Why Bogotá Should Worry About Its Water

Colombia’s capital Bogotá relies on a unique ecosystem called páramos for its water. The tropical plants and moss in the páramo act like a sponge, trapping moisture from the foggy air, storing it in the soil during the dry season, and releasing it gradually.

One páramo, in Chingaza National Park east of Bogotá, provides the city with 70 percent of its water. The remaining amount is from the páramos named Sumapaz, to the south of the city, and Guerrero, to the north.

Chingaza’s water is naturally filtered by the páramo, meaning that it needs minimal filtering for human consumption. It is stored in the Chuza Dam; from there, it flows through an underground aqueduct to the San Rafael Reservoir, located in the municipality of La Calera. In case of drought or other incidents, the reservoir holds enough water to supply the capital city for three months.

Although the ecosystem, which is only found in Central and South America, has quenched the thirst of the people of Bogotá for decades, it is now under threat due to farming, coal mining, and climate change. And according to environmental advocates, there’s no back-up plan.

A general view of Bogotá. The 11 million people in the metropolitan area depend on the páramos for water. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

“An increase in temperature will generate changes in the structure and composition of the fauna and flora in the páramos,” said Patricia Bejarano, the land-use planning manager at Conservation International Colombia. “When this happens, it will put the availability of water at risk. To date, there are no other options to provide Bogotá with water.”

Colombia is one of the most water-rich countries in the world, with nearly 50,000 cubic meters (or 1.8 million cubic feet) of water available per person, per year. But according to the OECD, because of a mismatch between where the population is concentrated and available water, more than one-third of the urban population already lives under water stress.

“It’s worrying how highly vulnerable the páramos are,” Bejarano said. “If action isn’t taken now, the consequences will be incredibly difficult. And it’s not something the citizens of Bogotá are even aware of.” Bogotá has 8 million residents and 11 million people live in the urban area.

But Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá (EAAB), the public authority in charge of Bogotá’s water supply, said there is no cause for alarm. When asked what the future of Bogotá’s water looked like, spokesperson Maria Fernanda García replied: “It looks fine.”

“We have various systems of reservoirs that are used to regulate the sources,” she told CityLab. “These are used to supply water for the city, so in terms of quantity, we are not worried.”

In answer to whether the levels of water in the páramo had decreased in recent years, García said “no,” and added: “We cannot extract a bigger volume of water from the reservoir than what the water basin produces.”

Since 2009, Conservation International has been working with local communities and government officials on implementing a strategy to preserve the páramos. Another project, The Nature Conservancy’s Bogotá Water Fund, seeks contributions to conserve the tropical forests that line the watershed and filter the water.

“Over the long term, if we don’t try to stop the threats the páramo is facing, the land will be destroyed for agriculture and not preserved for providing water,” said Alejandro Calvache, the water strategy coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Colombia.

Cultivation of potatoes and cattle ranching are two culprits in páramo loss. Conservation International estimates that 50 percent of land has been lost in Guerrero, and says potato farming is encroaching on Sumapaz. Guerrero has also been affected by coal mining. Bejarano said the quality of its water is declining: “The treatment the water from Guerrero needs in order to be drinkable is now 15 times more expensive than what we spend on treating Chingaza water.”

Although Chingaza is officially a protected area, in reality, resources to enforce that are scarce, and little is done to punish offending farmers.

“If nothing is done, the city’s water quality and quantity will be increasingly threatened, and if we lose the páramos completely, in the next 30 years we will run out of water, and we will have to import it from somewhere else,” Calvache said.

García, the EAAB spokesperson, said the only concerns the authority has with the water supply are regarding quality, because sources “are being contaminated with domestic and industrial wastewater.” She said the agency’s Plan B, if the water from the páramos were to run out, would be to use water from the Bogotá River. “Besides the water coming from the páramo system, we produce water from the Bogotá River, which is also regulated by a system of reservoirs,” she said.

The Bogotá River in Tequendama, southeast of the capital. The foam is a result of pollution from industrial chemicals, farm run-off, household detergents, and human waste. (Lucy Sherriff)

The Bogotá River is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the world. The average dry-season flow in the river before entering the city is 12 cubic meters per second, and Bogotá discharges an additional 22 cubic meters per second of wastewater, with only a fraction of that undergoing primary sewage treatment.

Calvache highlighted the lack of scientific data available on the city’s water quality, and said Bogotá’s local government has not been consistent in providing support for the páramos. “We need a renewed commitment from the mayor … and we cannot be successful without their support.”

If climate change affects the páramo’s almost year-round rainy season, the consequences could be devastating. Less rain would mean less moisture in the air to be absorbed by the flora, so the water levels in the reservoir would eventually decline, and the páramos would not produce as much water.

“Despite what the EAAB says, there is no Plan B,” Calvache said. “It is our water factory, and if we don’t protect it, we will have no water to drink.”

