Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Well, it's been a busy week. We went to Anapoima over the weekend (3-day weekend, that is) but we're back and busy, as usual. I finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and I have to say it's a good book, but not a great book. There are some very obvious and remarkable observations in the book, but the author has a flair for the melodramatic and, while obviously describing a very particular aspect of foreign assistance, brushes broad strokes over all foreign aid.

In other words, I have serious doubts that his main argument (foreign aid is a self-serving way to impoverish the developing world so that they do what we want) is applicable to the entire category of foreign assistance. In fact, I'm quite sure that it can't be applied. While his narrative is certainly vital to some of the large scale development projects (see Iraq, reconstruction, Haliburton), there is a great deal of development assistance that does more good than bad.

My perspective is influenced partially from an academic position (although development is clearly not one of my most versed areas), but also from someone who has observed firsthand what foreign aid can do for a country, as well as discussed this topic extensively with people in the field.

These inquiries - academic, social, and dramatic - have led me to a rather startling conclusion about development. While these thoughts may be rather novicelike (or may not, I don't know since I have not extensively read much of the academic literature), I have a 3 point plan for what I'll deem "Clever Development". These steps represent some initial thoughts on the subject, should not be seen as authoritative, nor as in order of importance.

Step 1

Infrastructure - An awful lot has been written and said about large scale development projects - Dams, Power Plants, ect. - but not as much attention has been paid to a less sophisticated, but vitally important form of infracture: transportation. The simplest form, roads, is absolutely critical for countries such as Colombia and Ecuador (large jungles) and Bolivia (land locked) to get their goods to markets at reasonable costs.

However, throughout South America and Africa (don't know about Asia), building and maintaining roads hasn't exactly been a top priority. In Colombia, that's likely because of the associated dangers of building roads in remote areas. No one wants their engineers, laborers, or drivers shot up or kidnapped by the guerillas. But, in other countries, this omission is without a doubt, inexplicable.

For example, in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, many farmers have two options for crop development - legal and illegal. The legal crops, having a variety of faults, often give way to poppy or coca. Those products not only reap greater financial gains, but they also don't have the same issues with market delivery. A farmer that grows mangos in a remote region simply isn't going to be able to win back his investment if there isn't sufficient infrastructure to ensure timely delivery of said mangos prior to spoilage.

Step 2

Regional Development Plans (RDPs)- I have no idea if I coined the phrase or read it elsewhere. Most likely I'm borrowing it (from Jeffrey Sachs), but RDPs are vitally important for sustainable regional markets in developing countries. Much of the focus in "development" over the last few decades has been on "globalization". Countries are told to open markets, deregulate corporations, float currencies, and make national government spending more transparent. I won't contest those measures as I'm not economist.

However important the macroeconomic picture is, I feel that the regional (internal) picture has been ignored, or at least slighted. Developing nations need to have sustainable local markets to ensure that they can compete on the international level, but also so that they can keep currency in country. It doesn't serve the developing nation if all the profits flow to the developed world. That cycle (as we have witnessed over the last 50 years) merely makes fat cats in the US and Europe richer, while keeping the majority of the world wallowing in abject poverty.

I'll give you an example. The southern portion of Colombia is primarily a potato growing region. For whatever agricultural reasons, other crops don't grow as well there. Thus, the area is highly dependent on the fluxuation of potato prices both internationally and domestically. The government here has little or no interest in providing stability to those regional economies, and thus, the south is an area disproportionately effected by guerillas and narcotraffickers (the two go together like gin and tonic).

Personally, I don't blame poor farmers for choosing to supplement a highly unstable supply of income with a very stable and high earning crop like coca. When you see total and complete poverty, it doesn't take long to figure out that words like "illegal" or "legal" really don't mean much. Instead, I fault the government for realizing that there is a fairly easy solution that could, at least, make a significant difference in those economies.

A Regional Development Plan for this area would look like this: First, it would realize that sugar cane doesn't grow in the south. Why is that important? Well, aguardiente and rum are both made from sugar and alcohol is extremely popular in Colombia. Not only that, the prices of both products are artificially inflated in those areas because of the cost of transport. However, where there are potatos, there can be vodka. It's easy to make, establishing production facilities would be cost effective, and people would buy and drink vodka.

Following this plan would have beneficial economic spillover effects for at least two reasons. One, making vodka means employing more people and more money being added to those regions. But also, making vodka helps stabilize the price of potatos. Greater price stability would mean that farmers don't have to consider alternative (read: illegal) crops to sustain their standard of living. Instead, they would have greater surity that their investments would pay dividends. In short, everyone wins.

