The Wrinkled Passport

Friday June 8th, 2012

Stepping off the bus at a station called Escuela Militar, I can be certain that I will see two or three young men dressed in dark green canvas fatigues wearing hard faces and patrolling the platform. The police, like the rest of Bogotá, rush past me at the station. Their seriousness fits nicely into the city’s Andean chill.

I can also be certain that a Colombian flag will be flapping somewhere high above the white stucco Spanish colonial architecture that hides behind high barbed-wire walls and keeps a wary eye on the outside world from armed military police towers. Across the road, this is the Escuela Militar.

The Escuela Militar des Cadetes, founded in 1976 is one of several military institutes in Bogotá that trains young people for service in the Armed Forces of Colombia. It is required of young cadets to spend at least 12 months in the National Police Service before completing their study.

Today, as I strolled across the platform to make my transfer, two policemen stopped me and asked me for my cédula extranjería. I knew what they meant. They wanted to check my alien identification card – the one I didn’t have.

One of the most surprising parts about life in Bogotá is how militarized the city is. Colombia’s National Police force populates the public transit platforms in Bogotá. In addition to police presence at transit hubs, there are many areas where armed soldiers clad in fatigues patrol every other corner. The strong military and police presence is the manifestation of President Santos’ iron-fisted emphasis on civilian security.

Another surprise to note is that the force tends to be made up of young men of no more than 25 years old. The young cadets are responsible for answering questions about directions. At times, they might help an old woman onto the bus before the doors snap shut. Their faces appear non-threatening and they move about on the platforms seeming listless and distracted. Almost every face looks young – almost innocent.

Not the face in front of me though.

The bright neon green jackets stared at me. I knew what they meant when they asked for my cédula extranjería. They wanted to verify my Colombian alien identification number – the number that the government uses to keep track of foreigners who enter the country for brief periods of time – people like me.

One of the primary duties of the National Police is to behave as permanent sentinels for the city’s transport system and to verify that the people using it are indeed registered residents of Colombia. Having an identification card, like having a passport, is a means of proving that you are not guerrilla, not rogue, not the bad guy.

I wasn’t the bad guy, and I knew it. But I still didn’t have my identification card, and that could be justification for – well – anything. They stared right at me. A heavy hand waved at me to come toward the stare.

I looked back at the two men. The one who asked for it was older, and wore a hard face, and he stared at my waist, not my eyes. He was waiting for me to take out my wallet while the younger one looked afraid and held a clipboard in his hands. He looked like he was waiting for something to happen.

Maybe he’s in training I thought. Maybe this is just a little drill. Maybe this won’t amount to anything.

I reached into pocket and pulled out my wallet. I took out an old shabby, wrinkled-up copy of my passport and handed it over to the officer. It was so worn out that you couldn’t make out my full name. Trying to feel brave, I hurriedly explained that I had just arrived in the country three days ago and that I don’t have my passport with the cédula extranjería stamp and identification number. I explained that the only form of identification I had is a copy of the first page of my passport. My mind went numb with a storm of possibilities over what was going to happen next. Fear drowned my focus. I felt like one hundred eyes were fixed on my wallet, the unmoving faces of two National Police officers, and the winkled passport in my hand.

The older officer took the document from my hands. It almost fell apart as he unfolded it. I entered a profound certainty that I was in danger of being seized by the National Police and tried to prepare myself for the ensuing confusion of having to explain my case. My body tensed. All I could smell were the fumes that spewed out of the buses roaring past. Noise thundered across the platform. It almost muted the officer’s next response. I leaned in and strained to catch everything that ran across those moving lips.

“Thank you, kind sir,” he said, and handed back the copy of my passport. As he did, a piece fell to his feet. The younger officer quickly bent down and snatched it, jumped up to his feet, and handed it to me.

I looked at him. A wave of relief rushed through me.

I told him thank you in return. Then I hustled off to catch the next bus back to my house in the Palermo, where my lunch would be waiting for me. I knew it would already be cold when I arrived.

Julian Assange Seeks Asylum in Ecuador

According to the BBC, Julian Assange is seeking political asylum in Ecuador. Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino,  says that Assange is being held by the Ecuadorean embassy in London and will remain under protection until a decision is made.

After being arrested in 2010 for disseminating a massive number of US diplomatic cables through a website called Wikileaks, Assange was threatened with extradition claims to Sweden and the US. Now, for fear of facing allegations in Sweden, where he could see a subsequent extradition to the US, Assange has applied for asylum in Ecuador.

