Thursday, June 17, 2021

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Medellin-based highway construction consortium Covipacifico announced June 15 that it just won confirmation of a US$150 million financing package for its “Pacifico 1” highway project.

The financing will guarantee completion of the COP$2.6 trillion (US$704 million), 50-kilometers-long “Pacifico 1” project between the southern Medellin suburb of Caldas and a new bridge-and-tunnel connection to the nearly complete “Pacifico 2” highway above the Cauca river town of Bolombolo.

When Pacifico 1 and Pacifico 2 eventually connect to the under-construction “Pacifico 3” project in 2023, then -- at long last -- Medellin finally will have its first direct, high-speed connection all the way to the main Pacific port at Buenaventura, greatly reducing freight transport times and costs.

“Pacifico 1” is now more than 70% complete and full opening is expected by August 2023, according to Covipacifico.

According to a separate, related June 15 bulletin from Colombia’s Agencia Nacional de Infraestructura (ANI), “this new milestone in financing was supported by the international banks Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (Japan) and Santander S.A. (Spain).”

“These resources show the confidence of international banks in Colombia,” added Colombia Transport Minister Angela María Orozco. “Pacifico 1 will allow the [Medellin and southwest Antioquia] region to be better connected with the main economic centers inside and outside of Antioquia,” she added.

This month, the first 5.2 kilometers of new, four-lane divided highway opened near Bolombolo on Pacifico 1, including the new, 1.4-kilometers-long “ Sinifaná” twin tunnels.

Pacifico 1 in total includes construction of 63 bridges, three below-ground interchanges at Sinifaná, Titiribí and Camilo Cé, 32 kilometers of new, four-lane divided highway and two twin tunnels at Sinifaná (now complete) and at Amagá, the latter just-now completely excavated.

Colombia President Ivan Duque announced June 8 that the dumped body of Colombian police officer Carlos Andrés Rincón has now been recovered, following his kidnapping, torture and murder by protesters participating in the “Comite del Paro” national strikes and roadblocks.

The policeman had been in the vicinity of an illegal road blockade in Cali, where Colombia’s worst protest violence has taken place over the past five weeks – resulting in several deaths and dozens of injuries, along with rioter destruction and burning of buildings, vehicles, offices, businesses, banks, public transport, ambulances and catastrophic blockage of thousands of critical freight shipments and medical supplies needed in much of the nation.

While the “Comite del Paro” has been demanding the elimination of riot-police – claiming that all police have been recklessly attacking “innocent” protesters and ignoring citizen-vigilante justice – the Colombian government is demanding that rioters mounting illegal blockades, murdering and attacking policemen, burning buildings and vehicles and wrecking public transport infrastructure must be prosecuted.

The government is simultaneously moving to investigate, prosecute and imprison some wayward police officers using excessive force or wrongly shooting some protesters.

To address such abuses, a new, “comprehensive transformation strategy” for Colombia’s national police will be contained in a bill to be delivered to Congress on July 20, according to President Duque.

The bill will include a new “Human Rights Directorate” inside the National Police, a new “Disciplinary Statute” including “restructuring of the General Inspectorate, supervision and control of the police service and a new system for receiving, processing and monitoring complaints and reports,” President Duque said.

The bill also calls for further “professionalization and police development with the launch of a Police Standards Center and a new Police University,” according to Duque.

As under current Colombian and international law, the use of force -- even deadly force -- by police is legal only in response to life-threatening violence employed by criminals, guerrillas and violent rioters. Peaceful demonstrations are respected and guaranteed under Colombia’s Constitution.

The bill also will include new funding for aerial surveillance systems and other high technologies, including body cameras incorporated into new police uniforms.

“I have given a clear instruction to Defense Minister Diego Molano to prioritize the processing of the new project on police careers and professionalization. I have also given him an instruction so that, on July 20, we present the bill for a new Police Disciplinary Statute, which modernizes the one that has already existed for 15 years,” President Duque announced.