This isn't being done here in Colombia. The government doesn't want to do it and the local population in the south simply doesn't have the capital or skills necessary to implement this plan on their own. I don't know why the government doesn't want to act. I assume it's from a rather myopic and narrow view that ignores the grave consequences of regional economic failure (increased coca, violence, and guerillas). But it needs to be done.

Step 3

Diversification and Integration - As seen from the previous example, one of the problems in the developing world is that their products often depend on price flexibility outside of their control. The laws of supply and demand determine the price of roses, potatos, or coffee. While functioning as market economics dictates, this efficiency also exposes developing countries to great vulnerability. Venezuela is a great example. Before the spike in oil prices, President Chavez was little more than yet another failing South American leader (barely surviving a "coup"). However, since the meteoric rise in oil prices, wealth (in some sectors) has skyrocketed and Chavez's influence and importance has followed.

When times are good, things go well. But when the price plummets, poor countries simply don't have the capacity to absorb losses.

To counteract this vulnerability, poor countries have to develop secondary industries. Potatos get sold for soups, but also vodka production. Oil gets sold for cars, but also for (whatever they use petroleum in), etc.

I don't have any grand solutions for Colombia in particular. I don't know enough about the products they produce or the potential that is here, but the point rings true: if a developing nation has tertiary industries it not only helps stabilize prices, but also protects against economic losses. Why doesn't Colombia produce wine, for example?

At any rate, I'm out of time for today. I orginally had a "4 point plan" but my wife is ready for me to pick her up from work, so I have to go. Instead, I'll continue with some other thoughts on the subject as well as elaborating a bit on consumer power in the developed world as a non-governmental measure to influence international economic policy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Well, my lovely wife calmed me down a bit last night, so I'm not feeling as frustrated with things as I had been. So that's a good thing. For today, I wanted to bring attention to two stories that I find interesting and important.

British Terror Arrests

England is a quiant little country full of tradition, history, and..well...incompetence. As anyone who saw In the Name of the Father knows, the Brits don't exactly have the best reputation when it comes to arresting terror suspects that actually committed or planned terrorism. The latest news was fairly shocking, but now that the dust is settling, I've been wondering just how real the "threat" was.

Today, I have found a bit of an answer. Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray has made some very interesting and compelling observations. I'll highlight two.

First, not all of the suspects had passports. I'll repeat, not all of the suspects had passports. How can we possibly believe the "test run" theory if they didn't have passports? It's fairly difficult to fly internationally without one and it's pretty difficult to procure one in a short time frame. So this latest development seems to cast doubt on the whole idea that an imminent attack was likely.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the issue of "outsourcing torture". By all accounts, the "inside" details of the terrorist plot came from Pakistan. The police there acquired this information by "interrogating" suspects - i.e. torturing them. The reliability of tortue induced confessions is extremely low and, shockingly, after a year of investigation and surviellance in the UK, the British authorities knew nothing of this alleged plot until told by the Pakistani authorities.

I'm not saying this won't go anywhere or that there wasn't due cause to arrest these folks. But given the post 9/11 arrest history (still no terror based convinctions by either the US or the UK), one has to wonder. Just how much credibility does either country have when they announce "terror arrests"?

Israel's Blank Check aka Test Case for Iran

I've been thinking a bit about this and it seemed like a good theory. Well, yesterday, theory became fact:

Israel asked the US for permission to invade Lebanon last summer and the US green-lighted it because they saw the exercise as a valuable test case for operations in Iran.

As reported in the New Yorker, Isreali officials have long desired to go back into southern Lebanon. After their withdrawl in 2000, Hezbollah only increased their capabilities, their professionalism, and their armaments. This was a legitimate thread to Israeli national security and they had a legitimate interest in acting to end the continual onslaught of terrorist activities. That much is clear.

Now, however, it seems certain that Israel was planning on this action long before the incident on July 12th. This was a plan they vetted to Dick Cheney and his support staff earlier in the summer. What is also clear is that Bush wanted to go after Hezbollah for quite some time and that it was quite easy for them to approve the plan. Better to have Israel do the dirty work than an overstretched US military.

What is surprising, however, is that the Bush administration still wants to go into Iran after the debacle that is Iraq. I guess it shouldn't suprise me too much given how myopic our President is, but the idea that going into Iran, guns blazing, could somehow lead to success greater than we've seen in Iraq just seems farcical at best, clear insanity at worst.

Iran is definitely a problem. They fund terrorism (Hezbollah, for example), they're developing nuclear capability, and they're a country hostile to US interests. We definitely need an Iran strategy that is effective and can generate results.