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The Costs Behind Hockey’s Return to Long Island

Last December, as New York State officials weighed two proposals for state-owned land at Belmont Park in western Nassau County, New York Islanders superfan Patrick Dowd, known as 85 percent of the Islanders from Wang with the team valued at $485 million. By 2016, after one season as second-class tenants in Brooklyn, the Islanders were might be impossible.

“I would assume that, with enough money and enough political will, anything is possible,” says Pally, who adds that “highways around Belmont are significantly congested” at the time weeknight games would start. One question is cost-sharing. Contributions by NYAP haven’t been discussed publicly, but Pally believes the arena builders must contribute. The question is how much. (Builders of Barclays spent $72 million to upgrade the adjacent subway station.)

No wonder watchdog group Reinvent Albany has asked the state to reveal the project’s “full cost to state and local taxpayers, and the value to the businesses building [it].” The state agency’s Draft Scope, a first step in the project’s year-long environmental review, promises the study “will include independent estimates of the [project’s] economic benefits.” It’s unclear if it will address costs.

A twisting path for arenas

One lesson from recent New York arena projects: expect wild cards. The Barclays Center has proven far more prominent than profitable. The revamped Coliseum lacks an anchor tenant after initially being promised a minor league hockey team. So another line in Cuomo’s press release raised eyebrows: “New York State will negotiate with the New York Islanders to ensure they will play as many games as possible at the Nassau Coliseum while the state-of-the-art arena at Belmont is being built.”

That was pushed by Prokhorov’s company, eager to fill dates at the Coliseum and wriggle out of a bad Barclays deal. Indeed, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, perhaps at the urging of BSE, oddly bid a local team good riddance, tweeting, “There’s only one #Brooklyn team for @BarclaysCenter and that’s the @BrooklynNets. We wish the @NYIslanders well on their journey to Belmont and they should consider Nassau Coliseum in the interim period.”

Cuomo made it happen. Ensuring that the Islanders will split their time between Brooklyn and Nassau over the next three seasons, the governor offered $6 million of ESD funds to renovate Coliseum locker rooms, install cabling, and other upgrades. Even the Long Island newspaper Newsdaygenerally supportive of the Islanders’ return and owned by Patrick Dolan, whose family controls MSG—opined that the team and/or arena operator should have paid.

***

The Islanders have experienced their own hockey-related drama in the meantime. After a mediocre season that provoked fans to buy billboards urging General Manager Garth Snow’s departure, team owners recently hired front office legend Lou Lamoriello to head hockey operations; he swiftly fired Snow and head coach Doug Weight. The team will pick 11th and 12th overall in next week’s Entry Draft and will try to re-sign star center John Tavares, the league’s top free agent.

For now, an awkward relationship continues with Barclays, which, when controlled by arena developer Bruce Ratner, agreed to guarantee a payment to the Islanders in exchange for running the business operations. “They were like a rent-a-team,” Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark told an interviewer in February. “This team never really embraced Brooklyn, unfortunately.” Yormark, arena CEO from the start, immediately faced pushback regarding Barclays policies that alienated hockey fans, including restricting ticket-holders from watching warmups, introducing a new goal horn, and encouraging those in obstructed-view seats to consult their phones.

***

Cuomo, who counted the Belmont arena announcement among his numerous 2018 State of the State proposals, has faced little downside. His publicity bump— “Thank you, Governor Cuomo,” read Dowd’s sign—offers momentum for a third term and a potential higher profile nationally.

The local arena opposition has been vocal but small, using the creative hashtag, #TIMBY (Transparency in My Backyard). They recently seized on the abysmal performance of the Long Island Rail Road during the Belmont Stakes on June 9, wherein 20,000 racegoers—albeit far more than would take the train to a 19,000-seat arena—were stalled for at least an hour because of signal problems.

Taxpayer support for the LIRR’s Belmont upgrade has not become a major issue, given the lack of clarity. It’s a good bet that the ever-savvy Cuomo will keep any alarming price tag from surfacing until after the election.

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that the Belmont Park LIRR station only operates one day a year. It is open for event days.

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CityLab Daily: What You Have to Earn to Rent a Modest Two-Bedroom

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

What We’re Following

Buckeye voting: On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold a voter purging practice in Ohio, which drops voters from registration lists after missing just one federal election. The places most affected by the voter roll clearing will be the Buckeye State’s largest metropolises of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

But the state’s mechanism for checking up on voters who skip an election—by mailing documents to the registered address to confirm the voter still lives there—raises the stakes especially for voters who get evicted or displaced. The decision in Ohio opens the door for other states to craft their own residency-based purges, jeopardizing the votes of people of color, of low income, and people who live in cities, all of whom are more likely to change their address between elections. Read more from Brentin Mock on CityLab: Ohio’s Voter Purging Process Is About Disenfranchising Cities.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

What You Have to Earn to Rent a Modest 2-Bedroom, Mapped

There isn’t a single state, city, or county in the U.S. where someone earning federal or state minimum wage for a 40-hour work week can afford a two-bedroom home at fair market rent.

Tanvi Misra

The Precipitous Fall of Seattle’s ‘Amazon Tax’

The city’s ambitious plan to fund affordable housing by taxing corporations had a very short life. What happened?