“This also leads us to strengthen the rules on the use of force. The use of force has been regulated by law and by procedures, but [new rules will] strengthen our norms regarding the use, carrying and employment of less-lethal weapons, and include all standards in the fight against riots and acts of vandalism, strengthened by international cooperation,” he added.

“We want more technology, better technology, so that the police service is also open to any type of scrutiny. We hope to accelerate the application of bodycams, body cameras, in citizen security procedures, so that all traceability remains and, in addition, police honor is clearly identified in the more than 30 million procedures” that Colombia’s national police handle annually.

“I have also instructed to strengthen the existing camera services, and also drones, so that we have monitoring, and also have real-time reading of all police procedures, especially those that have to do with facing riots, with facing acts of vandalism,” President Duque added.

The Asociación Colombiana de Medicina Interna (ACMI) and dozens more of Colombia’s leading medical associations on June 7 issued a joint declaration slamming decisions by various mayors in Colombia -- including Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero -- declaring a “total reopening” of all businesses and mass events starting today (June 8) – even while Covid-19 cases are actually growing and many hospitals are jammed to overflowing.

The groups also slammed Colombia Health Minister Fernando Ruiz for issuing the new "Resolution 777" that conditionally allows reopening of virtually all business sectors and mass events except for cities with 85% or more occupation of intensive care units (ICUs), as currently is the unfortunate situation in Medellin and Antioquia.

However, Medellin as of today seems to be side-stepping the “85% rule.”

Making the public-health situation worse is the never-ending series of mass protest gatherings organized by the “Comite del Paro,” which includes various left-wing politicians, trade unions, some student groups and – overwhelmingly -- hundreds of thousands of young people left unemployed by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Colombia today is among the top-10 nations in the world with the greatest number of Covid-19 cases, having doubled the daily case rate just in the last 40 days, the medical groups note.

With a reported 3.1% mortality rate for Covid-19 cases in Colombia, this means that in the next few weeks, Covid deaths could rise to between 500 to 800 people daily, according to the medical groups.

Meanwhile, emergency-room services in hospitals in Colombia's main cities are already 200% to 300% over-crowded, and ICU occupancy is well over 90% in Medellin and Bogota, according to the medical groups.

On top of all these problems, "more than 40% of health professionals present alarming levels of burnout, anxiety, depression and physical stress," according to the groups.

Meanwhile, according to a June 7 bulletin from the departmental government of Antioquia, Medellin alone reported 1,063 new cases of Covid-19 yesterday, just under half of the 2,297 new cases department-wide.

“Antioquia has an ICU bed occupancy percentage of 96.71%,” the Antioquia government bulletin added.

Ironically, Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero issued a press bulletin June 5 bragging about the “total reopenings” starting today (June 8).

“The artistic and cultural sector will have a reopening of large capacity gatherings to 100%, with the biosafety measures approved by the national government,” according to the Mayor’s official press bulletin.

Among those upcoming events: the 15th annual “International Tango Festival” from June 24 to 30; the annual Medellin Flower Festival and Silleteros Parade from August 12 to 22; and the large-crowds “Colombiamoda” and “Colombiatex” trade shows at Medellin’s Plaza Mayor convention center, he said.

In the case of the Tango Festival concerts, “we are going to have some stands for people who are vaccinated and others for those who are not vaccinated, and we are going to have different distances” between people to help avoid more infections, Mayor Quintero stated.

Vaccination Rate Growing

Meanwhile, Colombia’s Health Ministry announced June 4 that at least 17 million Colombians should have gotten at least one dose of Covid vaccine by end-June.

While more than 11 million Colombians have already gotten at least one dose, vaccination rates are increasing to a range of 200,000 to 300,000 people daily, according to the Ministry.

Health Vice-Minister Luis Alexander Moscoso added that “it would seem illogical to generate a [total economic] reopening, but precisely these are the moments in which we have to build the future” as Colombia faces the twin crises of massive unemployment among youth along with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

Meanwhile, Health Ministry director of prevention Gerson Bermont added that the “Comite del Paro” demonstrations and road blockades over the past four weeks have exacerbated Covid-19 problems.