However, that doesn't mean that the only option on the table is military action. For some reason, this administration seems to only believe in brute force as a means of action. Perhaps opening diplomatic channels and talking directly to the Iraninan government (instead of through intermediaries that have their own agendas) would be a start. Maybe in '08.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Zona Cafetera

Well, it goes without saying that Zona Cafetera is pretty much awesome. I flew into Peirera (30 min, NNW of Bogota) on Friday night and met Diana at a restaurant. She had a meeting with some doctors and the dinner was part of the show. We left Peirera in the morning and drove to the middle of the Coffee Region, near Armenia, another smallish city. The weather was incredible, the mountains breathtaking, and the air perfectly fresh.

We stayed in a resort style hotel with 3 swimming pools, two restaurants, and all the trimmings. But, I didn't really stay there. After lunch on Saturday, I left and went to an amusement park called Panaca. I say "amusement park", but it's really more of a "farm" amusement park. It doesn't have rides or anything like that. Instead, you walk through the "farm" and go to different "stations" and see shows or read information about animals and/or pet the animals (the llama wasn't totally friendly when he discovered I had no food, but most of the other animals were pretty legit). I saw a pig race (yes, pigs raced, it was funny as hell) and a dog show (not terribly impressive because those bastards left the Weimeraner in the cage!).

I didn't see any of the other shows, but the place was great. Totally relaxing. Plus, it had the extra benefit of offering food related to each "station". So, at the Pig station, they had pork ribs and chicharron (deep fried pig skin, more or less), at the chicken station they had Sancocho de Pollo (the most delicious chicken soup available on the planet), and at the Dog station they had...perros caliente (hot dogs). Gotta love the Colombian sense of humor.

Sunday, Diana was free, so we went to the Cafe Park. It's essentially a Coffee theme park with all the trimmings - traditional museums, displays, and models of the coffee production process plus roller coasters and log plumes. Good fun, although it was hot as George Bush's afterlife will be (if you believe in that whole fiery damnation sort of thing).

We flew back to Bogota on Sunday night from Peirera. All in all, a great trip. I really enjoyed myself there and when they finish the tunnel connecting Bogota and Peirera, we can drive there in only 3 hours (as compared to 6+ now - mountains are a bitch).

Gotta' learn to crawl befo' you can walk

Learning Spanish, I must say, is without a doubt one of the most frustrating activities I've undertaken in recent memory (excluding driving in Bogota). I know that learning a language is a process and I know that I'm a bit impatient, but I'm seriously growing frustrated as this process continues. Part of the problem is that I really detest it when I receive insufficient explanations for things. That is complicated by the fact that the teachers never explain anything in English - philosophically they don't believe in it at the intermediate/advanced level. But, this just pisses me off because they can't really explain it in Spanish in words that I understand in under 15 minutes.

Today is a good example. We're focusing on personal pronouns this week and to a native English speaker, well, it doesn't make a lick of sense. And sometimes, you just need a simple explanation: this is the rule, follow it. But, after becoming progressively irritated with my teacher (she's a Costena - enough said (because they talk fast and never listen)), I finally asked my question. Fifteen minutes later, a VERY simple explanation was revealed. All she had to do was explain the rule, in either language, and I would have got it. Instead, 15 minutes of rapid fire Spanish with a lot of vocabulary I didn't understand only served to piss me off.

I know it isn't easy to teach a language. I teach English and sometimes I screw things up. But this is a pattern. My previous teacher had this problem, one of my new teachers has the same problem. It's totally annoying, wasteful, and only serves to tune me out.

Fundamentally, I feel that these problems manifest themselves for several reasons. For one, a lot of teachers are inexperienced, don't speak English and thus can't understand our difficulty, just aren't very good teachers, or some combination of all three. But more than that, the problem is compounded because when they introduce complicated concepts, their adamant refusal to explain said concept in English only prolongs the confusion. My Spanish verbs book, which is totally awesome, explains things in English, with examples in both languages. So I can see what a certain tense is in English instead of having to guess by a longwinded and often incoherent explanation.

It's totally irritating to me that I've essentially taught myself a lot of the rules and methods of speaking - at least at a comprehension basis. This course is very good on repetition - i.e., having us speak and write in certain tenses and then doing enough exercises that we remember it. It excels in that department. But, once again, it's lacking in a key area - which is explaining the fundamentals in a way that the students actually understand. I'm not the only one with this concern.

Of course, I'm also a bit peeved because I'm used to being very good at things and I don't feel particularly good about my Spanish at the moment. I know I'm doing very well, but I set the bar pretty high and I'm not where I need to be. So there's some ego on the line, but also, I'm feeling real, self-imposed pressure to improve faster because I have a legitimate and compelling desire to STOP teaching English and START working in my field. I'm 31 years old for F's sake and I have yet to meaningfully contribute in any way in my chosen profession. Galling.