The Ecuadorean government says that “the decision to consider Mr Assange’s application for protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as the Government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden.” However, according to a Guardian report, “assessments for asylum requests take priority over extradition claims” under UK law.

Daniel Schmitt, a co-founder of Wikileaks, says that Assange is “one of the few people who really care about positive reform in this world to a level where you’re willing to do something radical to risk making a mistake, just for the sake of working on something they believe in”. The Economist Intelligence Unit gives a democracy rating of 5.72 (89) to Ecuador, the country where Assange seeks asylum. The US (18th), where Assange faces allegations, earns top tier rank – 8.90.

Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister has offered the possibility of asylum in order to show favor for Assange and his intention to present the information he has. However, President Rafael Correa denied that statement. Until the embassy makes a decision, Assange will remain inside the safety of embassy grounds – out of reach of the hands of London police, Sweden and the US.

Is The Financial Crisis Actually an Existential Crisis?

Economists the world over scour the globe for the fastest growing companies and countries. Consumption appears to be an insatiable, thumping urge that only more might satisfy. This “blind pursuit for growth,” is what has spread to all corners of the globe.

And that, says a handful of authors including Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Sandal, is what we should stop – or at least it is what should come up for re-consideration.

According to correspondent for The Economist, Patrick Lane, the financial crisis is not so much a mechanical malady for the Western world. It is a moral one – one that needs more than just harsher regulation for banks and finance.

HSBC Gets Ensnared in Mexican Money Laundering

After a lengthy investigation, the US Senate has pointed out that HSBC ignored tell-tale symptoms of money laundering through its Mexico operations for several years, according to the Guardian in a report today. So far, the bank has not denied allegations.

The Senate’s investigative report says that the bank conducted business with a string of casas de cambio, or “money changing houses,” believed to double as nodes in drug-cartel networks. Facing potentially hefty fines, HSBC fired executives, re-assigned positions, and issued scores of apologies to US regulators.

The harsh fines come as little surprise to the bank’s Latin American compliance executive, Mr. John Root. In July of 2007 Mr. Root expressed concern toward the bank’s Mexico unit over what he perceived to be a malfunctioning anti-laundering committee. According to the Financial Times, analysts expect that HSBC could face fines as high as $1bn.

Across the past decade, the global bank already has two scoldings by regulators over poor money-laundering policy under its belt, but HSBC says that its new management team has already taken initial steps to fix its compliance policy.

To keep a wary eye on money laundering in the future might not be a task for HSBC only. As New York Magazine’s cool story on the Sinaloa Cartel tells us,  the US Senate investigation into HSBC’s behavior comes at a point in time when drug-trafficking across the US-Mexico border is not only booming, it is utterly complex -and getting increasingly global too. Other banks – not just HSBC – might want to check their cajones before shaking hands with a fresh client.

Wilson Crashing

The stewardess’ spill had made the financial documentation wet and soppy.

Wilson hated this responsibility. Trying to kill the thought, he clicked his pen twice, bit the end, and then shot it like a missile at a crossword puzzle that sat on his tray table below. He knew this.

His hands scribbled Xenophobic in bold letters. It had been a tough one. The ink was wet. He blew a gust at the page. Wilson loved puzzles. They distracted him. Otherwise, he became anxious.

I am not xenophobic, thought Wilson, trying to maintain distraction. He looked out the window from the cabin of Flight 756 from San Juan. By midnight, he would set down in Louisville, Kentucky.

He was right about the xenophobia. Wilson liked to be right about things. But at that instance in mid-air, no matter how hard he tried to piece it together, Wilson could not be right about one thing he had to get right: his father. Keep reading…

A Reason for Applause

Monday June 4, 2012

Bogotá – There was a celebration when we landed. It’s traditional in Colombia to clap when the plane hits the runway. My hands, however, were cradling my head. It is Tuesday May 29th and I’m dizzy.

As we swooped in at 2,600m above sea level, I grew intoxicated with altitude sickness. Whispers of Spanish flickered around me as the flight came to a halt. I sat next to a tall Colombian-American boy who was on vacation with his family. I learned that he was studying medicine in Florida, and I also learned that he was the only boy in a family full of women. All of his siblings, whose chatter filled the rear of the cabin, seemed happy. But not his mother, whose face looked as weathered as the Bogotá I’ve come to know – the one that turns blue skies into rain and storm clouds into sun in what seems like a snap of the fingers.

Things can change fast in Bogotá.

