential, at this stage seems more like symbolic resistance rather than arming the barricades. And thirdly, the role of indigenous medicine, which I would like to know more about, but didn't get the opportunity to explore further.

reason number 8 against large-scale gold mining: water pollution

Back to Manizales, we then had meeting 4 on day 16 in a row. Initial impressions were cagy - in a fairly grand hotel meeting room, with folk that seemed generally more middle-class than we are used to working with. One reason I enjoy working with the Colombia Solidarity Campaign is that the focus is really on grass-roots movements - indigenous, campesino, afro communities, generally rurally based folk. Nonetheless, having meet with the communities, it was interesting to see the more NGO-type groups organising around local issues. Genuine social change can happen when the middle class unite with the base, so interesting to see the angles here, and good to see the themes of territory, displacement, multinationals and human rights violations on the agenda.

Saturday morning, up at 5am, and the day exactly one year ago I left the UK. We said goodbye to Rogelio and Lucia, leaving 2 of us, as they headed onwards and we caught the bus to Cajamarca. Cajamarca is in the region of Tolima, also within the Bogota-Cali-Medellin triangle, and where AngloGold Ashanti have been most active in trying to win over the community. Specifically, we were going to a local school, where AGA delivered a load of paint to brighten up the school. The community decided to return the paint, did a whip-round in the village, bought their own paint and today were painting the school. A huge symbol of grass-roots defiance and resistance to corporate attempts to buy off the community.

Later in the afternoon, after interviewing a few of the locals involved, we headed back into the town to meet with local activists in the community. The angle into mobilization against AGA here is socio-environmental. What AGA have up their sleeves is plans for one of the world's largest open-cast gold mines - right in the middle of some of Latin America's most stunning countryside and fragile war-battered communties. They have had numerous schmooze-the-community events, and recently a helicopter dangling a strange probe was seen flying at low level around the valleys.

The key demand of the community is a full independent socio-environmental investigation into the impact of the mine. Part of this would include the potential effects on the El Machín volcano - open cast mining involves use of vast quantities of dynamite - whilst within 15km lies Number 2 on the world list of volcanoes in most danger of erupting, which would cover the town of Cajamarca in at least 20cm of lava. The other demand is what the law demands - a public consultation - amounting to a regional referendum of all areas involved. Another legal element is the mining concessions that include protected forest areas - how would these forests be protected if turned into an open-cast mine?

Sunday we spent the morning in the town square interviewing locals on their views on the mine. Their opinions ranged from the environmental to the social - all opposed - a key concern noted was the impact on town society. Workers would be brought in from all around the country, undermining local trust networks, and bringing social ills such as prostitution, robbery and burglary. One wisely noted that not a single open cast gold mine in the world had brought any benefits whatsoever to the local community. Later we met with the local mayor. Basically he didn't want his neck on the line, and played a very middle of the road line. Unsuprising, but disappointing.

Monday we hit the road for Marmota, backtracking through Manizales to Caldas, as this was mentioned when we were there as being a very interesting and sad case study of multinational exploitation in gold in the area. Rather than restate the facts - this article gives an excellent history, published in Canada, where Colombia Goldfields, the company involved, is based. No UK involvement here, but an excellent example of why mining multinationals are bad news.

And now, I'm alone in Cali, ready to head to La Toma for the planned eviction on the 6th. It's been a marathon, but absolutely enchanting to get to know rural Colombia with an insider's perspective, not on the tourist trail and have an emotional connection. It's a magical place, replete with a turbulent history of 500 years of oppression and imperialism, still strongly redolent of Spanish colonialism despite celebrating 200 years of "independence" next year. But resistance is strongly rooted in the blood of Colombians, Afro-Colombians, campesinos and Indigenous alike. The seeds of hope of a brighter future are spreading, slowly, and cannot be extinguished, no matter how many U.S. military bases they build.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

4 Days & 4 Places

Cali, Colombia
[photos to come... patience]

4 days, 4 very different places. From observing a human rights community meeting with the UN, to going back to La Toma for their community assembly to discuss their mass eviction on the 6th August, to the other side of the valley where last week death threats were last week painted onto the walls of the village, to a rural project linked to New Generation in London where last night army troops had decided to occupy a farmhouse. Just another week in the Cauca.

After a heavy night, it was with relief that we weren't the centre of attention at this meeting, with the UN, in La Maria. We watched as local groups submitted reports about local situations to the delegation present on their high table, and spoke about their local issues.

On Monday we headed back to La Toma, the place with the forthcoming mass eviction, for a community meeting to which we were invited when we were there before. We arrived to find a packed covered area, with around 300 people. However our inviter was nowhere to be seen, making it slightly awkward to make our presence. The meeting itself was heavily front-centric, with very little opportunity for community input. There was a call-out for a march to Bogota, which was met with rapturous applause. An interesting idea, but takes the mobilization out of the local area. There was little room for suggestion of anything resembling local action in the community. And nothing suggesting mobilization on the eviction date of the 6th August. Nonetheless, the importance of unity of this black afro-colombian community with indigenous and campesino communties was noted in the struggle against mining multinationals.

Later in the afternoon we walked 45 minutes down a steep narrow mountain path to the community of Gelim, site of proposed evictions. Here there were workshops going on, when we arrived the local residents had split into groups to work on building a picture of local work and resources, and histories thereof. We caught up with them later after a delicious dinner, meeting in the school yard in a large circle. Here we heard how the community are ready to defend their territory by force if needed, if the eviction happens.

Since 2004, mining has been a main form of earning a living in the area. In 2005, Kedadha began their interests in the area, coming to a local meeting painting the wonders of the company. Since then, they have had a strategy to penetrate the community, including the mining rights through intermediaries Jesus Ario and Fernando Ruis. Law 70 of 1993, article 44, grants the legal right to public consultation before mining takes place... of which none has taken place. The community feel backed into a corner - both metaphorically and literally, into harder to reach pockets of territory that has been theirs for 409 years.

On Tuesday morning we received warnings from 2 sources not to visit Cerro Tijeras, our next stop on the other side of the river. In the end we decided it safe to visit the lower part of the village. The area is the site of recent fighting between the FARC and the military. We wanted to see the graffiti that had recently been painted in the town, signed by the Black Eagles paramilitary group. It read "We are coming for you sons-of-bitches leaders. Thieves 8 days to give yourselves up sons-of-bitches thieves. Black Eagles. Death Melba, Enrique, Leandro, Leonardo, Meraldino". Another read "Manipulative snitch leaders. Dead. Black Eagles". It is highly unusual that the Black Eagles do this without also leaving written threats, usually a letter posted under a door. This, additional to the fact that the army are right here in the village leads to the suspicion that it was the army that painted the threats rather than the Black Eagles. We then visited the village of Olivares, where the ex-governor Enrique has now received so many threats (including being mentioned in the above threat) he has left the village for fear of his life.

Wednesday we headed to Dagua, an hour from Cali, back in Valle del Cauca, to visit Cais Maloka, a project up in the hills towards the coast. They are linked to Nueva Generacion in London, a Latin American collective working cross-culturally to raise awareness of local issues, stimulate change and promote their culture. In Colombia, they are working on building a collective farm, working with children and young people to become change-makers, and through principles of Participatory Action Research. We paid this beautiful finca a visit, and having heard that the army had stationed themselves illegally in the upper farmhouse, to see what was going on, with a local human rights defender. We found that they'd left, but left behind a "Colombian Army" towel as evidence, along with various bits of litter.