At any rate, I'm very concerned that it is going to take MUCH longer for me to feel ready to work down here. Speaking conversational Spanish is one thing, using it in a job setting is totally different. I don't have any real solutions here. I work very hard every day and I don't have much more time to spare. So hopefully things will start clicking soon.

Riding around town with the riffraff

I had the unfortunate incident of encountering some of Bogota's worst this morning. I was sitting on a bus on the way to Javeriana when two undesirables got one. One only had to glance at them to see that they were up to no good. One sat next to me, while the other stood and started scoping the bus for easy marks (why they didn't look at me, the gringo, I don't know). Spotting a young lad with an IPod, they started jabbering at each other in a language I can only refer to as "shit" (it certainly was no form of intelligable Spanish). The aforementioned lad, being wise to such obvious scoping, immediately secured his IPod in his pocket AND put his hand in the pocket. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were not deterred. They still made a play at it when the young man got off the bus. Shockingly, they were unable to steal the IPod.

Normally when that sort of thing happens, everyone sees it and no one says a damn thing. You never know who might have a knife or whatnot. But today, one fairly burly fellow in a business suit said something to the would be thief (equivalent to "knock that shit off"). That was the beginning of what I was sure to be fisticuffs. As they were jawing at each other, I saw that I was close to Javeriana, so I hopped up, punched the stop button and got off the bus (being sure to secure my belongings on the way out).

I never found out what happened after that, but it leaves an impression. Had my wallet been in my back pocket, I have no doubts it would be gone. I doubt that the confrontation led to anything. For one, the burly objector would likely have pummelled both thieves with little trouble, but for another, the bus had a driver and two "bouncers" and it sounded like they were going to kick the would be thieves off the bus anyway (bad for business).

But still, I was left with the very strong desire that those two nobnockers encounter some class A pugilism, hopefully involving a variety of lasting impressions on their faces and bodies. I'm not normally a vengeful person, but I seriously hate people like that and, yes, I wish debilitating violence on them. Perhaps it's my experience in South London last September that left such an impression or perhaps it's a sense of just how wrong that type of behavior is. I don't know.

I guess the point is, my wife wasn't kidding about securing your things here in Bogota. We were in a very posh mall one time and witnessed a "nice" looking family, collectively, attempt to pocketsurf the crowd. And now this, directly (as in 1 foot) in front of me. On the whole, I find this manifestation completely distasteful and a bit souring.

The bus. Gotta love it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

I could have been a terrorist...and so could you

Of late, a confluence of factors is contributing to a profound sense of dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration with the direction of the "War on Terror" within my psyche. Part of my general disposition stems from the evidence that the "war" is clearly failing, part from a great book I'm reading, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman", and part from the rhetoric of the neo-con/radicals, especially from the Super Perra in my Spanish class (who said today that terrorism is because Muslims are all radical Arabs who believe they'll receive 72 virgins in heaven - which is totally ignorant of the fact that Pakistani's AREN'T Arabs - not to mention that the statement is just flat out racist in and of itself).

At any rate, I've reached an intellectual point where it seems obvious to me that the "War" is bound for failure, not because of it's execution (Nope, Dems won't fix it either), but because it is methodologically flawed. While the politics of the day essentially "buy" Bush's premise that we have to "take the fight to them" little press has been given to the reality that global terrorism is largely a rejection of (perceived) Western Economic Imperialism. Instead, the Dems (rightly) criticize Bush for his execution of the war, for pushing Iraq, and for not a multitude of challenges at home.

But I think it's much more complex than that. Instead, I think that to build a strategy to combat terrorism, one much not only address the question of "what do we do today" but also seek to change the fundamental conditions that cause people to blow themselves up. And I'm not talking about stationing US troops in the "Holy Land" of Saudi Arabia. People might be pissed about that, but being pissed isn't normally a sufficient justification for choosing to blow yourself up.

No, instead, I believe that global terrorism is rooted in an ongoing historical struggle. Through much of the second half of the 20th Century, the US and Europe pushed large scale infrastructure projects upon poor, developing nations that couldn't afford such projects, but whom believed them to be necessary. At times, the leaders of these countries were just outright swindled; at other times, the "pro-US" leaders were little more than despots who we installed (Iran, Guatemala, Panama, etc) or bought off with World Bank loans.