“There were difficult days when we were not able to bring vaccines to IPS [hospitals and clinics] or to municipalities due to the blockades,” Bermont stated.

Despite the violent protest actions, Colombia nevertheless has managed to import 16.2 million doses of vaccines, of which 14.3 million doses have been delivered to various cities and territories and more than 11 million doses have been applied, including about 3.5 million second doses, he noted.

Colombia’s Superintendency of Transport (Supertransporte) announced June 4 that it has issued a new control order against Mexico-based airline Interjet, which had been offering flights to and from Colombia.

Interjet filed for bankruptcy in March 2021.

According to Supertransporte, the latest control order is the second sanction brought against Interjet “for not complying with the orders issued since last November 9, 2020, which included issuing and disseminating a press release indicating to users the channels and schedules of the that the airline has to receive and respond in a timely manner to requests, complaints and claims submitted by users, and present and implement a user service plan, among other provisions.”

In addition, Supertransporte “notified the Superintendencies of Industry and Commerce and Companies to investigate alleged infractions of the competition protection regime and the exchange regime, respectively,” according to the agency.

The Supertransporte control order requires Interjet to appear before the Superintendency of companies to face a “business insolvency process” for “presenting a critical accounting, financial, legal and administrative situation. This situation affects the provision of the public air transport service,” according to the agency.

“This is the first airline that is summoned to a process of insolvency by the inspection, surveillance and control authority in the framework of the pandemic caused by Covid-19,” the agency stated.

Interjet retains rights to appeal the decision, the agency added.

Colombia Health Minister Fernando Ruiz announced this morning (June 3) that Colombia has abolished the current mandate for airports to demand that international passenger arrivals must have passed a PCR test against Covid-19 infections -- and likewise will no longer require “Coronapp” cell-phone health data for domestic airline passengers.

Simultaneously, Minister Ruiz revealed that under new rules, cities can begin reactivating many types of businesses and events – under certain conditions -- which heretofore have been banned or severely restricted because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the new “Decree 580” and “Resolution 777” rules, cities that have more-than 85% occupancy of intensive care units (ICUs) cannot undergo “total reactivation” starting next week -- contradicting a June 1 public proclamation made by Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero claiming that Medellin will have “total reactivation” starting June 8.

The obstacle: Medellin and Antioquia have ICU capacities well over 90% because of continuing high levels of Covid-19 cases, according to the most recent Antioquia departmental data.

“As long as a municipality is above 85%, all restrictive measures are maintained, especially in what has to do with bars, discos, events and crowds,” Minister Ruiz explained.

But whenever a municipality falls below 85% of ICU occupancy, then “opening possibilities are generated with capacity adjusted to the progress of the National Vaccination Plan,” according to the new Ministry rule.

“A city lower than an [85% ICU occupancy] percentage can start with 25% capacity for open public events,” according to the Minister. “Even in closed events, recommendations are included where the minimum distance [between people] can be one meter, which increases the capacity,” as is currently allowed for church or synagogue services and gymnasiums, he added.

“For such scenarios there are special measures such as the use of face masks, which is reinforced in the new regulations, ventilation, washing and disinfection of hands, the new minimum distance between people and indications for self-care,” according to the Ministry.

The new rules allow “a safe opening with conditions that allow us to graduate [to more liberal standards] as vaccination grows and as cities pass that third peak” of the current “third wave” of Covid-19 infections, Ruiz explained.

“This does not mean that we cannot have a fourth peak. The impact continues, but also as we manage to vaccinate, advance and finish ‘phase 1’ of vaccination, of these three initial stages where we are with the most vulnerable people, we can surely have an affectation with a lower mortality rate,” he added.

Compulsory and correct use of a face mask, constant hand washing or disinfection and physical distancing are part of the general measures that are maintained under the new rules, he added.

The current lengthy procedures to obtain permits for the holding of events will be replaced by an "index that we are creating, called the 'Resilience Index,' which basically determines how far along a city is advanced in vaccination, how much is the ICU occupation, what is the prevalence of infected people in that city, and the positive testing rate of the virus through tests," he added.

