Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie Reviews

The election, as expected, turned out to be a resounding victory for Uribe. My wife was disappointed, but her candidate has no chance - less than 1% of the vote. At any rate, there isn't much to do in Colombia on election weekends because there are "dry" laws. They don't allow people to buy or sell alcohol during elections or other important national events, which is probably clever. It doesn't really help the turnout, but at least people aren't out until 3 in the morning getting trashed the night before the election.

Not that we are big party animals at this point, but with few other options, we saw a couple movies over the weekend. The first was Match Point. This movie has been out for awhile, but I really didn't know anything about it. That's probably because it's a Woody Allen movie and I normally have a strict prohibition on all of his productions. Maybe it's his miserably stupid portrayal of sexual relations between men and women and the central theme of cheating that seem to dominate his films or maybe it's just that I think his movies generally suck. Either way, I've never been a fan of his films.

Match Point, however, was surprisingly good in a depressing way. It takes place in London, so it's got some nostalgia going for it and it stars Scarlett Johansson, so it's got that going for it as well. But it's a pretty good movie overall and it's certainly a clever characterization of the English. I didn't really like the climax, mostly because it was an extremely dark portrayal of humanity, but overall a good flick.

On Sunday we went to The Da Vinci Code. We both enjoyed it, but I definitely understand the criticism of the movie. Now, I wouldn't give it the dismal reviews that it's received in tons of newspapers. In fact, I think the terrible reviews just reveal how totally unclever and at times, monstrously stupid movie reviews can be. It's not a bad movie by any stretch, no matter how many reviewers hated it. No, my theory for the bad reviews is that the expectations were extremely high and when they didn't meet those expectations, the reviews went south. Classicly myopic, if you ask me.

At any rate, the most noticeably surprising thing about the movie (aside from the fact that they changed the ending) was that it's clearly not an action/adventure movie. There are very few moments when one feels genuine danger for the characters. Instead, Ron Howard focused more on the history and the conspiracy. I think he got it wrong on that one. In fact, I think he clearly wasted time doing things that were unnecessary. The introduction of Tom Hanks' character, for example, was something they invented and took between 5-10 minutes of film time. To make the movie truly great, they needed a better blend of action and conspiracy.

In the end, however, we enjoyed it and it's definitely the type of movie that gets one talking. We had a bit of a theological conversation afterwards, which was revealing. It's amazing just how deep the Mary Magdalene was a prostitute myth has perpetrated Catholic teaching, for example. Find that one in the Bible for me, won't you?

Friday, May 26, 2006

South America at the Crossroads

Sunday's presidential election is critically important, not only for the future of Colombia, but also for the future of South America. The last several years have seen a shifting of popular support toward the left in several major notable situations. What began in Venezuela, continued in Bolivia. The continent's largest economy, Brazil, already has a left of center government and there's a very real possibility that Peru could be next.

What is clear, is that Colombia will not follow the trend toward the left. Uribe will definitely win the election and it's very likely that a runoff will not be necessary. (Colombia is surprisingly progressive - if a candidate wins with less than 50%, the top two have a runoff.)

This is very good for US interests, and likely for the continent's interests. What's obvious, however, is that certain members of the American left will never see the vast importance of a US-leaning Colombia. When you remove the lense of Plan Colombia, the benefits are fairly obvious.

First, when discussing the future of South America, the elephant in the room is Chavez-led Venezuela. As is often the case with far left leaning governments, Chavez entered office on a wave of popular support. On a continent with roughly 26 million people in poverty, years of support for one political affiliation can easily swing the other way. This latest round of leftist politics specifically appeals to the poorest of the poor because of the initial rounds of benefits that populist leaders bring to the people. Venezuela, for example, buys off the public with artifically low gas prices. A tank of gas in Caracas costs, roughly, about a dollar.

This doesn't mean that the Chavez led government is without tangible benefits to the population. The spike in oil prices has enabled Chavez to allocate resources for education, health care, and other social services. All of these are directly benefiting his people.

The problem, of course, is that those types of gains, while certainly enjoyable do very little to alleviate the long term causes of poverty. In fact, there is a host of evidence that poverty and crime are actually increasing in Venezuela. Long term poverty alleviation differs by country, but the general prescription calls for the development of domestic industries, foreign investment, and the (relatively) free flow of trade between nations, both regionally and the far abroad. At least that's the liberal economic wager that the world economy has been based on since the conclusion of World War II.