Immigration didn’t stop me. I always feel as though officials have the power to come up with a silly reason to stop you at immigration. You didn’t spell your address correctly. You can’t speak Spanish. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too beautiful.

After a brief pause and a hard stare from the sad looking immigration man who hid behind the glass, I passed through, back into Colombia.

I’ve been here before. In 2009 I came to Colombia to study Spanish for 2 months. I remember the fear and anxiety that plagued me when I landed in Medellín at the beginning of the summer. But suddenly there was an old friend from university and a handful of others hanging over a balcony in the Medellín airport. They were shouting and waving, and my welcome, indeed my entire time in that lovely city, was warm.

Again, now in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, even though the air is chilly, my welcome is warm.

Right as I walked away from the currency exchange window, I heard my name being called loudly. Cristian and Nataly, two members of the AIESEC Trainee Integration team, met me with huge hugs. They took photographs. They gave me a small traditional Colombian pouch with a hand-made Colombian poncho inside. A small bottle of aguardiente, the national white rum touted as a point of Colombian pride, came tumbled of the pouch as well. Then they bought me a hamburger.

I was happy. I felt comfortable. I felt safe.

The first thing you learn when you get to Bogotá is how dangerous it is, and how you have to tener cuidado or be careful. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. Did it mean that I was going to get killed? Kidnapped? Robbed? Tripped? Does it mean that some parts of the city are more dangerous than others?

“Everywhere in Bogotá is dangerous,” Yudbeny, the woman who runs my apartment, told me later. “After 8pm in the evening, if you are on the street alone, and the street is empty, then tener cuidado.”

It sounds like I have no choice when it comes to danger.

But the truth is: I do.

After hopping into a small car with Cristian, the road starts moving underneath me. Small, wobbly buses called collectivos zip and dart around us. It is dark. The road is dented with potholes and cracks. The car shakes violently. Cristian is cool.

As we zoom toward the house where I will stay for one week until I get settled, something in Colombia is happening.

What coincides with (almost to the day) of my arrival is the release of Roméo Langlois, a French journalist, by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that formed in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s tattered political climate, took Langlois captive during a firefight with the Colombian military in the mountains of Caqueta (a department in the south of the country) on April 28th.

When I learn of Langlois, my first impression is of a terrified hostage who is relieved to be set free.

But Langlois is not your average hostage.

During his 30 days in captivity, Langlois rigorously interviewed and documented the life of the guerrilla soldiers whose political motives and weaponry could decide life or death for the young Frenchman on a whim. He emerged from captivity claiming that he was treated well, and that the FARC desperately want to talk peace. Langlois came out of captivity singing the story of one of Colombia’s most marginalized and feared guerrilla groups – and how the international community needs to put pressure on Colombia for a peace process.

The next morning, as I read up on the news about Langlois’ mission, captivity and release, I also set out on my own mission: to learn the notorious Transmilenio, Bogotá’s public transit system, and try not to get lost.

Langlois’ story reminds me that I – like everyone – have a mission too, but more importantly, I have a choice.

I can weigh the risks in favor of safety and security. That is the route most people around me take in Bogotá. Colombia is not all war and conflict, but it does exist. I can, if I choose to, weigh the risks like Langlois did. I can make it my mission to get to the heart of a dangerous, messy, and deeply complex political story, and try not die.

I won’t though.

Being Roméo Langlois – a reporter – is something that’s been on my mind for awhile. Colombia, a country where reportage is important but risky, is no doubt an exciting place for a youngster to dig in and cut his teeth.

Then again, I think I’ll be patient.

Miami Merchant Ship Delivers Cargo to Havana, Cracking 50-year-old US Embargo

The ship Ana Cecilía is tugged through Miami’s port, where it will depart to Havana.

July 13th, 2012

On July 13th, direct merchant shipments from Miami to Havana Harbor started up again after 50 years of a US-enforced embargo on trade between the U.S. and Cuba, according to a report in Businessweek.

The Ana Cecilia, a sleepy, blue-hulled ship that carries a maximum of 16 containers, is operated by the International Port Corporation. Making a 16 hour trip, the Ana Cecilia shipped cargo sent from religious and humanitarian groups, and delivered packages from family and friends in Miami to Cuba’s port, where Cubans observed. Most are not phased.

“I have been fishing off the Malecon for the past 12 years… I don’t think the appearance of a new flag on the waters of Havana Harbor is going to change my lifestyle,” Businessweek quoted Daniel Herbert, a fisherman, as saying.