Sarah Holder

Venezuela’s Biggest Airport Is in Free Fall

Since 2014, more than a dozen airlines have stopped operating from Maiquetía airport in Caracas because of the country’s political and economic crisis.

Martín Echenique

When Caribbean Culture Meets Gentrification

Camilo José Vergara takes his camera to Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood.

Camilo José Vergara

San Francisco Still Doesn’t Know Who Its Mayor Will Be

Ranked-choice voting has produced the closest citywide election in decades, as the race between London Breed and Mark Leno remains uncalled a week later.

Russell Berman


Eyes on the Tweets

(Evan Frost/MPR News)

This little raccoon transfixed Twitter’s attention as it climbed more than 20 stories yesterday up the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota. Less than a block away, Minnesota Public Radio quickly branded the skyscraper daredevil as #MPRraccoon—and after a night of intense internet drama, the critter was captured safely by animal welfare, MPR reports. Urbanists latched onto this little urban climber for good tweet fodder. Here are a few highlights:

CityLab’s Linda Poon will have more soon on what we can learn from this masked city wondercritter. In the meantime, enjoy CityLab’s coverage of urban citizens of all species in our Animals Week series from last summer.


What We’re Reading

Trump administration looking to erect tent cities for unaccompanied migrant children (McClatchy)

What happens when a rural town loses its only school? (New York Times)

Here are the cities that will be hosting the 2026 World Cup (Business Insider)

Persistent Silicon Valley billionaire earns ballot spot on splitting California into three states (Washington Post)

Can underpass reuse redeem urban freeways? (Slate)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Seoul’s ‘War Preppers’ Are Still (Sort Of) Expecting the Worst

The Janghanpyeong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea, is lined with greasy auto part stores and middle-aged men smoking cigarettes outside convenience stores. Amid the grit, the white glow of the glass-walled Chumdan Bunker System shop stands out. Inside the modern showroom, shop manager Jun-hyun Park is waiting for customers.

The company sells nuclear bunkers and survival gear. A demo model—an army-green bunker with hand-crank generator, air filtration system, and chemical toilet—sits in the corner of the shop. The bunkers start at about $31,000. The fledgling company sold 10 bunkers since it opened about a year ago, including one shipped to Kuwait. But business has been slow lately: Park said the shop hasn’t sold any of his bunkers since peace talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began in April.

Last year, it was a different story. In 2017, after North Korea test launched a ballistic missile over Japan and claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, tensions between two Koreas were spiking. In November, the shop’s owner, Go Wan Hyeok, told the UK’s Daily Star, “I’m wishing that he presses the button and shoots the bomb!” But Park has toned down that rhetoric. He says he hopes the relationship between North and South Koreas can be “friendly and peaceful.”

Nuclear fears may now be ebbing in the wake of this week’s unusual “denuclearization” meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore, but the attitudes of both the North Korean dictator and the American president have been known to fluctuate dramatically, and a state of war still technically exists between the two Koreas. Seoul lies just 25 miles from the demilitarized zone, and the city of 11 million is well within range of a potential North Korean attack, nuclear or otherwise. This is one place where survivalist “prepper” culture would seem to make a lot of sense.

Indeed, the South Korean capital boasts a vast network of more than 3,000 underground emergency shelters in subway stations and apartment building basements—reportedly enough space for the entire city’s population, if everyone agrees to take up only 2.3 square meters. But the North Korean standoff is now 70 years old, and most Seoulites have long since grown numb to the threat, despite official attempts by the South’s government to try and raise emergency preparation awareness among younger people.

In 2014, the Korean Ministry of the Interior and Safety issued a smartphone app called Emergency Ready to help guide people through disaster. It gives basic instructions for a variety of emergencies, including CPR procedures and how to distinguish the meaning of Seoul’s various air-raid sirens (one-minute continuous siren for an incoming attack, three-minute siren for an attack in progress). The app also includes a locator to help people find the nearest shelter. (One rather significant flaw: If cellphone service goes out, the locator service doesn’t work.)

Soo-min Lee, a 19-year-old student at Hongik University, was waiting for a city bus when she was asked about the the app. She’d never heard of it, and had no idea where the nearest emergency shelter was. Where would she go if North Korea was about to bomb Seoul? She pointed to a nearby department store. The correct answer was the subway station, whose stairs were just a few feet away.

Seung-yep Woo, 45, is far more aware of the threat. He’s a leader of the Korean “war prepper” community. This is a relatively small group who have taken it upon themselves to prepare and teach others how to deal with the dangers posed by armed attack, natural disaster, or a public health crisis. Besides running an online forum called Survival 21, with more than 20,000 active anonymous preppers, Woo lectures, writes books, and appears on television shows to raise awareness of personal disaster preparation. He covers the basics, like what to keep in a survival pack and how to sanitize water. At an elementary school workshop in late May, he taught students how to make a metallic heat-reflecting blanket out of empty potato chip bags.