More Vaccines, More Private Options

Meanwhile, millions more vaccines from foreign vendors are arriving in Colombia this week, hence supporting and advancing the National Vaccination Plan, he said.

“Yesterday [June 2] 580,000 Pfizer vaccines arrived in the country and today [June 3] another 500,000 from the same laboratory will arrive. Tomorrow will arrive another 1 million vaccines from AstraZeneca and next Sunday [June 6] another 1 million doses of vaccines arrive from Sinovac,” he revealed.

As for the upcoming plan to allow private companies to vaccinate their employees, this is likely to start by the end of June, he explained.

“At this moment we already have an agreement with a significant number of [companies and employee associations] for vaccines acquired through the contract that the national government has with Sinovac, where progress is being made in the acquisition of 2.5 million vaccines,” he added.

This week, the Health Ministry will issue a resolution “that refines aspects for the vaccination of private individuals,” he explained.

Medellín Mayor ‘Total Reactivation’ Plan Includes Tax Cut Proposal

On a parallel front, Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero announced June 1 that as part of the claimed “total reactivation” of the local economy supposedly starting June 8, new job-building tax cuts for businesses will be proposed to the Medellin City Council this month.

“The incentive for foreign investment will be given through the reduction of the Industry and Commerce Tax for companies that have settled in Medellín,” according to the Mayor’s office.

“We are going to reduce taxes for those who help us to reactivate the economy of the city. We want to encourage technology-based companies to locate in Medellín,” Quintero stated.

The new, five-year tax breaks would apply to “technology-based companies based in the city, including those created last year,” according to the Mayor’s office.

“In the first and second year they will have a discount of 100%, in the third of 80%, in the fourth of 60% and in the fifth of 40%.

“Companies that are located in ‘Orange Development Areas’ (San Ignacio, Comuna 13, Prado and Perpetuo Socorro) will have benefits in the payment of their industrial and commercial obligations. In the first year, the discount will be 100%, in the second, 80%, in the third, 60%, in the fourth, 40%, and in the fifth, 20%.”

The proposal also includes foreign companies that newly set-up and create jobs in Medellín. Such companies “will receive tax benefits for five years, with a discount of 100% in the first year, 80% in the second, 60% in the third, 40% in the fourth and 20% in the fifth,” according to the Mayor’s office.

“It is expected that in mid-June the Medellín Council will have a free hand to proceed with the proposals made to reactivate the city’s economy,” including the expansion of international tourism to the city, the office added.

The latest, just-released EcoAnalytica/Guarumo national poll of voting-age Colombians shows that people here are overwhelmingly fed-up with the month-long series of strikes, road blockades, violence, arson attacks, attempted (and actual) murders and attacks on police, and economic devastation seemingly ignored or in some cases even promoted by some members of the “Comite del Paro” group.

The “Comite del Paro” leaders and supporters include certain left-wing politicians, some left-wing labor unions, some student groups and huge numbers of unemployed people – all motivated by the inevitable economic and social problems arising from 15 continuing months of the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than by a proposed tax-reform bill since withdrawn.

In total, 67% of those polled this month by EcoAnalytica/Guarumo said they are totally opposed to road blockades that have included violent attacks on drivers of trucks, buses, ambulances, oxygen-and-medical-supplies transports, police vehicles and private cars, resulting in untold numbers of deaths and suffering from delayed or cancelled deliveries of critical supplies at hospitals, clinics and distribution centers.

Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of farm animals along with hundreds of thousands of tons of produce have perished because of the blockades, while hundreds of thousands of businesses likewise have shut their doors and laid-off millions of people because of the blockades, arson attacks and violent protests. Tax revenues that support Colombia's massive subsidies to the poor and working-class populations hit by economic devastation caused by Covid-19 also have plummeted during the strikes.

Another 56% of those polled said the strikes should stop NOW, even while 71% suspect that the national government and the “Comite del Paro” inevitably will sign some sort of deal that would end the month-long chaos and violence.