Chavez has not only alienated himself from his biggest trading partner, the US, but has actively worked to undermine the system of free trade that has existed in South America for decades. His decision to pull out of the Andean Community Trade Bloc and focus on MERCOSUR, a left leaning trade bloc that includes Argentina and Uruguay is a telling example of just how leftist politics can be misguided or even dangerous. Chavez sees affiliation as zero-sum, thus his response to the US-Colombian Free Trade agreement was to abandon a system that had facilitated the free exchange of goods for decades.

Having a staunch US ally means having an ally for the global free trade system and liberal economics. Colombia just signed a free trade agreement with the US and has great potential to positively influence Ecuador and Peru. Critical to the US strategy in South America is free trade agreements across the continent. Obviously that won't be forthcoming with Veneuela or Bolivia, but having Colombia on board furthers that goal.

Of course, the other benefit of a right-leaning Colombia is that it gives the US more influence in South America. Colombia does have influence over Ecuador and Peru, as well as an important relationship with Brazil. The US having a foothold in one of the stronger South American countries is an important counterbalance to the dogmatic, leftist Chavez.

In the end, we don't know if liberal economics is the key to eliminating extreme poverty. It's the big gamble that the world embarked on 5 decades ago, a gamble that played large, but vastly uneven benefits. But we know that the politics of the extreme left (much like the politics of the extreme right) lead to economic stagnation and worsening poverty. Governments that take populist decisions, while democratic (the Holy Grail of international political buzzwords), correlate with short term gains and long term difficulties.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Home Alone

Well, the wife's in Toronto on business and isn't coming back until tomorrow night. I've been on my own since Friday. On Saturday, I drove the family (abuelitos y cunado) out to Cota, a suburb of Bogota. We had a really nice lunch and it was a beautiful day. At night, I went with my cunado to a party at one of his friend's house. It's traditional in Colombia to play Parchisi for money at parties. Very odd. I haven't played in a VERY long time and barely remembered the rules. But when the stakes are less than $1, well, it's not exactly a big gamble. Beer, aguardiente, and parchisi means a good time. I went home early to wait for my nightly phone call.

Yesterday I did absolutely nothing. It was awesome. Well, to be fair, I did my homework, but that was it. Never left the house; never got dressed.

I started working at an English Institute this morning. I've been teaching private classes, but this was the first time at an actual institute with a designed curriculum. I'm not convinced I'm going to like it. For starters, it's usual to teach between 6am-10am. I did 6-8am this morning. If there's one thing I hate, it's waking up at 5am. It's too damn early to think, not to mention drink coffee or function properly.

At any rate, the major problem is that the course and curriculum are really stupid. I fear that the people who are taking the class are not getting their money's worth. To properly explain this, I have to describe the structure of the course.

Each student has their own course book. The book is divided into lessons (40, I think). Each lesson contains a small vocabulary section, some reading, and some grammar (and exercises). This isn't all bad in itself. Sure, it has a healthy dose of stupidity. For example, today's vocabulary was "Extreme Sports", which I'm sure will be oh so useful. At any rate, the big problem isn't really the course material.

No, the real problem is that each "session" lasts for 1 hour and then the teacher moves to another group. Students do two sessions at a time, for the most part. The company thinks this is their brilliant idea that will put them over the top versus the competition (in addition to paying their teachers scraps from Longshank's table). Instead, it smacks of colossal idiocy. The point is, one hour doesn't allow for continuity or, more importantly, deviation from the script. We, as teachers, have 10 minutes or less of that hour to spend in conversation - which, frankly, is the most important thing for beginning to intermediate students.

Take this morning, for example. Just as I was getting a feel for the two students in my group, it was necessary to switch to a different room and start anew with a different student. To me, that is stupid. These students want intensive instruction in English but the curriculum is definitely not intensive and the structure of the course is, frankly, designed for disruption, not continuity. Instead of spending significant time practicing with topical English (day to day discussion), we're spending time learning the various names for watersports and crimes (the 2nd lesson was the different types of theft). It's amazing that this company has been around for 10 years.

Of course, all of this is in stark contrast to my language institute, High Technology in Learning. Their system is quite clever really and I have very much enjoyed my course. Tomorrow will mark the conclusion of the Basic level and I feel good about where I am. My understanding and comprehension are doing very well, and I've mastered the art of bad conversational Spanish. Seriously, I'm doing very well and my teacher is very pleased with my progress. To go from zero ("yo quiero Taco Bell") to basic competency in less than 2 months is pretty rock solid.

Indeed, there is something totally unexpected and pleasing about conversing in a different language. In fact, I find myself really starting to enjoy my classes. I think in the beginning it's extremely difficult to enjoy the process - instead, progress is slow, painful, and frustrating. But now that I have a feel for the language and my vocabulary is advancing, I'm enjoying being able to express myself. It's like I tangibly accomplish something every single day and that's a good feeling.