Prepper Seung-yep Woo demonstrates how to make an emergency blanket for Seoul school children. (Ian Baldessari/CityLab)

He doesn’t trust the local or federal government’s ability to handle a true emergency. “It seems like the government agencies specializing in disaster management are more focused on preventing public panic rather than actually keeping people safe and knowledgeable,” Woo said through an interpreter. “That is where I have stepped in.”

Though Seoul’s thousands of subway stations and apartment building basements may provide enough emergency shelter space for the city’s residents, Woo is skeptical of the conditions people can expect to find there. “Once people are down there, then what?” he said. “Most have no food, very little water, and usually fewer than 100 gas masks for thousands of people seeking shelter in each subway station.”

But even Woo said he’s also started slipping in his own preparation lately: He recently used up his spare propane fuel, ate his stockpiled canned food, and drank his emergency water.

The lax state of emergency preparation in South Korea is a focus for Kyoo-man Ha, professor of emergency management at Inje University and the Korean representative to the International Association of Emergency Managers. He claims that the country lacks an adequate emergency response system, which stems from both a lack of knowledge and politics. “Beyond any problems concerning whether shelters are stocked or available is the issue of a lack of a national response framework,” Ha said. “In the U.S., there are overarching agencies like FEMA, and they have a plan for all types of disasters and contingency plans for all of those. We don’t have anything close to that.”

The Korean government paid for Ha to study disaster management in the U.S., where he attended the U.S. Emergency Management Institute, as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Iowa State University. He said he hoped to repay his country by bringing back what he learned from the more established American systems, but he said the government has been unwilling to accept his research because it is critical of agencies responsible for public safety.

In Korean politics, Ha said, there’s a culture of changing an organization’s name if it fails to do its job, so it’s telling that the agency responsible for disaster response has changed names eight times in the last 20 years. After the sinking of the 2014 Sewol ferry, which killed 299 passengers and seven responders, the agency formerly known as National Emergency Management became the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

“And now already it is the Ministry of Interior and Safety. I lose track though,” Ha said. “It is very frustrating, because each time it changes I have to go back and revise my research articles.”

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How Much Does a 2-Bedroom Apartment Cost in Your State?

For most Americans, access to decent, affordable rental housing remains cruelly beyond reach. Only in 22 counties in the United States is a one-bedroom home affordable to someone working 40 hours per week at federal minimum wage.

That’s from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) :

That rent increase is about six times greater than the growth in average hourly earnings, putting the poorest workers at an increased risk of homelessness because wages simply haven’t kept pace with housing expenses.

Whether or not this bill goes through (and it’s very possible that it won’t) it’s clear that the affordable housing crisis is at risk of escalating—at least till it becomes a real political issue.

*This post has been updated to clarify the study’s methodology.

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How Not to Shoot Yourself in the Foot: Smart Planning and P3s

When community leaders consider investments in sustainability, resilience, and smart infrastructure, they face a dilemma. Immediate priorities drive a focus on meeting short-term needs, but strategic objectives often require a big-picture outlook. Illustrative examples are found in the sustainable energy sector. In one case, a clean-energy marketing firm offered to a municipality a long-term power […]

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In Seattle, Business Won

In a rapid about-face, the Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to overturn a new tax they had unanimously approved just a month earlier, intended to fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives. Lawmakers voted seven to two to reverse the tax on the city’s largest corporations after an aggressive campaign to put a repeal of the law on the November ballot.

“[T]his is not a winnable battle at this time. The opposition has unlimited resources,” said Lisa Herbold, who voted for the tax, and then for the repeal.

The vote is a significant blow for activists pushing back against the increasing unaffordability that has followed Amazon and other large corporations into Seattle. Other cities, including Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters, are considering similar proposals.

Opposition to the tax was advanced by a new business-backed non-profit, No Tax on Jobs. Corporations, including Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and the Washington Food Industry Association contributed a collective $352,775 as of last filing to get a referendum on the November ballot.

By Monday, No Tax On Jobs said it had collected 45,833 signatures—far greater than the 17,000 they needed—and would have certified the new initiative on Thursday. Durkan and the council beat them to it. Now, the repeal won’t need to be put to a vote.

“We heard you,” wrote Jenny Durkan in a statement Monday, implicitly addressed to the opposition leaders. “It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis.”

Less than a day later, on Tuesday morning, a hearing was called. After an hour of public comment, during which Seattle residents—tech workers, Amazon employees, teachers, socialists, and self-proclaimed anarchists alike—pleaded angrily with the city council, the repeal was confirmed.

The largest three percent of Seattle’s businesses would have been subject to the tax, charged with paying $275 per employee per year. Amazon, now the second-richest corporation in the world and led by a CEO with a net worth of $140 billion, would have supplied about $13 million of the city-wide fund. All together, the city would have raised $47 million annually to build affordable housing in a city with a median rent of over $2,000, and support the city’s homeless population of more than 11,000. Since 2012, almost 700 homeless residents of King’s County have died.