Sitting around an open fire, I watched the cloud-line sink below us. It's so hard to marry the totally tranquil serenity up here with the knowledge of what's going on in this an countless other areas in Colombia. People are afraid to talk to each other about politics, to come to meetings. Meanwhile, the water supply has been privatised and bills push higher and higher. You might understand that when you live in a city of a million, having to pay for water, but when you live surrounded by natural sources of water it really boggles belief. Not only that, but the natural water that there is, is being drained to feed the pine mono-cultures that belong to the shareholders of Smurfitt-Kappa Carton, that Irish company I mentioned. It's here that I see the real effects of capital, punishing a population for daring to try and continue existing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Caminando La Palabra (Walking The Word)

On The Bus From Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, Colombia

For the purposes of continuity, I'm writing this on the bus, after Hermanos Lebron, on the way to a UN caucus. Actually I'm in Cali much later on, being far too tired after 4 hours sleep and dancing all night to have written this then. Plus my battery wouldn't last, the damn thing only gives about 40 minutes of charge these days. So since the last post at La Toma we've done a 2-day 40km march with 10,000 people for a Minga, and travelled to Popayan to meet groups there. And danced all night at a Hermanos Lebron gig. A heady mix of party and politics in appropriate proportions.

Walking boots donned, I finally felt glad that I've lugged them 25,000 miles around the hemisphere without having used them for more than a 2-hour hike half-way up the volcano on Ometepe. Packing the essentials - tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, mozzie net, spare clothes - I thought I had a light pack... it started to bite after an hour. Probably a bit unfit too...

So being a little late for the start of the march from Santander de Quilichao, we jumped on the roof of a Chiva (eye-spy's book of modes of transport was filling up with ticks). We waited for the bus to fill up - I have never yet in 10 months in Latin America seen a bus leave before its full. After what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes on the road through town, the driver pulled into a layby in front of a restaurant. And got out, and sat down, and ordered his dinner. No-one complained, or said anything to the driver, just patiently waited. This seems to be a distinctly Latin trait - tolerance. It's interesting how this translates into a history of dictatorships. You can also see the effect on kids, who seem far more well behaved despite a more lax disciplinary attitude.

colombia solidarity campaign secretary andy higginbottom interviewed by caracol tv

Having waited 25 minutes for the driver to finish his lunch, we hit the road again and caught up with the march soon enough. We joined at the front of the march, but quickly fell back with the pace being pretty fierce. National TV news crew Caracol interviewed Andy and Rogelio, with a 5 second soundbite of Rogelio's appearing in a 30-second slot about the march on the peak-time national news that evening. The march's route deliberately passed through several towns and indigenous reserves and presently experiencing conflicting armed interests. One house was riddled with bulletholes from a confrontation several days earlier between the army and the FARC. The town we stopped the night in had FARC stencils, and while the thousands of marchers were resting and enjoying the evening in the streets, several dodgy looking folk around were pointed out to us by local friends as known "demobilised" paramilitaries - now just in civilian clothes - but everyone knows them as paras.

Along the way I met Aida Quilcue who until recently was leader of the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC). Last December, her husband was murdered in an attack seemingly meant for her. On 11th May this year, her 12 year old daughter was leaving her house when she saw men pointing handguns at her from a car parked outside. She fled back into the house, while they drove around the house until they realised she was there protected by Indigenous guards. Aida was due to come to the UK to speak in June, but had to cancel. She is due to come in September - watch this space.

We also met with Feliciano, a spokesperson for the Minga, indigenous to the Cauca. He spoke something that touched me very deeply, through a concept I admire and respect. He spoke of the liberation of mother earth, with it concepts of the importance of living in harmony with nature rather than tearing it up. He spoke of the evolution of the politics of the indigneous, as seeing a marked turning point with the 1991 Colombian Constitution, from a politics of protest to proposals through protest, from reaction to proaction. And in 2005 the campaign for the liberation of mother earth began - taking, protecting and liberating "tierra" - the earth, the ground, the soil. Francisco, from a human rights NGO Asociacion Minga, spoke about how in this area there is a permanent war between public forces and the people that has been totally invisibilised.

After staying the night, we were up and ready to smack pavement with our boots by 6am. Another 20-odd km, and we made it to Corintho, making 40km in total. Phew. Here, everyone gathered in the town square, and listened to brief speeches of all the indigenous governors from the local area. Together at the end they made a joint statement, supporting the Minga and its continuance, denouncing local acts of violence against the communities, and refusing to enter into new agreements with the government until previous agreements to protect the population are fulfilled.

On Saturday we made for Popayan, a historical colonial centre about 3 hours south of Cali. Here we met with two groups, one with the Minga, and another that exists parallel but outside of the Minga. The first was CIMA, a local group in the National Agrarian Association (CNA). Here we heard a round of presentations of local represenatives about their local issues. He heard about 4 people killed in a massacre in Peregosa in 2000, and 10 campesinos killed in January 2001, both as revenge attacks for mobilisations in 1999. Paramilitaries give out pamphlets with threats in the area. In August 2007, Smurfit-Kappa Carton de Colombia (who on their own website claim to be advancing their most "aggresive and important expansion in their history"), an Irish-based multinational, bought up huge areas of land, in some cases forcing the sale, for monoculture exotic pine forest plantations.

The local soft drinks group Postobon, in negotiations with the government, recently acquired the rights "to protect" two local lakes, the Lagunas de Magdalena and Cauca. Funny that, a soft-drinks company with a line in environmental protection of water sources. Doesn't quite seem to add up to me.

We also talked about the changes of land use over the last 15-20 years. Back then, the area produced 7,000 tonnes of food, and was almost self-sufficient. Now, that has reduced to 1,500 tonnes, and today the area imports 7,000 tonnes of food from abroad. Seems totally crazy, doesn't it, that an area so rich and fertile has to truck, ship or fly food from other parts of the world to feed it. But that's the story of Colombia, a country that imports thousands tonnes of rice from the United States!

Later we met with the Process of Popular Unity of South West Cauca (PUPSOC). They describe their work as parallel to the Minga, and in concert to it. However, they are critical of the Minga's involvement with the Peace Laboratories of Europe, formed in the Cartagena-London agreement of 2002. Effectively, state funding to construct peace, which involves a certain doublethink given the amount of European capital being pumped into Colombia, which must be seen as intrinsically linked. Especially when the third component to the Peace Laboratories is to strengthen productive industry. This article by Gearoid O'Loingsigh looks into this in detail.

We talked about local issues. In the 3 communities of Mariel, San Sebastian and La Vega, described as the crown of the Colombian Massif, Kedahda (a subsidiary of AngloGold Ashanti) have mining concessions for 3,600 hectares. This follows exploration in the 1980s by Japan International. This is described as Phase 2 of Plan Colombia: the social phase. In Valencia, a community of 800 inhabitants, there are 1600 soldiers stationed. Other local issues revolve around water - "the eyes of the future" - and the importance of defending local supplies against privatisation.