At any rate, I give High Technology in Learning my highest recommendation. Converting to dollars, it cost somewhere in the range of $700 for 120 hours of instruction, which I believe to be reasonable. The course is cleverly designed, the institute is a very nice environment, and the teacher, while having some quirky ideas, is competent, patient, and at times, brilliant. I think I'll definitely be enrolling in the Intermediate course.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Coming Election

I read about Colombian politics from time to time as it's (obviously) an area of interest. Generally, Colombia's problems are not so exceptional in the developing world (and developed world, I dare say) in that the government struggles with corruption, urban planning, rural development, and border controls. The difference, of course, is that Colombia is betwixt between two equally sharp and interlocking points - drugs and guerrillas. These two problems have been enduring concerns of greater or lesser severity over the last 50+ years.

This is an interesting period, however, as Colombia has experienced unprecedented security and prosperity in the last 6 years and now the population faces an important decision: to continue with the Uribe regime, a sometimes corrupt and bloody government, or roll the dice on a new president. I see any outcome other than 4 more years of Uribe as exceedingly unlikely, but that doesn't mean that it won't be a tight election in the end. It's about the economy, stupid, and anyone who thinks otherwise is outthinking themselves.

Some organizations, notably American organizations, are strongly advocating a change of leadership. Their arguments, in sum, pretty much amount to pointing at the Uribe government's inability to solve corruption and violence, as well as a general (and accurate) critique of the US funded Plan Colombia. These organizations, while performing a valiant advocacy, far short of a little thing I like to refer to as reality.

Even though the people who work for those organizations are obviously diligent, intelligent, and well intentioned, but to me, lack one fundamental quality necessary for any dispassionate analysis of the political development of Colombia (or any nation): objectivity. It's quite aggravating to see impassioned advocacy divorced from objectivity because implicit in their message is corruption, violence, and drug problems can easily disappear under different leadership. Sadly, that's unlikely at best.

No, the truth is, Colombia is making progress but it is the sort of progress that is generational, evolutionary, and incredibly slow. I will not, at this point, pretend to be an expert on Colombia, but it does seem obvious that this culture is changing at a very slow and incremental pace. With economic development, investment, and the increased focus on education have come a coincidental increase in the independence of women, the altering of the familial structure, and a reshaping of Colombian culture. In a lot of ways, Colombia is where the US was at the beginning of the 1960's: a machismo (male dominated) culture that is inevitably changing for the better.

What does this mean for Colombia? Well for starters, women no longer need men for economic stability. With the new found sense of independence, a rising divorce rate will inevitably follow. It's quite traditional in this culture for women to internalize the acceptance of cheating - it's what men do - or some such nonsense. That traditional sense of self-oppression is slowly being overturned and the men of this country have a rude awakening coming.

But even more so than the dynamic between men and women, what seems immanently clear is that the end to violence and corruption is more than simply a political formula. There is no leader that is going to miraculously solve the problem and any analysis that suggests otherwise is foolish. No, progress in Colombia (and likely in other nations) is a generational process. When sufficient members of society have an equally strong stake in the continued prosperity and growth of the national wealth, then the incentives to resort to violence in an organized fashion will diminish.

And that's why I think Uribe is the right choice. When you discuss economic prosperity in terms of a developing nation, you're speaking mostly of foreign investment. Domestic enterprises are without a doubt critically important, but really, the largest sums of capital come from abroad. As anyone with a thimblefull of knowledge about the stock market is aware, investors are inherently flighty. They don't like change - they like stability at all costs. Investors can deal with corruption. They can deal with internal political problems. But they can't deal with violence in the business centers. They don't want their investments jeopardized by bombs going off or by "revolutionaries" carting off the profits.

Uribe makes sense because, while at the micro level he's got his fair share of troubles, at the macro level he's got the right idea: secure the cities, foster a climate for economic growth through foreign and domestic investment, and establish the necessary linkages (free trade) to lock in economic growth for the long run. To change course on that strategy mid-stream would be a grave risk to the long term prosperity of the country - and I believe illogical.

Just don't tell my wife...

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bizarro Protest Time

We had a bit of protest here in Bogota this week. It was bizarre, not particularly clever, and at times dangerous. First some background.

In 2000, Bogota instituted a mass transit system titled "TransMilenio". It's a series of extra-large buses that are owned and operated by the city. An underground train system was considered, but Bogota is located in a very wet valley and laying tunnels sufficient to prevent leakage were cost prohibitive. Fortunately, TransMilenio has been widely successful. In fact, it is so successful that the mayor decided to expand the system. Tuesday marked the opening of Phase 2.