At Tuesday’s hearing, some residents acknowledged that the tax would not be adequate to address the scope of Seattle’s problem. But others said that without an alternative, it would be irresponsible for the council to repeal it. “Yes, we need other solutions, but we should have them in place before we remove what we’ve got,” one man said. “It is immoral to repeal this tax … without a replacement in place,” said another woman. “If you repeal with no notice and with nothing in place, more people will die.”

Amazon employees and other tech workers from the area also spoke up. “I want lots of housing to be built, so you can be a waiter and live in Seattle; you can be a plumber, or a janitor, or a school teacher,” said Aubrey Polman, who took the day off work at Amazon to attend. “I want all kinds of people in the city—not just rich people … If it means I have to get a different job because Amazon moves, I will take that.”

Amazon has threatened to shrink its presence in Seattle before: In the days leading up to the initial tax vote, it halted construction on a downtown building and said it would consider leasing, not occupying, another Seattle office space. But after the tax was approved, other Seattle-based businesses like Starbucks quickly rallied against it too, pouring thousands into a signature-gathering campaign to put a repeal on the November ballot.

“In lightning speed, with zero accountability to our movement, zero accountability to renters, zero accountability to the majority of people in Seattle who are reeling at housing prices, they’re set to destroy [this tax] within one day,” said City Council Member Kshama Sawant, who belongs to the Socialist Alternative Party. She and Teresa Mosqueda were the only two council members to abstain from signing Durkan’s Monday statement, and to vote “no” Tuesday.

An hour of public comment was filled with activists’ yells of “We are ready to fight! Housing is a human right!”; “Stop the repeal!”; and “Let us speak!” But No Tax on Jobs representatives were not absent from the hearing. “We’re tired of not seeing results, and not knowing where the money is being spent,” said Julie Hall, a volunteer who collected 500 signatures for the organization.

It’s a sentiment John Murray, No Tax on Jobs’ communications director, had expressed to CityLab last week: “The solution is not to give the city council more money to spend, but to ask them to spend it more responsibly and more efficiently.”

Sawant sees the repeal as a capitulation to business interests, as do many of her followers. Even some council members who voted for the repeal acknowledged that the move was a necessary tactic to appease the businesses that support Seattle’s economy. “I don’t want the repeal of the [head tax] to be a loss,” said Herbold. “It’s a temporary setback and I am dedicated to find progressive revenue sources.” After Tuesday’s vote, the question of where—and when—they’ll find that revenue remains.

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Venezuela’s Biggest Airport Is in Free Fall

In 1976, you could fly from Caracas, Venezuela, to Paris in six hours, crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard Air France’s Concorde. Only France, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States were also regularly served by the futuristic supersonic aircraft. At the time, Venezuela’s oil-fueled economy was the richest in South America, and for air travelers, it was the continent’s best-connected state.  

An Air France magazine ad featuring its supersonic Paris-Caracas route in the 1980s. (Air France)

In the decades since, Maiquetía International Airport (renamed Simón Bolívar International in 1972, but still widely known by its former name) boomed with taxiing 747s on intercontinental routes to Dublin, London, Amsterdam, and Zurich. Caracas also boasted several connections to major American hubs, such as Miami, New York, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Atlanta, operated by both Venezuelan carriers and American, Delta, United, Braniff, and Pan-Am.

Today, that scene has changed dramatically. Since 2014, when Venezuela descended into a political and economic crisis, 15 airlines have ceased operations to and from Caracas, leaving the city––and the country––in a deepening state of aviation isolation. Maiquetía’s terminal frequently goes without air conditioning, power, or running water; fears of crime in the city and in the airport itself have caused some remaining carriers to send flight crews to other cities rather than having them stay overnight in Caracas.

The fall of Maiquetía started when Air Canada canceled its route from Toronto in March 2014, followed by Alitalia’s withdrawal of its Rome-Caracas operation in April 2015. Eleven more carriers followed, including Delta, United, Lufthansa, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL, Avianca, and LATAM, leaving the Venezuelan capital with no direct services to Dallas, Atlanta, New York, Houston, San Juan, Fort Lauderdale, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá, São Paulo, and Santiago.

Currently, the only U.S. carrier operating to and from Venezuela is American Airlines, with a single daily flight to Miami from both Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city. Two years ago, there were more than 40 flights per week between the Venezuelan capital and Miami.

The airline exodus is just one symptom of the deteriorating political and economic crisis in Venezuela since the death of Hugo Chávez. Nicolás Maduro, his hand-picked successor, became president with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2013. Maduro continued Chavez’s policies, which produced a great amount of overspending, a devaluation of the bolívar, hyperinflation of 25,000 percent, and shortages due to imports and foreign currency restrictions, among other factors. It has been estimated that 90 percent of Venezuelans now live below the poverty line. A vast number of Venezuelans have fled the country, while Maduro won re-election in May in a controversial election that many members of the international community have rejected as illegitimate.

For airlines, Maduro’s economic policies have made the Venezuelan capital a very difficult place to do business.