Of course, the consequence of loaning billions of dollars to nations that could barely afford to pay the interest, was to keep those countries in the US sphere of influence - something deemed critical because of the fear of "red spread". Not only was this strategy critical to the US containment policy, but also it fed the coffers of giant construction and military conglomerates. The World Bank "gave" money by funneling it directly to a giant, American corporation, who then built a 6 lane highway connecting Panama City and the Colombian border, while grossly exaggerating the economic benefits of said project.

In the long run, this strategy led to US affiliation with some of the worst and most corrupt dictators of the 20th Century, leaders that tortured and killed their oppositions, stole money from the public coffers, and often associated with some of the worst international criminals (think Saddam, Noriega). This long and bloody history hasn't exactly endeared the populations of the developing world to the United States, but even worse, the result of these large scale, macroeconomic projects hasn't been to bring economic advancement or stability to the so-called "developing world". Instead, the poor have stayed poor and in many countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened.

Different regions have responded to stagnant poverty in different ways. South America, for example, has turned to the left. Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, etc. all have or have had recently left leaning politicians. At times, there has been violence, terrorism, or revolution. While in the long run, the economic situation for the poorest haven't changed much, it is clear that the general dissatisfaction has led to widespread democratic movements, sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful, and, in the longrun, greater instability.

The Muslim world is different. The popular line is that Islam is a religion ripe for radicalism and that the world merely needs to stamp out the hoven's of radical Islam to "win" the war on terror (eliminating the fundamentalist schools in Pakistan, for example). The people that trumpet that line are undoubtedly correct that eliminating indoctrination camps would be good in the long run, but the premise that we can "win" the war by clamping down on radicalism is seriously erroneous.

Even if were it possible, we could no more stop terrorism by eliminating radical Islam than we could stop a dam from bursting by sticking our finger in the hole. No, religion is the great red herring that today's politician's use to deceive and blind an all too uninformed public. Islam is merely a vessel used to channel generational dissatisfaction, anger, and extreme poverty toward the West. Whether we like it or not, the reputation of the United States in the developing world is abysmal and until or unless we do something about that, terrorism is going to continue to be an enduring reality.

And this is why I say that I could have been a terrorist. I was extremely lucky to be born in the United States to a middle class family. I received a good education, a strong moral foundation, and a wealth of opportunities that millions, if not billions of people would literally kill to have. The priviledge of being "American" has influenced my intellectual and decision making process in a very particular way - I'm not prone to resort to violence, but neither am I likely to be facing a truly desperate poverty situation in my life. Sure, maybe I can't get that BMW, but really, when you're in that category, as far as the world is concerned, you're living the good life.

But had I been born in rural Indonesia with contaminated drinking water, no education system, barely enough food to survive, and absolutely no prospects for a good quality life? Well, maybe it wouldn't be all bad in and of itself. But when one sees how they are deprived relative to the rest of the world, then violence quickly follows. The indigenous tribal doesn't know what he's missing, so he lives a content life. But the city dweller who suffers through extreme poverty knows exactly what he's missing because the globalization of communication means that everyone can see the "high life" that is America. Some people see those images as a sign of hope, others become angry. Over a generational perspective, the seeds of terrorism are sowed with each successive failure of US led "development" projects and economic upheaval that has often followed (when countries don't reach artificially high growth estimates, investors pull money out, and the economy collapses, more often than not, we shoulder the blame).

In light of this backdrop, US foreign policy is grossly insensitive to not just the plight of the world's poor and downtrodden, but also to their perceptions. Launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are always seen as attempts by the US to reinstall colonial empires and continue to dominate oppressed people. It doesn't matter how "noble" our intentions are, the world only sees the US securing it's oil supply. It doesn't matter if a speedy US pullout in Iraq would have been a terrible situation for the people of Iraq. The world only sees that we're still there. They look at our history - Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iraq, etc - and see a nation that has always worked to secure it's interests at the expense of the world.

In the end, those views are largely accurate. OF COURSE we invaded Iraq to secure our oil interests. No one really ever denies that. But this short sighted and extremely selfish perspective on international affairs from the strongest country in the world is extremely damaging in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, we started a war in Iraq in which well over a hundred thousand people have been killed, more terrorists are recruited every day, and we are all collectively less safe. But indirectly, our blind adherence to a foreign policy of strict national interest leads us to inaction when genocide breaks out in Rwanda. Millions of people die because the brutal leaders of genocidal forces know that we just don't care.

As well, we have lost the PR game and the global resentment and anger directed at the US government only fuels greater urgency to attack our interests and to overthrow the manifestations of US power in the developing world. What is shocking is that we have such capacity for positive change in the world. We could be a benevolent leader that could help to bring millions out of extreme poverty, yet we choose to fight a dangerous and erroneous war for 10 times the cost. Not only would acting in the interests of the global population be the ethical thing to do, but also it would have preserved the American "empire" well into the 22nd Century as well as acting as a disincentive for terror. Now, I fear that our power will decline more rapidly than expected.