Concurrently, Bogota is besieged by private buses. Since historically there has been no public transport, two phenomenon were created by the free market: an armada of yellow taxis and a fleet of private buses. This system served the city for a long period of time but ultimately is ineffective for two reasons: massive traffic and noxious pollution.

The introduction of public transportation, however beneficial at the "macro" level, is entirely unpopular with the private bus industry. In 2000, when the TransMilenio was launched, there were protests and strikes. I did not fully understand what that meant until this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were no buses on the roads. It was bizarro. Schools were closed, people couldn't get to work, and I, blessedly, was able to motor around the city with 1/3 the traffic as normal. For me, the protest was simply awesome. For others, however, the protest meant lost wages and potentially lost jobs.

The "protesters" went beyond not just driving buses, however. Indeed, some used their buses to block the TransMilenio meaning no one could get to work. Others resorted to more violent means (re: engaged in nobbery) - including throwing rocks and bottles at buses that "broke the strike" or other vehicles that evoked their wrath. Now, all of this wasn't going on where I live. Instead, the violence was in the South - once again, the poorest of the poor took the brunt of the burden.

From my perspective, and virtually everyone I've talked to agrees on this, the protest was colossal stupidity for at least 5 reasons:

1. TransMilenio is here to stay.

The roads are built, the buses are purchased, the drivers are hired. No amount of protest is going to turn back the clock. In fact, there is empirical evidence to back up this claim. They didn't stop it in 2000; they weren't stopping now. The Mayor backed me up on this. He said, quoted roughly, "I'll be happy to talk to the protesters about their concerns, but as long as they know that TransMilenio is here to stay and will expand again in the future." Futile protests serve no one.

2. The protest was poorly timed.

The appropriate time to launch a protest is when legislation is being considered - not when it is implemented. The people had every opportunity to make their position about TransMilenio clear during the leglislative process - either through direct participation or protests - and chose not to. To strike on the day that Phase II is opening is right up there with Reggie Evans desperate search for Chris Kaman's twig and berries in game 4 of the Clips-Nuggets NBA playoff game.

3. The pollution benefit was clear.

The mayor had three main motivations for establishing TransMilenio: a) it's cheaper for Bogatanos, b) it should help alleviate some of the traffic, and c) it means less pollution. The private buses, in short, are a wart on the ass of Bogota. I've thought since I arrived that to remove the private buses would be a blessing for the city because they are obviously responsible for the bulk of the worst pollution. Finally, I have been proved correct. I don't have the exact figures (heard the translation), but there was a significant, measured drop in urban air pollution on Tuesday/Wednesday (in the neighborhood of 30%) simply because there were no buses. Thank you for demonstrating the absolute validity of the mayor's argument.

4. The protest hurt the clients the most.

Let's get this straight. You drive a bus, you fear you're going to be out of a job because of government policy, and your decision on how to effect public opinion is to prevent your client base (i.e. the general public) using the service to provide. Clever. What is now entirely apparent is that not only are the private buses more expensive, but they are also totally unreliable. If there was any effect on public opinion, it appears that the strike largely convinced the public that the mayor should speed up the next phase of TransMilenio, not slow it down.

5. The safety benefit was obvious.

This is not on the mayor's list, but probably should be. The private buses are extremely accident prone and just flat out dangerous. Driving in Bogota is already a hazardous experience (full length post on this forthcoming), with buses and taxis the gravest risks. I can't relate the number of times that I have had monstrous buses pull out in front of me suddenly, take a left turn from the right lane, swerve dangerously in and out of traffic, or just slowly ease into my lane as if I were not there. These buses are not just a nuisance, they are dangerous hazard.

Of course, the reason for this behavior is that bus drivers get paid by the number of passengers they collect. So buses constantly slide from the center of the street to the side of the street to pick up passengers. (There are no bus stops. There are only people flagging buses down as is they were taxis.)

Tuesday and Wednesday were notable days for many reasons, but the ease of commuting can not be understated. For the first (non-holiday) time, I did not have to drive with my hand on the horn, ready to blare at the slightest moments notice.

At any rate, now that life is back to normal, the buses are back, the pollution is back, and the dangers are back. It is very clear that systemically bankrupt protests did nothing to slow the expansion of public transportation in Bogota, just as it is clear that the sooner those people are out of a job, the sooner the city progresses.

(And no, I'm not a heartless bastard. The mayor, a leftist, has offered job training, placement, and education services to bus drivers put out of work because of TransMilenio. Surprisingly, the drivers ignore the courteous efforts of the government.)

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