Like in any other country, international carriers sell their tickets in national currency, which later gets exchanged into U.S. dollars, euros, or other foreign currencies. In the case of Venezuela, passengers were booking and paying for their flights in bolívares, the nation’s currency. This income had to be exchanged into foreign currency, so it could be repatriated to the airlines’ central bank accounts.

In order to prevent capital flight and to halt a devaluation of the bolívar, in 2003 the Chavez government began enforcing fixed exchange rates and restricting the purchase of U.S. dollars for both companies and people, so the bolívares collected by ticket sales couldn’t get converted into foreign currency. And as the recent economic crisis continues, the Maduro government has progressively tightened these currency controls through CENCOEX, Venezuela’s National Center for Foreign Trade.

As a result, international airlines in Venezuela have billions of bolívares frozen inside the country, and the carriers that remain have stopped selling tickets in national currency. Now, every international carrier only sells their tickets in euros or U.S. dollars, two currencies which are extremely difficult to get inside Venezuela. U.S. dollars, for example, are sold on the black market at rates almost 25 times more expensive than their official value. For euros, the rate is nearly 30 times higher.

The International Air Transport Association––also known as IATA–– estimates that airlines have been unable collect nearly $3.8 billion from ticket sales in Venezuela since restrictions to currency exchange were strengthened in 2015. The association also closed its Caracas office in January 2018.

Avianca’s check-in screens inform passengers about canceled flights when the airline was still operating from Maiquetía. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

If Venezuelans want to fly American Airlines, Air France, or any other international carrier, they must be either very wealthy and have access to foreign currencies at the black market, or be primary holders of a bank account abroad, which would allow them to pay for their ticket in euros or U.S. dollars. Both scenarios are rare in a country where the monthly average salary is approximately $1.3 at the unofficial exchange rate, or $32 at the official one.

Without available foreign currency, replacement parts and other imported goods needed for aircraft maintenance, airport management, and other tasks have become scarce, and airlines dropped routes even when passenger demand was high, as for flights originating in U.S. cities like New York, Houston, Atlanta, and Fort Lauderdale.

“If you want to see how the country is doing, take a look at its aviation industry,” says José Leonardo Garelli, a Venezuelan aviation expert and editor at MiAerolinea.com, a bilingual blog dedicated to the airline industry.

More recently, local media have reported that the airport is experiencing frequent power blackouts and that water isn’t running in the terminal’s toilets, while hundreds of passengers are being left stranded after flights get canceled without notice. Since Maiquetía’s cleaning services company went bankrupt, there’s no one sanitizing bathrooms, cleaning floors, or taking out the trash.

Crime and safety is another growing concern. Since 2017, security for the airport has been provided by the National Bolivarian Guard, or GNB, Venezuela’s highly militarized police force. An investigation from ABC, one of Spain’s largest newspapers, reported that passengers on international-bound flights were being extorted by GNB officers at the check-in area before going through any security checkpoint. According to ABC, members of this “military mafia” regularly threatened to deny boarding and demanded foreign currency, tech gadgets, or jewelry from travelers.

Arriving passengers are being greeted with similar treatment. Bands of thieves are said, by several media accounts, to be colluding with customs officers who identify potential wealthy targets entering the country on international flights. The travelers are then stopped at gunpoint on the freeway that links Caracas and Maiquetía. In one heavily publicized incident, a man was shot and killed by a sicario (or hitman) in August 2017 while checking in at an airline counter in front of dozens of people.

Passengers in Maiquetía airport wait for their international flight while standing on the airport’s famous mosaic floor. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

A week before that murder, the Spanish national airline Iberia decided to discontinue their nonstop service from Madrid, mainly because the crew did not feel safe spending the night in Caracas. The airline still flies to Maiquetía, but now operates with a stopover in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, for the crew to sleep and change shifts.

Peter Cerdà, regional vice-president for the Americas at IATA, said that more airlines could stop flying into Venezuela if the situation worsens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of operating airlines in Venezuela keeps declining,” he told Spanish news agency EFE. “Our problem is just a grain of sand compared to the country’s situation, but, unfortunately, Venezuela is isolating itself from the rest of the world.”

That isolation is reflected in the toll on the country’s tourism industry. According to the World Tourism Organization, international visitors into Venezuela have plummeted from 1,061,000 visitors in 2012 to 681,111 in 2016. During the same years, the number of tourists from the U.S. fell from 79,248 to 29,604. Visitors from South American countries decreased nearly 36 percent between 2015 and 2016. Tourism revenue is also in freefall, dropping 49 percent––from $1.1 billion in 2008 to $546 million in 2016. Figures from 2017 and 2018 were not available.

CityLab contacted the Instituto Aeropuerto Internacional de Maiquetía, the Ministry of Transportation agency that oversees and manages the airport’s operations. After several attempts, officials said they didn’t have any updated statistics and instead referred us to the Ministry of Transportation. When contacted, the Ministry said those statistics were not under their responsibility and suggested that we should contact airport authorities again. Both institutions said they had no comments on the airport’s current conditions.