Phew. After all that, catching my eye on a poster advertising Cuban salsa band Hermanos Lebron made me very excited, having listened to them heavily on the road trip through Mexico. They were playing that night in Santander. Phil, a English guy working with groups here, and I bought ourselves a bottle of rum and hotfooted it on the 2-hour bus trip. £2 to enter, we met up with our dance partners and salsad the night away - no way to learn like in the field! The only dark spot came later on, danced out, moving to get some food, when suddenly I realised that the lush Digital SLR camera that I'd borrowed was suddenly not in the case anymore. Ouch.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

117 Families Facing Eviction

La Toma, Suarez, Cauca, Colombia

So after an hour's sleep on Wednesday morning, we arose at 5.30am to head to La Toma, near Suarez, to meet the afro-descendant community there. We left El Mesón by chiva bus, accompanied by a Guardia 50 strong. They accompanied us down to the river Cauca, where we took a boat downstream to Suarez. This part of the Cauca river was dammed in 1984-6, in the midst of a ream of incompleted impact assessments by the government. This raised the level of the river by 350m, flooding huge swathes of the most fertile land in the Cauca valley, causing displacements of thousands of campesinos.

Arriving at Suarez, I think the best way to explain what's happening there is by reproducing this Urgent Action. If you have time, please help by sending an email with the demands to the emails below.

From the human rights team of the Process of Black Communities and other organisations:

6th August is the date fixed for the eviction of the black community in La Toma, in the Suárez municipality in north Cauca, Colombia. La Toma´s Afro-descendant inhabitants have been declared ´squatters in bad faith´ in a legal possession order taken out by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez and Jesús Sarria. Yet the presence of black communities on these lands dates from 1636, since when they have worked small gold mines which is today the only means of subsistence for hundreds of families.

The black community´s territory in La Toma district consists of 7,000 hectares, some 6,500 hectares of which, including the cementary, are sought by Anglo Gold Ashanti for exploration purposes. The company has found a fast-track to an immediate start to operations, via two mining concessions together making up 403 hectares. They are concession EKE-151 (314 hectares) held by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez, and concession BFC 021 (99 hectares) held by Héctor Jesús Sarria. Neither of these concession holders are linked with the community, nor have they carried out any mine exploration or exploitation activities. Rather, in the light of the known interest of Anglo Gold Ashanti, these two gentlemen have initiated a legal process of expropriation that will stop the afro-colombian miners from developing the work that they have carried out for generations in this district.

Anglo Gold Ashanti and the Canadian owned company Cosigo Resort have been pressurising to take over other territorios in Suárez, and the neighbouring municipalities of Buenos Aires and Santander. None of the moves by these mining corporations respect the the right of the black communities to consulta previa (previous and informed consent) the guarantee set out in ILO Convention 169, as recognised by Colombia´s constitution, and elaborated in Law 70 passed in 1993.

This is not the first wave of evictions from this region. Back in the 1980s the construction of the nearby La Salvajina dam and reservoir system displaced hundreds of families to the urban slums of Agua Blanca in Cali and other cities. The environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of this hydroelectric project have still not been addressed by the operating company CVC (Corporación Autónoma Regional del Valle del Cauca) or the Colombian state. In 1994 the Salvajina project was taken over by Energía Eléctrica del Pacifico-EPSA (in turn owned by Spanish multinacional). EPSA tried to divert the Ovejas river that runs by La Toma in order to augment Salvajina´s gnerating capacity.

Before Salvajina, the Afro-Colombians native to this region sustained themselves through fishing, agriculture, la balsería and mining; after the dam´s construction much of the best farming land was flooded under the reservoir, there were also drastic climate changes both of which led to a crisis in traditional farming. For most of the black community the only remaining means of making a living was through artesanal gold mining. Besides the predicted environmental impacts from the opne cast mining that Anglo Gold Ashanti and similiar multinationals want to undertake, this artisanal mining would disappear and the black communities would be displaced entirely from their territories.

In Judgement No 005 of 2009, Colombia´s Constitutional Court stated a number of transversal factors tending to cause the displacement of afro-colombians including structural exclusion, the pressures generated by big mining and agriculture, and the deficient legal protection for the collexctive territories of the black communities. The Constitutional Court drew special attention to the situation of the black communities who are the ancestral inhabitants Buenos Aires and Suárez as an emblematic case; these communities are a clear and living example of the risks pointed out by the Court of the vulnerability of territorial rights, the loss of social and cultural control by the communities, the violation of their right to previous consent, and the absence of registration of ancestral territories that even now have not been recognised as collective property titles.

The Constitutional Court ordered that there be effective participation of the communities, and set in motion a plan of monitoring that would take into account the general factors and the specific risks identified in its judgement 005. The Court ordered that the territorial rights of the afro-colombian communities be protected through the design of a plan to be implemented by 30 October 2009, characteising the lands as ancestral territory, of ethnic signficance and part of the patrimony of these communities. The artisanal gold mines constitute one of the last common goods still conserved by the black communities of northern Cauca. Their eviction from La Toma would be one more link in the historic chain of unjust expropiations that should be blocked by determined action by all the communities. We call on all Afro-Colombian organisations, leaders and other social sectors nationally and internationally to take action to demand:

1. That the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy revokes the mining concessions EKE-151 held by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez and BFC 021 held by Héctor Jesús Sarria, on the grounds that has not been previous and informed consultation with the black communities living on these territories..

2. That the Ministry of Mines and Energy definitively stops the order to evict the black communities of the Corregimiento (district) La Toma, located in Suárez municipality in the north of Cauca department.

3. That the Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Social Action immediately fulfils the the Constitional Court Judgement No 005, by formulating an action plan of attention and protection of these communities, putting in place the measures organised by the Court to protect the territory and the patrimony of the communities.

4. In the case of any process concerning the exploration and exploitation of mining resources, and other projects and political or
administrative measures that might affect the black communities, the application of Consultation with Previous, Free and Informed Consent in accord with ILO Convention 169 and the national Constitution.

5. That the Ministry of the Interior adopts measures for the protection of the life and security of community leaders in the region.

Please send to the following emails a personal message with the above demands:
  • Minister of the Interior and Justice, Fabio Valencia,
  • Minister of Mines and Energy, Hernán Martínez,
  • Address for matters relating to Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquera and Raizal communities, Rosa Carlina García,
  • Human Rights Director of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, Rafael Emiro Bustamante,
  • Vice-Minister of Justice, Miguel Antonio Ceballos Arévalo,
  • Vice-Minister of the Interior, Viviana Manrique Zuluega,
  • Secretary General of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, María del Pilar Serrano Buendía,
Send copies and for any other information,

Translated by Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Campaign adds please also send a brief message with the above demands to the Colombian Embassy in the UK.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Organise & Resist: the Minga

El Meson, Cauca, Colombia

So I experienced my first taste of the Minga. It's pronounced Ming-ga. It's funny, in colloquial British a minga is what you call someone unattractive, and in Spanish from Spain means cock. In Colombia, the Minga de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria is the Minga of Social and Communal Resistance, currently Colombia's most bristling social movement. Originating in the Cauca region of the South-West of Colombia, it started as the collective name for the indigenous groups and their physical collective presence. So a Minga is the gathering itself, rather than just an abstract collective noun. A good intro is here, the cover story of the last Frontline Latin America. Which, if you're interested in Latin American politics of resistance, is a superb publication and well worth the £6 subscription.

Last weekend was the Minga de Pensamiento in Bógota, Colombia's capital city, perched up at 2640m, making it the 3rd highest capital in the world after La Paz and Quito. That also makes it pretty chilly, having to wear my hoodie in the daytime for the first time since the Mexican hills in November. The Minga de Pensamiento is the ideological forum of the Minga. Since the Minga marched to Bogota last October, they have expanded their remit to include Indigenous, Afro-descendants and campesinos (farmers), and are nationalising their presence.