I'm not really sure where this leaves me professionally. I desperately want to be part of the US foreign policy world, but do I really want to work for a government so ideologically bankrupt that even foreign policy successes are completely insufficient to impact the direction of my countries future? Do I really want to work for those very organizations that take foreign aid dollars and engage in potentially dubious work in the developing world? Do I really want to exist at the micro (program) level? I don't know. I think it's the big questions that fascinate me and while experience at the micro level would be a valuable commodity for my professional development, I have a hard time seeing myself satisfied at that level. I'm not sure where that leaves me.

Maybe I should have just eaten my tacos and read the sports page like all the other Americans that just turn their heads away from the most critical issues facing our nation in recent history. But like it or not, this is what I think about and I have to find a course of action for my professional life that is consistent with my thought process. I'll not work for the powers that have consistently lead our nation down the path of dementia (like Iraq).

And now, I must go catch my flight to Pereira.

(There are substantive errors in the US counterterrorism strategy afoot, as well. For example, I saw on BBC last night that the current strategy of searching everyone and everything at the airport is a rather curious policy since it's labor intensive, time consuming, and not exactly foolproof. Instead, there are a number of organizations that have recommended shifting the strategy from the "general public" to targeting "likely suspects". This sounds a lot like racial or religious profiling, but seriously, how many times have you seen an elderly grandmother being extensively searched while young, "profile" males proceed through security without a hitch? Random searching just doesn't make a lick of sense. A group of terrorists could just double the number of "would be" terrorists to ensure that some made it through the random screening process.)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Riding around town on the Bus

Well, I started a new Spanish program on Thursday. This one is at Universidad Javeriana and it very much a college type course. I take 3 hours a day, which is 1 hour less than I had at High Technology in Learning, but it's also much more intense. There are a couple reasons why I switched.

First, the I finished the intermediate course at HTL and the advanced course is little more than an expensive, bad joke. It seriously isn't worth the time, effort, or money. The advanced course is basically an independent study course which involves a lot of writing and that's about it.

Second, a serious problem with HTL is that the advanced and intermediate students share one class. That's bad for both groups because for the advanced, they have to go much slower at times, and for the intermediate, they just don't understand a lot that happens in the advanced level. So, the reality is that both groups suffer, or lose instruction time, which isn't exactly preferable.

Third, HTL is great for beginners, but my professor there just isn't able to explain or teach high level grammer or sentence construction. She's great with the beginners, but she's just not very good at the higher levels. And, she's the only option. They don't have another teacher that could be better.

And last, HTL's philosophy is based on conversation, writing, and vocabulary. They don't emphasize grammer, they don't have exercises, and the amount of time spent on grammer is extremely minimal. The philosophy is akin to "learn grammer through osmosis". It's a great philosophy for beginners (many courses have an excessive focus on grammer at the beginning level - which is exactly the wrong idea). But at the higher levels, well, it's maddening and I was ready for an intensive focus on sophisticated Spanish.

At any rate, Javeriana is one of the top two universities in Colombia and it has the oldest Spanish for extranjeros (foreigners) program in Latin America. They have a ton of experience, extremely well qualified teachers, and a very well designed course. So, after talking to someone I know who has gone through the program, we decided it was the best option.

And, it looks like we were right. I had to take a comprehensive placement test, which, as expected, put me into the intermediate level (Javeriana has 5 levels, so this intermediate is the 3rd level, or equivalent to the advanced at HTL). My expectations were that the course would be challenging and that I would have to work much harder. Those expectations are being satisfied. While I certainly belong in the intermediate level, I can see that I am clearly behind some of my other classmates in simple conjugation. That's no surprise since I have not really studied that very much, but it is frustrating at times. Of course, on the other hand, I'm way ahead of the rest in writing compositions and in basic conversation skills.

So, the end result is that I have to work a lot harder than I did before. For example, it generally takes me about 2 hours of work after class to review what happened, examine the things I got wrong or didn't understand, and study those concepts. Then, I usually have another 2 hours of homework. You can see where this is leading. Three hours of class, 4 hours of english (on average), 4 hours of studying and there's the day. Now, I'm not complaining. I believe this course is going to advance me faster than the previous course. That's great because teaching english is awfully tiresome and I'm not really interested in continuing in that profession any longer. The sooner my Spanish achieves a reasonable level of competence, the sooner I can get a job in my field.

