The last time I was in Bogota was 30 years ago. My souvenir is of a gloomy city, cold and wet. A city where people did not seem particularly happy and where we were assigned a "special" taxi to ferry us around for security reasons.
This is a totally different city. This week end, for starters, the weather was beautiful, clear skies, cool. Bogota, under a few enlightened mayors and presidents that let them be, has become one of the nicest cities to live in Latin America. And still, with up to 9 million people according to whomever you talk to.
Granted, I am here for work so I only had Sunday to cruise around some. And tired from my trip I limited myself to the Quinta De Bolivar, the country residence where Bolivar spent his time when in Bogota during his grand dream of Gran Colombia. One thing must be said for Colombians, they seem to keep things Bolivarian more authentic than in Venezuela. The current Caracas house is probably a grandiose reconstruction and re-imagination of what the Bolivar house must have really been. In Bogota you can still imagine Bolivar coming back there, in spite of the throngs of people visiting.
I also loved the posters which narrate the Bolivar life. This is no bolibanana hogwash coming from Miraflores palace. See, in Colombia they say that the Gran Colombia floundered because Bolivar had lost his political touch and wanted to create a life long presidency. For all the democratic safeguards he tried to place to convince people, neither Santander nor Paez bought it. Like Chavez underlings, they had ambitions of their own and a lifelong Bolivar presidency did cross their path. Maybe Chavez in his grandiloquence to recreate some Inca cosmogony might have this in mind. After all, if he fails, if he is killed, he thinks he would rise to the pantheon of heroes as a new martyr, his face replacing the face of Che on T-shirts. But I bet that history will not be very nice with Chavez, that he will come across as the fascist he is. It seems to me that Uribe is the real builder, not Chavez, because Colombia is being built: you can breathe it in the air!
After the Quinta I did went all the way walking to the Plaza de Bolivar. In true wonderment. Imagine that, the city has built an "ecological road" which is a walkers street, clean, well kept, well swept. There are even some small flea markets who look like classy affairs when you compare them to Sabana Grande buhoneros who reek of urine smell when you must walk around there.
The Plaza de Bolivar is now more handsome than before. All for pedestrians, with children aplenty chasing flights of pigeons. Not a particularly successful architectural arrangement, it still has two very handsome, even striking, Church fronts that are very much worth seeing. The Plaza Bolivar in Caracas can still be visited once you have run the gauntlet of buhoneros, traffic, garbage, foul smell. But if you reach it you will find its pleasant tropical feel to Bogota austerity. However there is a big difference: the Plaza de Bolivar is for the people to enjoy, the Plaza Bolivar has every corner busy with some cheap political/propaganda stall. The Plaza Bolivar know belongs only to chavistas.
But the big surprise was "la 93". This area, roughly comparable to Chacao municipality, is infinitely better. And Chacao is the best Venezuela has to offer. Around the square (where children play and lovers litter the grass) there are nice cafes and terraces. People walk all around the neighborhood even as late as 10 PM (Chacao is limited walking around restaurants, for people seeking their cars to go home). But it gets better: walking in the neighborhood, not many high walled houses to be seen. In Bogota in fact many apartments on the first floor have no iron bars, a common feature in Venezuelan apartment buildings where iron bars go at least as high as the third floor, even if there is guard on the grounds.
IT is not that Bogota feels safe, but the truth is that it feels much safer than Caracas. Cops on foot are often seen and they ask people to pick up the garbage they drop (I saw it happen!). In Caracas, when you see a cop, he is either escorting someone on his motorbike, or directing traffic at some intersection. For the rest you are on your own.
Talking to Colombians is also very interesting. Taxi cabs will tell you where to find good bookstores, something that would not occur to me asking in Caracas. None of them seems to be a particular fan of Chavez. Talking to the business folks I even met some guy who dislikes Uribe but still voted for him because it was plain for all to see that quality of life was improving for all in Colombia. I have yet to meet the first Venezuelan who dislikes Chavez but still voted for him for his achievements. And I mean it! Overall I get the impression that most people in Colombia are not buying what Chavez is offering. I suspect the embassy diligently reports this which would explain why Chavez is not spending too much time on Colombia.
Anyway, to finish this post, I am amazed at the difference between Bogota and Caracas. Oh, there is certainly decay here in there in Bogota, but Caracas seems to be crumbling almost everywhere. I understand that Bogota has not the space problems of Caracas, but, is this an excuse for the garbage piling high and deep everywhere in Caracas? Why is Caracas now the crime capital of LatAm (and soon the world?) while Bogota manages to have again aimless tourists stream around once forbidden areas for them?
It is poignant, it even hurts me to see that Bogota (and Colombia) seem to be pulling themselves up in spite of all the real problems they are facing while Venezuela keeps sinking deeper everyday. Caracas has become absolutely unlivable, but Bogota is becoming again gentile, a least for some. Colombia seems to have a future, I have lost mine.
PS: (added later) The financial debate here is how to stop the reevaluation of the Colombian Peso. In Venezuela the government seems not to care that the Bolivar has fallen so low that now we need 2 Bolivares for one Colombian Peso. Times have changed.