The Minga have 5 key points of agreement as springboards for action and mobilisation.
1. The right to life and human rights
2. Sovereignty, earth and territory
3. Plunder, displacement and economic models
4. Incompleted agreements
5. The agenda of the peoples

cuidad de bolivar, bógota

So on Saturday, we split the plenary forum from the morning into these 5 groups, to travel to different parts of Bógota for 'fireside' discussions. I went on the human rights tulpa to the Cuidad de Bolivar, in the South-West outskirts into the foothills that surround Bogota. The meeting room soon filled with over 100 participants, with an impressive amount of young people present, as well as gender-balanced. Discussion ensued around what we are struggling against (in terms of violations against human rights) and who is responsible for these violations.

"In spite of all the riches in the country, the open mine right here in our community is benefitting only the rich".

We spoke about visibilising and denouncing human rights violations - e.g. assassinations, disappearances, death threats, arbitrary detention - which are still happening at an increasing rate. We spoke about collective suicide by removing the blood from Mother Earth. We spoke about the struggle against impunity - the legal system totally failing to cope with the violence and this effect on memory. Part of the role of justice is recognition of crimes, and this has a role in constructing collective memory. This is what the campaign "forbidden to forget" (Prohibido Olvidar) work to do.

We then spoke about proposals, with a few clear ones emerging. The first was for the Minga to develop their own set of human rights norms, recognising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a largely white-Western-liberal created set of norms. We spoke about the creation of a national Minga Guardia. Currently in Cauca, the Minga organise a Guardia - local people volunteering to take responsibility for protecting their territory - armed only with sticks but with moral supremacy. The proposal would widen this nationally, and also encompass the new expanded remit not exclusive to indigenous groups. We also spoke about modes of communication, opening new spaces to operate, communicate and organise.

Sunday we regrouped, shared summaries together, then were treated to a punk band that almost felt New Labour with the bright lights school hall feel. And then some beautiful folk guitarist afterwards. Later we took the nightbus to Cali for the next stage, around the Cuaca and Valle region.

Arriving Monday morning into Cali, we headed straight for the Resguardo de Honduras, an Indigenous Reserve where leaders have been killed and threatened by paramilitaries and the military over the last few years. 17 days ago, 3 locals were killed, claimed by the military as 'in combat'. This is a case in point in the midst of a national "false positives" scandal, where victims of assassinations are dressed up in combats and claimed as FARC deaths in combat in order to fulfil kill targets. Meanwhile, AngloGold Ashanti, a South-Africa-based mining multinational, and Repsol, a Spanish oil company, are both active in the area.

community assembly

Arriving from the bus from Cali to the nearest town to the Resguardo (Reserve), we changed buses onto a Chiva. This is a monster bus with open sides and no aisle, crammed to busting point, including the roof. Meeting us was a local Guardia Indigena escort about 50 strong. At the endpoint of the bus, we were met by another 50, who joined us for the 45 minute walk to Chorrera Blanca. We arrived at 4pm, in time for a round of introductions, in front of a community assembly of over 200 locals, again well represented in terms of age and gender.

On Tuesday the assembly began proper. Repression started in the Indigenous areas here in the 1980s, with the presence of the armed forces in indigenous territories. Then the massacres began in 3 reserves. Then they began building military bases. Disappearances followed, along with the forced displacement of a few families. More recently, the paramilitary group AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) entered the area in late 2000. In 2007/8 threats to local leaders began - presidents of action groups, teachers, governors - threats sent by text message, spoken by phone, and written. Local human rights organisations such as Nomadesc, accompanying us, document these threats.

this man cooks for 500 people at a go! and the rice is amazing! i struggle making rice for 6.

Meanwhile, AngloGold Ashanti have 1600 hectares of mining rights in the area. Clearly, to get under the ground, they need to clear what on the ground out of the way. We have seen internal documents of AngloGold that outline figures on the amount of people that will have to be displaced in the area. AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) is actually based in South Africa, with AngloAmerican (based in London) selling their majority stake last year. South African mining capital comes straight off the back of Apartheid, with AGA set up in 1895. With the end of apartheid, AGA's interests shifted abroad to see where it could exploit, and its interests would be most easily facilitated through pliant governments and legislation. Enter Colombia into the picture.

queueing for grub

By 4pm we were ready to leave, but the governor was refusing to allow the Guardia to accompany us to the next area, 2 hours walk away. Despite this, 200 people accompanied the 5 guardia that ignored orders, walking with us to El Mesón. The late afternoon breeze cooling the fading scarlet sun against a stunning backdrop of collosal thousand metre valleys juxtaposed the relentless torture these communities have experienced for the last 30 years.

We went straight into someone's house for the classic Colombian meal - served at breakfast, lunch and dinner - of soup (variations - this time was bean soup) with rice, beans & grilled beef and a glass of panela - unrefined sugar water. At least in Colombia, unlike a lot of Central America, they don't use sachets of Maggi monosodium glutemate flavourings. Then after, as we were checking out or lodgings, the sky opened up and we were surrounded by thunder, lightening, and a trillion gallons of rain came down with what seemed like a double dose of gravity. Sitting on the veranda, watching this unfold next to a roofed hamlet square - the size of a football pitch - under which a local band were setting up, while others toiled with the fact that the place's electricity had just gone out, made for a spectacle firmly etched into my brain with fond memory.

After the rain subsided, we were treated to some live folk music, before a circle meeting with the locals, going around introducing ourselves and hearing about local issues. Key issues here were about water and power - community fundamentals - with ESPA, the Spanish water company recently privatising the water supply. Funny, in a tiny village surrounded by natural water sources, the locals struggle to get access to it. And despite privatisation, the local energy supplier gives an average of 6 days supply a month - but bill for the full month.

And afterwards, the band resumed for a jolly good knees-up. After plenty of aguardiente - local moonshine - and dancing and talking all night, I crawled into bed at 4.30am with renewed vitality after a pretty emotionally grueling few days.

local cheeky chappie

Friday, July 17, 2009

In At The Deep End

Bogota, Colombia

At last. It's finally time to get stuck into what actually motivated the whole trip in the first place for me, and began planning in 2006: spending some time on the ground in Colombia. After 4 years of solidarity work UK-side with only a 2-week whistlestop delegation to Colombian universities in 2005, I wanted to spend some time here and really feel what I was working for and with. And to question what I was doing the solidarity work for, when there's a million useful things in the world to get involved with, and particularly when local activism seems far more important and necessary. After that time in Panama, I had actually almost given up on Colombia. It seemed like things just weren't moving that way for me, as I'd intended to spend a few months here.

Well, my timing in the end was synchronous with a 3-week human rights commission from the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK, that started today. Plus, something to keep me busy and my mind off other complicated and painful personal matters. It all added up to be a go-er: having been in Venezuela reminded me of the urgent need for real information from the bottom up in a world saturated by reactionary corporate news that protects vested interests and the status quo, and got me fired up again.

I heard an analogy a while ago of the role of international solidarity work that I'm particularly fond of. It's easy to dismiss any kind of political work as a drop in the ocean and thus futile - but to me this sounds like the voice of aging armchair cynics. There's 3 angles - the first 2 involve the same metaphor of building a window. First, solidarity work builds a window for the outside world, the international community as individuals, organisations and movements, to see the reality of what is happening mediated through an independent perspective without corporate funded media interests that frame the perspective their own way.

Second, the window thus constructed allows those inside to see the outside watching - the reflex to the above point. This point is fundamental - to provide solidarity is to say we are here with you in your struggle against violence and dispossession of your ancestral lands, both literally for a short period of time in person, but also in contact permanently and able to denounce acts of violence and intimidation internationally. It is this brotherly/sisterly demonstration of solidarity and human unity with people on the ground living in and organising & defending against the various instruments of the state, parastate and global oligarchy that is immensely powerful at countering the various mechanisms of divide and rule.