Garelli isn’t optimistic that things will improve soon. “What we’ve seen here is a gradual, progressive debacle, and I am sure it will just get worse,” he says. “It’s sad. It pains me to actually witness this. I’m not the only one who wants our city to become, once again, the entry way to South America.”  

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Ohio’s Voter Purging Process Is About Disenfranchising Cities

There are two key things to understand about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Husted vs APRI decision yesterday, which allows the state to punish infrequent voters by purging them from voter lists.

  • This ruling will further erode the voting power of people who live in cities because the areas most affected by purges in Ohio are its largest metropolises: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.
  • The stakes just heightened for people who get evicted or are displaced from their homes, adding possible disenfranchisement to their list of problems.

At question in this case is the state’s Supplemental Process for purging voters, which goes like this: If you live in Ohio and you decide to, for whatever reason, skip voting in one federal election, this can trigger the state to send a document to your listed residence asking you to confirm that you still live there. If you do not send this document back and don’t vote for another few elections, the state assumes you no longer live at this address and will remove your name from your local voter list. This means that the next time you decide to vote, you will likely not be able to—or at best, you can vote provisionally. This is what happened to Navy veteran Larry Harmon when he tried to vote in 2015 but was denied because he failed to vote in 2009 and 2010 and didn’t respond to the address confirmation mailer that was sent to him.

Harmon and the A. Philip Randolph Institute sued the state with the backing of several other civil rights and social justice organizations, such as the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), Demos, and the ACLU. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed a legal brief in 2016 on their behalf stating that Ohio’s purging process violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The Justice Department has held and defended the position that a person can’t be purged for not voting dating back to NVRA’s passage in 1993, through both Democrat and Republican administrations. But states have resorted to all sorts of questionable voter purging schemes, often disproportionately affecting voters of color. The NVRA’s anti-purging provisions were further strengthened by HAVA in response to the 2000 Bush-Gore election, which was bungled in large part because of the reckless voter purging that happened in Florida.

A district court sided with Harmon in 2016, but that decision was overturned by a federal appeals court later that same year. Harmon’s defenders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but this time the Justice Department, under a leadership that is unfriendly to civil rights, decided to reverse the position it previously held for two decades. In a new brief, it posited that Ohio’s Supplemental Policy actually does not violate NVRA or HAVA. Yesterday, SCOTUS agreed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, pointed to a clause in the NVRA that said a person could be purged if he has “failed to respond to a notice” and “has not voted” for a certain period of time.

But what Harmon’s advocates were contesting was how Ohio was going about this: The purge process can begin when a person misses voting once, after which they are sent the address confirmation notice. Meanwhile, even HAVA states that a person can’t be purged solely for a failure to vote. Ohio is the only state that has a purging policy like this, but thanks to yesterday’s SCOTUS decision, it likely won’t be the last. The ruling opens the door to other states to employ the same kind of purging process. If the current test case is any indication, that would be devastating for major cities because in Ohio, those are the jurisdictions that have been most heavily impacted. According to a Reuters study from 2016:

Voters of all stripes in Ohio are affected, but the policy appears to be helping Republicans in the state’s largest metropolitan areas, according to a Reuters survey of voter lists. In the state’s three largest counties that include Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods.

That’s because residents of relatively affluent Republican-leaning neighborhoods are more likely to vote in both congressional elections and presidential contests, historical turnouts show. Democrats are less likely to vote in mid-term elections and thus are more at risk of falling off the rolls.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted as much in her dissent, and also explained that people of color have been disproportionately impacted as well:

It is unsurprising in light of the history of such purge programs that numerous amici report that the Supplemental Process has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters. As one example, amici point to an investigation that revealed that in Hamilton County, “African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10% of their voters removed due to inactivity” since 2012, as “compared to only 4% of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.”

Harmon’s defense argued that Ohio is incorrect to assume a person has moved just because they dodged an election or two—indeed, Harmon had been living in the same place for 16 years when his name was scrubbed from voter lists. There are myriad reasons for not voting, not least of which is because you just might not want to. Perhaps there is no candidate who best encapsulates your interests. This might often be the case for Democrats living in cities when considering participating in statewide elections, given the way cities are gerrymandered out of power and trapped by Republican-dominated state legislatures and governors that cater to suburban districts.  

However, people of color, of low-income, and people who live in cities will always be vulnerable to residency-based purging schemes because they are the people most likely to change addresses. Cities have larger populations of people who rent (in many cities, renters are upwards of half the total population). Cities are also staging grounds for frequent neighborhood change—public housing gets razed for mixed-income complexes, new urban development plans kick off, gentrification kicks in—all of which lead to higher rates of displacement of families than are found in suburbs.

Even homeowners of color were more likely to not only get foreclosed upon during the recent housing crash, but also most likely to not have recovered. Many are living in transitional and temporary housing. Not to mention, cities are at the heart of the long-running eviction crisis in the United States. Cincinnati figures among the top ten metros for this, with an eviction rate that is 2.36 times the national average, according to Eviction Lab. Cleveland’s and Columbus’s eviction rates are not far behind.