At any rate, while I feel good about my course, studying at Javeriana has led to several developments. Whereas my previous institute was very close to our apartment (about 30 minutes walking), Javeriana is about 60 blocks south and 22 blocks east. I walked there once from Parque 93 (about 2/3 of the total distance from our apartment) and that took about 1.5 hours. So, walking is out of the question. The other options include driving (parking is prohibitively expensive), taking a taxi (also expensive), or taking a bus (and I'm not talking about TransMilenio).

The bus it is. Taking the bus in Bogota is completely unlike any other bus experience I've had. In the US or in London, the buses stop at specific locations, are relatively clean, and have clearly marked "stop" buttons. Not so in Bogota. Instead, most buses are pretty much "ass rides". They're dirty, polluting, noisy, they stop anywhere at any time, and I have yet to discover the location of a single "stop" button. In addition to that, the bus gets going again as soon as you step foot inside, whether you have paid or are firmly secure. It's necessary to tightly grasp whatever is available or risk falling out the open door.

That being said, the bus isn't all bad. It's damn cheap (about $0.45), it's relatively quick, and did I mention it's cheap? I don't really enjoy the bus, but not only is it necessary, it also gives me a slightly different view of Bogota and it's inhabitants. We are very fortunate because we have a nice car, we can drive or take taxis at will, and we don't really have to worry about the cost. But most people in this city, indeed this country, don't have such a luxury. Riding with the people, if you will, shows me just how people from most social levels have little choice but to take public buses. This service is absolutely vital to the economic prospects of millions of Bogotanos, and even while totally annoying and polluting, it would be impossible to eliminate the public bus system. (Now, they could be regulated, but that's a whole 'nuther post.)

The other notable development of the greater Javeriana experience is that, for the first time here in Bogota, we have the introduction of a true villian - or, I should say, villianess. There are 5 people in my class, including me. A Korean, a German, a Brit, an American, and an Israeli. Want to play "guess who the mega-bitch is" game? Well, without further ado, I must introduce the Super Perrita (SP).

The Israeli woman in my class is, without a doubt, one of the most immediately unlikeable persons one could me. The SP gives off a "I'm better than you" attitude from the first moment, and it only grows thicker over time. She's quick to brag about her "accomplishments" like successfully achieving the Basic 2 Spanish certificate from Javeriana (wow!) or being a stock broker in Tel Aviv. But more than that, her entire mannerism is one of "this is so easy, I can't believe you all are so stupid." Which, I find funny because she makes just as many errors as the rest of us do (if not more) and, frankly, her spoken Spanish is abyssmal. Her accent and pronunciation is so bad I rarely fully understand the words coming out of her mouth. But hey, that's just the start.

Normally, with this type of character I'd just avoid her, chuckle to myself, and leave it at that. But, I was unfortunate enough to interact with her during the break on Thursday and that's what cemented her as a Super Perrita. She asked (in English) where I had studied before and I explained my experiences at HTL. She then proceeded to inquire as to why I would study there as "everyone (she) talked too said Javeriana was the ONLY place to study." I then told her that I had heard good things about the course, it was close to where I lived, and I felt comfortable there when I sat in on a class.

Still not being sufficient for the SP, she then questioned my economic status, obviously thinking that I was unable to afford Javeriana. (As a stockbroker, she has a private driver and all the trimmings of luxury.) After explaining that the price of the two courses is roughly equivalent (Javeriana is about $100 more), she was puzzled.

Finally, she asked about the course and the institute. After explaining to her that it had a different philosophy than Javeriana, one focused on speaking and writing and not on grammer, she promptly said, "well, taking that course was a mistake." A bit shocked, but not really taken aback, I explained that I didn't agree and that I thought an excessive focus on grammer at the expensive of conversation was likely to stunt the growth of a student's proficiency in spoken spanish, a clear dig on her experiences at Javeriana.

Conversation over. And, we haven't spoken since. It's a rare treat, I think, to meet one such as her. They exist all over the world, but rarely does one get to experience a direct confrontation that leaves a general sense of satisfaction, especially when I can demonstrate my superior proficiency for 3 hours a day, five days a week. Plus, if I'm feeling particularly mischevious, I can always say "como?" after she speaks which is essentially saying, "Sorry bitch, I can't understand you when you speak, could you repeat that?"

Not that I'm really going to do that. I'm much to focused on my own development to be overly concerned about the SP. But it is nice to have a villain, especially one that wrote a short essay glorifying the achievements of Ariel Sharon. Competition is always good in an academic environment and I need to work as hard as possible over the next 45 days so that I can stop taking classes. Throw in radically opposed politics and I'm pretty much satisified. My next trick is to find devious ways to irritate her politically.