Third is putting pressure on the state to live up to its obligations under international human rights conventions and treaties it has signed up to. Under international law, it is the state that is responsible for "granting" these rights to its citizens - or at least defending them. Irony notwithstanding, human rights are nonetheless an instrument and point of reference to try to hold the state to account for its actions, or inactions. So, whilst the window metaphor is a little de-personalised and sealed-off, I think it's a good starting point to try and understand the role of international solidarity in supporting struggles against the common and diverse enemy - capital and its hoarders. I suppose my own fourth point is to build lasting friendships through interaction and cultural exchange.

Today was the first day of action, with meetings from 9-7. Nothing like being in at the deep end after a year of no meetings... The main order of the day was the first of a 3-day workshop entitled "The political conception of the struggle for the earth and territory, and scenarios, and tools for action". The day brought together a range of social movements from across the country, including the Process of Black Communities (PCN), the National Agrarian Association (CNA), and the Cauca Indigenous Commitee (CRIC), given as examples of how this workshop included Afro, campesino and indigenous movements, as well as academic involvement.

The ideological landscape was laid in a talk entitled "Dispossesion, Violence and Economy", coming from the idea of accumulation by dispossession, using a theory of "plunder" / ejection where resources are liberated at zero cost through the economic model / system. 2428 people in Colombia own 44 million hectares - that's 53.5% of the land in a country of 40 million people - which is an average of 18,000 Hectares per person. The next talk explained how the Spanish colonial mentality of administrate, control and dominate has never really ended, through a detailed analysis of the concept of territory.

And I've started coming down with manflu. Excellent, when listening to hours of Spanish - and taking notes - isn't hard enough to concentrate on, my body throws this into the mix as well. Nothing like a challenge though, eh? In at the deep end, adelante.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Breaking point

This is the hardest post I've had to write. The thing with a blog is that you can put your life on a pedestal for all to see. That's what I want this to be, like a diary that other people can snoop into. One perception of this is that I'm bearing all for all to see. Well, I think it's more accurate to say I'm providing a selection of insights, rather than even trying to provide a comprehensive overview of everything. This would be far, far too long and really rather boring. And there are also some things I'd prefer not to share. So this is another selection of highlights - and lowlights.

So since getting back to Colombia from seeing my uncle in Venezuela and arriving in Santa Marta, it's been a busy week. The plan was to head to Parque Tayrona, which I had to pass through rapidly on my way from Cartagena to Caracas. This National Park, on the Carribean coast, would be a highlight of the trip, many people had told me how lush it was and I had high expectations. I also had in mind my rule of expectations - the higher they are, the harder they are to fulfil. This was a golden case in point, but by antiserendipitous circumstances alone.

I met a great guy in Hotel Miramar, the cheapest hostel in central Santa Marta, the only other person in the dorm. He was also up for missioning to Tayrona - not a huge coincidence as Santa Marta is a well-heeled stop-off for folks going there. I got on great with him - I instantly liked him when I heard him talk. The way he spoke with the volume turned down slightly below average gave him a humble quality that juxtaposed his other characteristics of being a school teacher and from the U.S.

The next day we packed up and headed towards Tayrona. I received an email from my then girlfriend 3 days earlier very briefly saying she was still in Tayrona, but failed to mention where exactly, oblivious to the fact that I would also be coming at this time. So, I knew the chances of finding her to be slim, she could have left, and the park is huge, but I thought that if we were in the same park I should at least go through the motions of checking if she was there. I assumed she would go to a campsite mentioned in Lonely Planet, of which there were 4 along one route.

So we missioned on foot, quickly stopping off at each campsite to have a quick check. I found her at the fourth site, totally suprised to see me. A couple of hours later she broke up with me. Unfortunately, sunset having passed, I had to spend the night there. Early, the next morning, I left again, and started the long journey to Bogota. The next day an old friend from uni would be arriving there on a 2 week holiday, who I was planning to hook up with anyway.

So travelling alone. This was always the plan anyway. I can't decide if it was naive of me to think that this wouldn't happen. In the last year, my what-would-today-be-7-years-relationship with my girlfriend was tested to breaking point. Onwards.

Monday, July 13, 2009


After a fairly gruelling 19 hour journey, I'm back in the promised land. I've occupied the cheap but elegant large mock-antique sofa in the centre of the courtyard of Hotel Miramar in Santa Marta, listening to my rocking new mix on my headphones. I don't have a portable music player, so I can only listen to tunes when I have power to plug into. I'm glad I have decent headphones. They want 5000 pesos - about £2 - to use the wifi here - jokers! - so I'm trying out my new wifi cracking software. No luck yet.

I left Caracas on Monday night by bus, aiming for Merida. I chose to stop off here on the way back to Colombia, having heard that there are rocks to climb. I've used my harness and boots only once in San Francisco, and they take up a fairly sizeable part of my bag, so might as well give em some use. Arriving 5 hours after schedule at 1pm, I trekked down Calle 24 towards the cable car - the highest (4700m) and longest (7km) in the world - but also closed for repairs. I'm quite happy with safety-zealousness when it comes to cable cars. Right at the end, Hotel Paty was just what I was looking for, small, cute, family run and cheap - 30 Bolivars (£3).

Tuesday afternoon went on a mission to Jaji, a village a few km away in the hills. Merida is set in the middle of two ridges of the start of the Andes, 1700m up and 19˚ as I'm accurately informed by the welcome sign. Quite spectacular and very lush. Wednesday afternoon, I took a bus on my own to the outskirts of town to find a rock. The workmen working nearby to Roque de San Pedro were highly bemused at the idea of bouldering. Without ropes, I don't really want to climb more than 5ft off the ground, so the idea of bouldering is to traverse horizontally. First one guy sent me up to the top of this hillock clambering through undergrowth, only to return, quite happy with the rock at ground level. It was great to stretch all those muscles I haven't used for about 9 months since last doing it, and I'm still feeling it.

Leaving Venezuela, I can't leave out my thoughts on Chavez. Before coming here, I was fairly supportive of Chavizmo for 4 reasons. First, reforming democracy, he has empowered decision-making at the local level. Second and third, education and health have seen almost 100% literacy rates return to Venezuela and provided (basic) universal free health care. Fourth, his middle finger to the U.S. hegemonic system and development of ALBA (Alternative American trading bloc) is something I like to see.

The other story is the one generally presented in the international media, especially in America (North and South): Chavez is a crackpot despot who is enforcing his tyrannical will on the Venezuelan people. He has only managed to spend on social goods because of the unprecented high oil price in the last 5 years, and it will all come crashing down so he must be got rid of at all costs before it's too late.

Well, I think it's fair to say that my uncle and I were on different sides of Chavez's fence, but after all, I think we're both much closer to the fence than I thought at first. Although I certainly wouldn't want to make too much of it, vague parallels can be drawn to Castro's highjacking of the Cuban Revolution in the 50s (and beyond). Chavez's model of socialism is certainly heavily imposed, and the opposition don't like it, crying election fraud, which I don't know whether or not to believe. Nonetheless, I'm still (just) on the Chavez side. But it's a golden example of how one the most progressive leaders in the world is still a far, far from perfect solution for a political system, particularly one contextually mired chest-deep in neo-liberal hegemony.