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With this ruling, the displaced can now add disenfranchisement to their list of worries while seeking resettlement. People of color can add this to the lately growing list of voting rights setbacks and obstacles experienced of late. Justice Sotomayor said in her dissent that the majority’s ruling neglects to acknowledge the history of voter discrimination and suppression that led to voter protection laws like NVRA and HAVA to begin with. Justice Alito replied that racial discrimination at the polls was not relevant to this case.

“The only question before us is whether [Ohio’s Supplemental Process] violates federal law,” said Alito. “We have no authority to second-guess Congress.”

And yet second-guessing Congress is exactly what SCOTUS did in 2013 when it ruled to strip away key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that Congress had almost unanimously reauthorized and did not ask SCOTUS to correct. Those provisions mostly protected people of color living in southern states with long histories of racial discrimination. If those same southern states decide to launch purging schemes like the one now rendered constitutional in Ohio (Florida has tried similar), then voters of color there will have even less protection.

Ohio’s Secretary of State Jon Husted said these purges are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but study after study has pointed to the fact that this happens at such a vanishing rate that it’s not worth mentioning. Donald Trump disbanded his voter fraud commission earlier this year because it was unable to unearth such fraudulent activity. There’s little reward or incentive for illegal voting in Ohio, where the penalty for this is a felony that could land one in jail for five years.

There is a solution, though, if Ohio is truly worried about keeping accurate voter registration files. It’s called automatic voter registration, which, as its name suggests, automatically updates a voter’s registration information whenever they get a new driver’s license, state ID, or apply for state benefits. It’s been adopted in roughly a dozen states so far and can be effective in reducing the chances of losing track of voters whether they move or not. A bill was introduced in Ohio in February 2017 to initiate automatic voter registration, and is still pending. Ohio Secretary of State Husted opposes it.

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When Caribbean Culture Meets Gentrification

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Camilo José Vergara’s Crossroads project. Previous stories covered Newark’s “Four Corners” and the Bronx’s “Hub.

West Indian, Haitian, African, African American, and Latino cultures converge at the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn’s zip code 11216. This part of the borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is 86 percent black, making it New York City’s largest non-white community and the cultural center of Brooklyn’s African American population.

In spite of a wave of gentrification in recent years, Caribbean culture continues to dominate; Fulton Cultural sells special soaps and candles believed to ensure protection, prosperity, successful court cases, and love; Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery, whose motto is “Be Jamaican, Buy Jamaican,” displays the Jamaican flag above its entrance.

(Camilo José Vergara)

Within a block of the intersection along Fulton Street, a ten story residential building is nearing completion, and a vacant lot where the famous Slave 1 Theater (demolished in 2014) once stood is awaiting construction. Also on the intersection are two empty storefronts. One of them, Zim Entertainment Outlet sold African Movies and phone calling cards, the other Futa Toro, a gift shop named after a region around the Senegal River, sold clothing and bags. They were recently sold and will likely be upgraded to higher end retail stores.

(Camilo José Vergara)

A former Trini Roti is now a Jamaican jerk chicken restaurant. No pork products are sold at Abir Halal a popular Bangladeshi restaurant. Chung Market sells American and French products to a West Indian and Senegalese clientele. Le Paris Dakar, a French coffee shop known for its crepes, quiches, and omelettes, could be mistaken for a sign of gentrification but the proprietor is Senegalese. The six-year-old business is listed in BKLYNER as one of 37 Black owned coffee shops in the borough.

(Camilo José Vergara)

On the sidewalk, men in fancy attire sell small vials of skin products that they carry in bandolier belts across the chest. A street vendor sells baby turtles, Latina women sell ice cream, various men pass leaflets advertising tax preparation services. A t-shirt on a street preacher proclaims “Allah Is The Creator.” Another one states “The Black Man Is God,” as first claimed in the 1960s by Clarence 13 X, founder of the Five Percent Nation. NYPD and store video cameras record the street activity.

(Camilo José Vergara)

Much to my surprise, I encountered two Korean owned stores on Fulton Street which sell church suits and hats to black women. One of the stores, Dylan Lingerie and Jewelry, has a decal of the iconic Lion of Judah on its entrance. For a decade, these colorful stores have been selling clothes that help define Black culture.

Black dandies are easily spotted wearing extraordinary fashions and hairstyles. One tall man wears bright yellow African robes and a Kunte Kinte cap, another wears a complete Chicago Bulls outfit that matches his dyed red beard. A serious-looking man, wearing all black attire with a silver cross on his chest and long dreadlocks, resembles a minister of a long disappeared religion. More than a few men are seen with long braids. Among adult women, burkas are popular, but I did not see men wearing Islamic attire.

(Camilo José Vergara)

I saw a young white man who stood out but appeared to feel at home as he crossed Fulton Street carrying his small blonde daughter on his shoulders and two Whole Foods shopping bags in his hands. His partner walking behind them carried three more Whole Foods bags. Through their presence, the young family seemed to be announcing a new era for the neighborhood.

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