The Miami side shares little anxiety as well. According to a report in Portafolio, a Colombian business news journal, there is a law that says a ship cannot leave from Havana and return to Miami until after 180 days. However, IPC’s Leonardo Sánchez Adega says that there is little reason to worry about any complications, explaining that IPC possesses all of the permits that are needed to enter and exit Cuban and American waters.

Two South East Asian Nations Splash

On July 7th, The Economist reported that Vietnam and China reignited a wave of nasty signals toward each other over oil rights in the waters surrounding a string of archipelagos in the South China Sea.

Until June 21st, the Spratly and Paracel islands enjoyed a momentary calm after China and the Phillipines shouldered off an impending skirmish. But the calm did not last long. Vietnam re-asserted its claims to the islands through a parliamentary decree, to which China responded vehemently, claiming that Vietnam had violated its sovereignty.

In turn, the Chinese government immediately upgraded the status of the municipality that governs the Spratly and Paracel islands, giving it more jurisdictional leverage. Worrying mounted again when CNOOC, a state-directed oil firm, declared that it was opening bids for drilling in a zone not too far offshore from the islands to which Vietnam lays claim.

The two countries have a wary eye on each other, but despite the boundary scuffle, neither country seems too keen to break diplomacy and act aggressively. Hilary Clinton is scheduled to visit Phnom Penh in mid-July to discuss security in the region with Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister. China does not want to tarnish its image with an act of mischief. But under the surface, back at home, China’s newspaper Global Times is less restrained, saying Vietnam should be punished for its advance on China’s sovereignty.



Hong Kong Commits a Slip of The Tongue

According to a View from Asia post, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was sworn in today with a nice little inaugural speech, which he gave in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin is the official dialect of mainland China. The most widely spoken language of Hong Kong is Cantonese, which is spoken by 89% of its inhabitants. It seems that Mr. Leung has committed a slip of the tongue.

US – Colombia FTA: Taking a Stab at a Better Image

Peering down toward his boots through the glass window below, a crane operator lowers the boom to snatch one of hundreds of container boxes that zoom through Colombia’s port city, Cartagena, where an expected $50bn over the next 5 years in fresh flowers, cotton textiles, and a torrent of other products now come and go cheaper than before under a free trade agreement recently signed by the US and Colombia earlier this year.

Colombia is generally optimistic about the new relationship, expecting 4.8% GDP growth in 2013, according to Reuters’ reporting. Even though its 2013 projection slouches slightly next to last year’s 5.9%, President Santos’ administration requested 185.5 trillion pesos (USD$103bn) in spending, a 12.2% nudge in investment up from 2012, a government official told Reuters.


The Free Trade Agreement will dismantle hefty duties and tariffs for commodities like coffee, oil, and precious metals. But it should also attract American companies and local entrepreneurs to set up in its Andean capital city, Bogotá, where increased security in recent years coupled with Colombia’s investment optimism make for a magnetic arena for doing business.

Some companies have already bitten the bullet and have decided to race to Bogotá for new opportunities.

Cincinatti-based Convergys, a company that specializes in customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, has already begun to tap into Bogotá’s thriving bilingual talent base. Convergys, whose global presence employs about 70,000 across 5 continents, chose Bogotá to set up a state-of-the-art call center. Known as “the Athens of South America,” Colombia’s capital attracted Convergys because of “the number of top-notch colleges and universities located in the city… and advanced telecommunications and transportation infrastructure,” according to a press release.


Richard Strub, director of operations for Convergys in Colombia, told The City Paper, a Bogotá local English-language newspaper, that “government incentives, a central location just hours from from North America and South America, and a motivated, highly educated workforce have played key roles in drawing business to Colombia, and to Bogotá.”


Not everyone can claim the same optimism as companies like Convergys though. Some, like Buenaventura’s port city, where roughly 80% live in poverty, could be wary of strong promises about more wealth and bounty for all. According to the Washington Office on Latin America a long history of abuse toward labor groups, who have historically occupied the violent margins of Colombia’s industrial thrusts, are still tender. Colombia Reports says that the FTA’s labor-related promises come with a rickety plan, which might not be enough to wipe clean workers’ harsh skepticism toward Colombia’s new commitment.

A sure group definitely falls in line to benefit from Colombia’s free trade kick. To educated Bogotanos the FTA means new opportunities. People like Strub and the optimism he carries should serve as signals to the rest of the world that Colombia is trying to change its image, that it is eagerly opening up for business and trade, and that the country is desperate to show off its nearing successes, not its appalling past.