It seems the wifi cracking software needs to see someone else's packets being sent in order to snoop in on it. Hmmmm.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Caracas, Venezuela

Sitting at my uncle's dining table overlooking Caracas, it's quite hard to imagine what life in Caracas is really like. Last week I heard he would be going on holiday very soon, so my window of opportunity to spend some time with him and his Venezuelan family was closing by the day. After a 2-day bus journey I made it into the mad world that is Caracas.

After a couple of nice days is Cartagena, it was time to say goodbye to my girlfriend for a while. After 10 months on the road together pretty much 24 hours a day, this was the moment she had been waiting for perhaps a little more than me. Our last night together was certainly not from a Hollywood script. As we set off for an evening stroll, the big screen showing back to back Jacko hits was actually quite a nice bar where we stopped for a drink.

Smoking a cigarette outside, our host from the hostel we were staying - but moved to try and have a more romantic last night - bumped into us. She took it well, and invited us to join her for a spot of aguardiente on a bench on the main promenade leading up to the big clock tower of the old - beautiful - part of the city.

As an amusing anecdote, while we were talking, her dogs went crazy at this fairly dodgy looking street fella, which was unusual for them, which made him even more dodgy. 10 minutes later, another guy walked up to us, fumbled underneath the edge of the bench casually, explaining that he was just picking up something he left there earlier (all of these conversations were in Spanish, naturally). He walked away casually, and delivered his Coke to the dodgy guy.

Anyway, anecdote aside, the conversation with the lady was deep. Having been in Colombia 2 days, I was trying to put it all together for myself. I have read, studied, listened and talked about Colombian realities for the last 4 years in the UK. Actually being here seemed to juxtapose everything that I'd read. It's fine to walk on the streets in the evening. It all seemed rather cosy and a world away from civil war.

The lady's story brought it all crashing back into place again. She explained how her family were indigenous folk living near Medellin in the 1970s. Because her mother worked for and was quite friendly with some of the posh folk, one night they told her that that the shit was going to hit the fan that night. She put her children, aged 3 and 4, underneath the house (which was raised slightly on stilts) in the evening and went to bed as normal. The lady then explained how before dawn, she heard how gunmen murdered practically the whole village, including hearing her parents being shot dead directly above her, at the age of 4. Somehow she managed to find her grandparents and escaped, I don't remember the story very clearly after this point. This kind of put the romance for the evening on the back burner and we didn't really recover it.

The next morning at 7am I took a local bus to the bus station which was over an hour away, and bought a ticket (bargained down to $17.50) for a "direct" bus to Maicao, on the Venezuelan border, supposedly 10 hours away. One change and 14 hours later, I arrived in Maicao. On the way, the bus passed through Barranquilla, then Santa Marta, and the Tayrona National Park, the latter of which I'm heading back to in a few weeks because it is apparently stunning - jungle backing onto white sandy Caribbean sea.

As the bus pulled into Maicao, a local dude had jumped on board and organised the next leg, to Maracaibo, where I was planning on staying the night. Which was actually great timing, because it was already pushing 9pm, with a good "couple" of hours left. He took my bags and slung them in the back of a very large Chevy estate car. Luckily I was expecting this, as this is the only form of transport from here to Maracaibo, the nearest city on the Venezuelan side of the border.

This was a pretty cool journey, cruisin through the South American evening listening to tinny Argentinian pop music. Well, cruising in between the 10 times we were stopped on the road and asked for ID by various layers of Venezuelan authority.

I arrived into Maracaibo bus station at around midnight. Luckily I knew there were some cheap hotels near the back of the bus station, and headed over. Trouble was, I didn't have any Bolivars on me. The official exchange rate is about 2.5 to the dollar. But the black market exchange rate is around 6. So, the hotel owner of the cheapest place said he'd change my money at 3. When I only had a $50 note, that's quite annoying. Luckily after a little while, a guy from the next door hotel popped out to see what the commotion was about. He was a solo traveller from the US, a young teacher with lots of interesting stories. He helped me out bigtime, and saved me a lot in the process.

The next morning I started the next 12 hour journey after breakfast and a quick money change. The other confusing thing is that last year they took 3 zeros off the currency to make it a bit easier, but everyone still talks in thousands. The bus I took was the most luxurious bus I've ever got - huge amounts of room, almost fully reclinable chair - and of course like a fridge.

The only notable part of the journey was crossing Lake Maracaibo. It's a huge inlet from the sea, sitting right on top of an equally huge oilfield. The weird and beautiful thing was the patchwork quilt of green algae over the surface, it looked real trippy, like you could walk on it.

Arriving into Caracas, I hit a really lucky break. As we were getting our bags of the coach, a friendly looking fellow passenger asked where I was going, and offered me a lift. I gave him a once-over, and he was travelling with 3 children. Looked harmless enough. We piled 7 of us into his son's car and raced away from what turns out to be on of the most dangerous places in Caracas.

Caracas is built into a valley. As it's population grew to over 10 million, so it sprawled out it fingers into the surrounding valleys and up the hillsides. Consequently, it afford stunning views almost everywhere you turn.

2 quick observations about Caracas / Venezuela. One is that you can fill a 20 gallon tank of petrol for less than a dollar. The other is that food costs almost the same as the UK. Pretty weird.

Yesterday I managed to convince my uncle to let me out into the city on my own. I was accompanied by his wife most of the way, but then convinced her too that I really didn't need to be shadowed around and really wanted to amble around on my own. I checked out Bolivar's birthplace (he sure wasn't from a poor background) and hung out in the Plaza Bolivar soaking up the atmosphere and watching folk, like most people in Plaza. Not many tourists around, in fact didn't really notice any white folk at all. But nor did I get any sense of insecurity, danger, or a bad vibe at all. But I like it without the tourists, so best to keep up the charade. Tell everyone it's really, really dangerous!

In between being allowed into the city - actually it's more practical, as there isn't any public transport from my uncle's house - I'm learning html and php web languages. Might as well make myself useful... gotta go, gotta stir the famous Heston Blumenthal bolognese - the all day cooking meat in milk one. Mmmm mmmm. Dammit, didn't write about Venezuelan politics.... ha, the elephant in the room. Next post, I promise.

Sorry for the lack of photos, my camera got eaten by the postman sending it from Nicaragua to Panama. Will get another soon...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Promised Land

Thursday 25th June
Cartagena, Colombia

All right! After 4 months and 14 days in Panama, we have escaped! This Spanish pilot, Pepe, saw the car on Saturday, gave us the deposit on Sunday, the rest of the dough on Monday and Tuesday we flew out of Panama (not with Pepe though!). It sure felt weird flying for the first time this trip, but I didn't fancy paying $380 for a 5-day luxury yacht trip, nor hanging out in Colón (where gringos last no more than a few minutes without being robbed) trying to skank a ride on a cargo boat, nor trekking through the Darian. Another day... but I will try the boat thing on the way back up (towards Burning Man).

I will miss as a treat going to the fish market first thing in the morning to get a big red snapper to bake for $3, as well as a pound of seabass for $1.75 to make into ceviche for lunch.

I will miss the good european style lager from the hole-in-the-wall shop directly outside the apartment front door, chilled, for 25 pence a 330ml bottle, in returnable bottles.

I will miss going to listen to Reggaeton on big systems outdoors with a coolbox full of ice, a bottle each of rum and ginger ale, and Marco, our big friendly black Panamanian ever-smiling new friend.

I will miss slinging our shit into the back of the car and driving from one place to the next without waiting for buses.