At any rate, I'm really enjoying Javeriana. I think it was exactly what I needed. HTL was perfect for the start, but I'm at the point where I need to be seriously challenged and that's what I'm getting at Javeriana. Plus, it's a university environment which I have an obvious affinity for, so it's pleasing in many ways.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Terrorism in Bogota

We had a little spate of terrorism in Colombia on Monday. Nothing too severe. A big assault by the FARC near the Venezuela border with about 16 soldiers were killed and a car bomb went off in Bogota. The first I heard about it was on the internet yesterday.

The reason for this latest outburst is the impending Presidential Inauguration ceremony on Monday. Terrorists love to have largely symbolic acts of violence and the FARC is no different. Even though they have no realistic hope of stopping Uribe's second term, they still want to make their point.

Interestingly, the car bomb went off between two military troop trucks and all of the casualties were military personnel (I think 1 died). I find this curious for two reasons. First, the FARC is savvy enough to realize something that the neocon's haven't: winning insurgency is about winning the minds of the average citizens. If the FARC targeted innocent civilians, they would merely turn the people against their "cause" and grease the wheels of the government killing machine. I believe that the average Bogotano would pretty much give Uribe a blank check at this point anyway, but further civilian deaths would probably tip the country further toward a serious and credible offensive against the FARC.

But even more interesting to me is the question of how. Planning a car bomb doesn't seem like the most sophisticated thing. Slap a bomb together, put it in a car, park the car in a busy area, blow it up. Pretty easy. But, timing a car bombing so that it just happens to go off next to two army trucks full of soldiers? Sounds fishy. Colombia is not a country dominated by sound professional ethics. There's just as much goverment corruption as one would expect and it's certainly not beyond reason that either a) the car bomb was planted by the government, or b) someone on the inside is working with the FARC.

Was this a "fundraiser," an "inside job", or just a stroke of "good" fortune for the FARC? I suspect we'll never know, but it's definitely got me wondering.

Of course all of this leads to two other larger points - one personal, one analytical.

Personally, having a car bomb go off in Bogota isn't exactly causing me to quake in my boots. In fact, it's utterly unaffected me in any way except that traffic is often worse now (if that's even possible) because there are more military and police checkpoints in the city. But really, if I hadn't read about the bomb, I never would have known. Bogota is a vast and expansive city. The bomb was as far away from me as East London was to my house in Earl's Court. (Sorry, it's the only analogy I could think of because Washington DC just isn't big enough!)

My point is, I suppose, that while terrible, car bombs and other forms of potential terrorism aren't exactly worrisome on a day to day basis in Colombia - and this is country with an active internal war that's lasted for 40+ years. There isn't a "color" system to indicate danger, there isn't a general fear in the city, and there certainly isn't any need to alter routines or increase personal security measures. We Americans are so spoiled with our relative security that one serious incident of terrorism is enough for us to sign away a significant portion of our consitutionally protected rights. If Colombians did that, they'd have no rights at all.

At any rate, the big question behind all this is: Is the FARC becoming irrelevant? Seriously. In 2002, the FARC launched a rocket attack at Uribe during the inauguration. This year, just before the election, they managed to kill a kid on the TransMilenio with a bomb. One person, and a child at that. That's a far cry from the military prowess exhibited in the past. I know that in certain parts of the country the FARC is still extremely powerful, but how much influence can they really have if they can't even manage a significant operation in the capital city? Two people killed in 7 months by terrorism? Doesn't sound like a "great threat", even if it is an "enduring" one.

I don't have answers for these questions, only more questions. For example, I'm guessing that, given their loose affiliation to Marxism, that during the Cold War, the FARC was supported by communist countries. Whether that meant the USSR or Cuba by proxy or others, I don't know. But the point is, they were pretty well funded and were a very significant danger. I imagine that their "cocaine" tax was just supplementary income, although we'll probably never know for sure.

Now, it's clear that the FARC has shifted to direct involvement in cocaine production and export. I wonder how that shift of focus has effected their ability to organize, as well as their long term "political" goals. Managing a cocaine business is a lot more labor intensive than taxing coca farmers, so I wonder if that shift has drained the best managers and strategizers away from the "war".

I also wonder if the FARC's leader and founder, Pedro Marin, has finally expired and the spillover effect has decimated the organization from the top. He would have turned 76 years old in May with most of his life spent in the jungles and mountains fighting a war he could never win, but could always gratify his ego, if not his wallet.

I don't know. There are so many questions in Colombia and so few answers. We shall see what Monday brings. But really, I'm not expecting anything out of the ordinary. The country, while militarized, is generally safe and secure. It would be a real shock if the FARC managed to launch a significant action.

(Now, organized crime, that's a whole different story.)

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