I will miss the parties on the rooftop terrace of our apartment, with daiquiri/mojito in hand and looking out over Panama Bay, especially the one that turned into the panama couchsurfing birthday party.

I will miss Baños Publicos! They used to be public toilets, and in proper squat style had been turned into a sick bar right in the heart of the oldest part of Panama City. Then they did a remodel last week, and 4 hours before opening a very large section of façade from the adjoining building fell onto the roof of Baños, collapsing the entire roof. Thankfully it didn't happen 4 hours later, or I might very well be dead. No-one was hurt. Mad shit.

I won't miss finding a safe place to park.

I won't miss the lack of street food (or any cheap food) at night (i.e. after 7pm).

I won't miss hanging out on the swimming pool terrace of the Hotel Veneto watching guys take turns to take a prostitute up to their room.

I won't miss answering the telephone to people vaguely (or not even) interested in buying the car, asking us our lowest price before even seeing the car, then arranging to meet them and them maybe showing up, maybe on time, before telling us they will definately call us tomorrow either way.

I won't miss actually wondering what it would be like to retire in Panama....

Monday, June 8, 2009

Panamanian Plates!

It's been a while. Things have been less adventurous the last few weeks, we're making plans for retirement in Panama, as we're resigned to the fate of never leaving here. Before leaving, Panama would not have been in my top 20 list of places to spend 4 months (it's still not). But, in between running around jumping through car import hoops, it's actually been nice to have some time and space to think and develop my ideas about what I want to do now and on return to the UK. I've started a film script (which is back on the back burner), and I've made a mix.

beans with holes in like this make you sick

In fact, I've made a new blog. You can download the mix there, for those that did download the first one, this is a much better version, the levels are MUCH better, it sounds much more punchy. If you're not sure which one you've got, the latest version ends has mastered in brackets. In terms of genre it's electronic dance music, and style it's all over the place but on a breakbeat/jungle tip. It sounds good on big speakers.

So right now we're housesitting Rose's apartment in Casco Viejo, the top floor end apartment with a balcony, stunning view over the sea and a breeze (pretty important here). She's been away in the States for 3 weeks and is back tonight, when we'll decamp into Room 2 - the bottom floor place with no balcony and a crappy single camp bed and no kitchen - but 'only' $7.50 a night.

We met an English couple a couple of weeks ago - who bought a car in California, went to Burning Man and then drove down here! It's funny, we're soooo similar, it's quite scary. They sold their car within a week, as it is, no import or nothing. Bastards. It's a Japanese car, which they lap up here, as everyone drives them making parts and repairs much easier. We couldn't find a decent Japanese car at the only dealer in NY state that would get our car registered on the sly...

On which note, we now have Panamanian plates! That took 2 months! It involved going to the customs broker with documents, waiting 6 weeks going to the Customs office ourselves to get the pre-declaration where they stung us for a $2300 bill in import taxes - by which stage it was too late to get it done cheaper by paying a bit under the table. Then back to the brokers, withdraw $2300 in $300 batches a day, pay it into a bank account, then back to the brokers twice. Then to the DIJ - the Police Investigators Office - to get a police check. We got there on Thursday, at 6am, which wasn't early enough. Friday we got there at 4.30am to discover they don't do checks on a Friday. Then Monday at 4.30am we got checked & told to come back Wednesday. Came back Wednesday, not ready yet. Thursday we picked it up & the friendly cop gave us his phone number (weird). Friday we went to the Council office outside the city, and got pulled over by a jumped-up little shit of a cop for trying to change lane in the wrong place (!).

He asked us for our passports. We are 4 months into a 3 month tourist visa, because of this bullshit taking so long. He didn't care, and we drove over the police hut on the junction. The 'tourist police' got called over. The little jumped-up shit then asked us for the car keys, saying he was taking the car and going to arrest us. I called our man in the Investigators Office, briefly explained that this jumped-up little shit wants to take our car, and passed the phone to the jumped-up little shit. He listened for 15 seconds and passed the phone back. I had a quick chat with him, he asked how much of a gift I might want to give him. I said 40, he said no problem, pass him over. 30 seconds later, the cop is letting us go and passes us over to the Tourist Police. They give us a jolly good telling off for not having the correct paperwork and show us the way to the Council Office!

So we get to the Council Office, queue for 20 minutes, to be told that we're missing a stamp and to go back to Customs to get it. Outside, the Investigator Cop call back, and explains that he told the jumped-up little shit that we were good friends of his and to make everything as easy as possible for us. He was relaxed about getting his 'gift', said he was glad to be of help. I then explained about the missing stamp, he said to pass him over to so-and-so, who told me to see so-and-so, the boss in the office at the back. Here I passed the phone again, and suddenly the boss brightened immensely to be talking to an old friend, they joked about a 'gift' of a dollar, and he told us not to worry about the stamp.

So, without this cop's number, we would be possibly in prison, but definately have the car impounded. I'm trying to figure out my moral position on this one. I think that the root is the facist cop demanding to see our papers for no legal reason. This is the system in place - they can demand to see your passport at any time - you have to carry it (or a copy). Sounds like Nazi-Occupied Europe - "you're pepperz plees". The friendly cop is just an aberration to disguise a shit system - kind of like George Monbiot disguising the Guardian that is otherwise a mainstream corporate funded rag.

But we're not done yet! So we 'inscribe' the car at the Council and pay $5. Then we drive back into the city, go into Banco Nacional and pay $10 into some account. Then we go to get a 'pre-revisado' - kind of like an MOT, but without the testing/checking part. They take some photos and write down some basic details about the car, and take $16 to give you a piece of paper telling you how many doors the car has. Then we need insurance. We trek to an office, and sit around for an hour while our policy is written up. Because the car is over 9 years old (10), we can't have a $30 monthly policy, we have to buy a $130 yearly policy. Great. At least they only take $43 now, then the other 2 payments in installments on my credit card - which at first they refuse to accept but after repeated assurances that this is a Visa card like any other, and 3 phone calls, we're sorted.

So, out of time on Friday, this morning (Monday) we went back to San Miguelito for 6.30am - by taxi this time - to swap our NY title (and our mountain of photocopied paperwork), for a Panamanian one (only having to wait for 1 hour). Then we take this to another office (thankfully 5 minutes walk away), past the cops that seem to be growling at us (a few skipped heartbeats - we are still techinically "illegals" in their eyes). And, hey presto, we swap some more copies of forms with $12 (50% discount today!) for a number plate!!!

I can't imagine anyone is still reading this, but there it is, the Panamanian Car Import Process. Now, all we need is a buyer...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

End of our tether

Sunday 22nd March 2009

6 weeks on, and we are still in Panama City, having planned to be here for 2-4 weeks. I guess selling a car isn't that straightforward. Well, this will be the last car I ever own. My girlfriend and I are nearing the end of our tether, not much hair left to tear out. We are couchsurfing, and have stayed for free with Christian and Kadir for the last 6 weeks.

These 2 are jokers, one is a straight air steward, the other works on boats (what else in Panama City?). We are sleeping on the sofa in their living room. Which is the first time I've slept on someone's sofa. What I hadn't prepared myself for is that this means slinking off to bed is not an option – either last to bed or going to sleep in the thick of things. Which is fine... for a while. Nonetheless, they have been wonderfully accomodating, and with the other Canadian girls staying it's a bit like a hostel, which is exactly the vibe they're trying to create.

It's been great having a kitchen. We have been busy making delicious wholemeal bread, rye bread, ceviche, iced coffee, yum yum... check out recipes and more pics at this blog.

The highlight of the last few weeks has to be Carnivale! We were invited to go with Marco to Las Tablas – apparently the place to go. And it was out of this world. A 4 day affair, what makes this one special is that there is a 50 year tradition of rivalry between carnival queens. One is from Calle Arriba (upper street) and the other from Calle Abajo (lower street). Each has their own float, and entourage. And we were with Calle Arriba – the posh lot – by virtue of our hosts. We had a place to stay nearby, with the family of Lourdes, one of the kru.

Before arriving in Panama, a Colombian friend back home suggested I look up a friend of his in Panama. What has developed is an extremely interesting social phenomenon. She is a trusted friend of my good and trusted friend. So, I have discovered for myself the law of triangular friendship/trust relationships – it seems like we have known each other for years. And her brother with whom she lives has bent over backwards to help us with the car selling. And Marco is her ex-boyfriend, and her brother's business partner, and now also a friend of ours. Visiting another city where you have friends has been wonderful at helping feel connected to the place.

So one morning at Las Tablas I woke up with an intense hangover, and came into the living room. On the TV was coverage of the Carnival. Looking closer at the TV presenter, I realised it was none other than Lourdes. How peculiar. After a quick breakfast, we proceeded for what turned out to be the daily routine – hit the carnival for the daytime session, check out the floats and get drunk. Every session (day/night) each Queen had a new float, as well as their princesses. So that's 32 different themed floats for the Carnival! Then back home, a quick bite and a nap, then back out on the streets for the night-time. We had been warned about looking after ourselves – but being with a local, Marco, and Ariel (a 6ft4 American football player) made it the safest place to be.

Back in Panama City, with my laptop charger bust in a flood, I have devoured books. Having spent 6 years at uni, reading was not something I enjoyed doing in my spare time. But now, a thirst is being quenched. Days of War, Nights of Love is a book by the CrimethInc Collective written in the 90s, a highly inspiration collection of anarcho-inspired readings. Then The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, a disturbing dystopian story parodying contemporary patriarchy and government control. And Cuban Anarchism, translated by Frank Fernandez, a concise history chronicling the hard work put in by Cuban anarchists prior to the Revolution, and the bitter disagreements amongst anarchists over supporting Castro's version it during his reign. Then Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, who fictionalises the 1930s wave of forced migration by US peasants to California in search of the American Dream. Finally Adelle Davis' 1950 Let's Eat Right To Keep Fit, a handy summary of the importance of vitamins, fats and protein in the diet and plenty of scientific anecdotes (unfortunately all involving animal testing). The library in Panama City has some crackers (not all the above though – 2 were from the Anarchist Bookstore in San Francisco).

Furthering our bourgeious dalliance at the Carnival, we were invited to a cheese and wine evening at a penthouse apartment in a skyrise last week – quite a view. A bit more down to earth, two bars are my joint favourite.

The first is Baños Publicos – yep, that translates as public toilets – a squatted place in the heart of Casco Antiquo, the original city that got ransacked by the infamous Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 and left in photogenic decay ever since. And it has a real squat vibe, with live salsa and reggae, a BYO alcohol policy and replete with porcelain toilet pan. The other is Bar de Cuba, which is a great place given the classy San Francisco neighbourhood, with arcade games, a pool table and $1 beers. On that note, from the Chino (local shop run by Chinese folk – as is every local shop) beer is cheaper than well-known soft drinks here (hurray!) - 40 US cents – 25 pence a bottle!

It has been nice to escape the city regularly at weekends. Last weekend we took a 3 hour trip back down the Panamerican Highway to El Valle, a town in the crater of a massive volcano, surrounded by a ring a hills. Inside is a special place, with a magical feel. We stayed at Shwami's campsite [link], a hippy campsite run by a sound Panamanian rasta, the black sheep of his family. We had time to check out the cool waterfall, but not the hot springs, as we were invited to lunch at Rico's parents' place. They designed and built it themselves and filled it full of their own stunning artwork. And a little bit of magic happened when we saw a hummingbird fly to its nest on a windchime actually on the patio area, to feed its 2 hungry mouthed children, right in front of our faces.

And the best bit of news – we both got our scholarship tickets to Burning Man for this year! To finish the trip in style! So $110 instead of $260, for a week of delectable hedonist debauchery – underlined by the principle of mutual aid - in the middle of the Nevada desert.


Friday 13th February 2009

Sipping gin and tonic on a balcony overlooking a park, hearing that Bonjovi track in the background behind. This is the life of a couchsurfer. My feet hurt, I could say I'm tired but the gin won't let me. Today has been spent hanging around at the mechanic's, who was fitting a replacement Oxygen Sensor on the car (these measure the mixture of fuel and air before and after the catalytic converter, returning a voltage between 0 and 1 Volt to the car's computer). The thing being broken means the "Check Engine" light is on on the dash, which needs to not be on to sell it.

That's the ostensible aim here in Panama City, to sell the damn car. It seems actually quite a good place to do that: there appears to be quite a lot of money around here. It's quite out of place in Central America after these months on the road. From Mexico southward, things got slowly more, different, relaxed, poor, rural, dusty. Then from leaving Nicaragua into Costa Rica, things took a turn for the worse. More expensive, more mimicry of Western capitalism. The large U.S. expat and holidaying "community" make travelling in a US vehicle less of a thing I want to be a part of.

our couchsurfing host, Christian

I'm glad I brought my chameleon suit (does that make me a metachameleon?). We got to Panama City quite lost, and ended up driving for 3 hours in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic trying to find Casco Antiguo. This is the old part of town that the infamous Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sacked in 17something when he decided he didn't like the Spanish but did want their gold. So we found our hotel, which looks like it hasn't changed much since Henry Morgan was here. Which of course made it a wonderful place to be, crumbling wallpaper, high ceilings, an amazing tiled lobby complete with an art deco garden table and 4 chairs, a splendid rooftop patio (no breakfasts here though), and finally nothing better than the cheapest digs in town at 11 bucks a night for us both.

Hotel Colón

So, the chameleon... get on with it. A friend from home gave me a contact of a friend of his from Bogota, who now lives in Panama. So on Saturday night, we met up and hit the town. First stop was Bennigans, the now-defunct-in-the-US chain restaurant. It's really bizzare - in Central American big cities, U.S. chain restaurants (McDonalds et al) are actually the preserve of the middle/upper class, by a considerable price margin. Well, we had a couple of beers in this place, jammed to the rafters with posh Panamanians. Then, through our friend's friends, hung out in what appeared to be the most exclusive club in town.

I think the best way to describe the theme was arctic. Air conditioning down to the max (or min...) and white everywhere. The way to drink is to buy a bottle of vodka and some flaggons of cranberry, and serve yerself DIY style. Luckily I didn't see the bill. Then after a while of shaking rhymically to stay warm and alive, we headed next door for more vodka and reggaeton.

The next day, we were invited to a barbeque at our friend's best friend's house, and had a classic Sunday sojourn. Supping and munching pretty much all day and well into the evening, it was a much needed day off before the missions with the car. I had my chameleon suit on (with tact tie in a windsor knot) when I got in a long conversation with a chap who in the end offered me a job with his "lead generation" company, in perfect American English. Lead generation (as in business leads, pronounced leeds, not lead, as in piping) involves facilitating the expansion of businesses - I highly suspect that this involves fuelling the greed of our not-so-favourite multinational corporations - and thought I was very tactful in my polite declination. I have to confess I did say that if my tax refund cheque doesn't arrive soon I would (be forced) take his kind offer.