While 58% oppose the use of the Colombian Army to control the violence and vandalism, fully 67% oppose the dismantling of Colombia’s “ESMAD” riot police responsible for breaking-up violent demonstrations, according to the poll.

One-third of those polled suspect that foreign agents hostile to Colombia’s democracy (such as the narco-communist government of Venezuela) are partly to blame for promoting violence, while 25% see violent criminal groups involved and another 15% see local guerrilla infiltrations into otherwise peaceful protest marches.

Among those polled, youth unemployment is the most-cited reason for the protest marches, as unemployment has soared during the Covid-19 crisis – ironically exacerbated by the road blockades, vandalism, violent marches and burning of private and public buildings and vehicles during the protests.

No Candidate Stands Out for 2022 Elections

While the survey shows that Colombia President Ivan Duque has seen his popularity dip to just 29% during the recent rioting and strikes, one of the key promoters of the strikes and chaos – perennial left-wing demagogue and failed presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, now a Colombian senator – won only 20.8% of those polled who would vote for him in the 2022 presidential elections. In other words, 80% of Colombians DO NOT favor Petro and his demagogic populist/socialist agenda.

Meanwhile, Petro’s chief campaign spokesperson María Antonia Pardo last week provoked even more national disgust with the former guerrilla by claiming that violent protesters who blocked ambulance transport of a mother and her critically ill baby to a hospital in Bogota weren’t responsible for ensuring the baby’s death. The baby “would have died anyway” from prenatal complications, according to the public statement given by Petro’s campaign aide.

In contrast to the feeble support for Petro, fully 36% of those polled haven’t declared in favor of any presidential candidate so far, while those that won at least some favorability in the poll – former Medellin Mayors Sergio Fajardo and Federico Gutierrez – together nabbed a collective 18% preference among those polled.

Meanwhile, according to Colombian Defense Ministry statistics analyzing the riots and demonstrations since the start on April 28 to May 24, a total of 2,426 blockades had been erected on Colombian highways, accompanied by 1,897 protest marches.

Seventeen civilians have died during the protests and 1,062 have reported injuries, according to the Ministry. Meanwhile, two Colombian policemen have died at the hands of violent protesters, while 1,083 police have suffered injuries (or were nearly killed) by protester bullets, bombs, Molotov cocktails, bricks, rocks, pipes and other armaments, according to the Ministry.

Medellin-based utilities giant EPM announced last night (May 25) that its board of directors just voted to start the process of selling its minority stake in the “UNE-EPM” telecom-internet-cable TV company and the related “Inversiones Telco” company.

UNE-EPM is a partnership between EPM and Spain-based multinational telecom provider Millicom.

According to EPM, proceeds from the proposed sale would be reinvested in EPM’s other businesses, mainly in electric power, water, sewer, trash and natural-gas services.

Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero now must present the proposed divestiture of its stake in UNE-EPM to the Medellin City Council for final sale authorization, according to EPM.

UNE-EPM posted net losses in 2020 and 2018, while its 2019 net profit came-in at just COP$519 million (US$128,000).

For first quarter (1Q) 2021, UNE-EPM posted a net loss of COP$87 billion (US$23 million), an improvement over the COP$189 billion (US$50.5 million) net loss in 1Q 2020

Antioquia Acting Governor Luis Fernando Suarez announced last night (May 24) that while midnight-to-5-am curfews and booze bans continue from today through June 1 (into early June 2), “pico y cedula” shopping restrictions are now lifted.

However, mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and strict public/private health protocols will continue as long as the Covid-19 threat continues, he added.

The new move to lift “pico y cedula” restrictions (limiting daily shopping trips to people with cedulas ending either in odd or even numbers) came after consultations with all the mayors in Antioquia, Governor Suarez said.

The governor meanwhile urged all restaurants, bars and commercial establishments to enforce existing measures to limit the number of people inside such establishments in order to help thwart the spread of Coronavirus.

Colombia Nears 25% Vaccination

Meanwhile, Colombia’s Health Minister Fernando Ruiz added that the nation is nearing its goal of having at least 10 million people initially vaccinated by end-May or early June, with more than one-third of those having gotten the required two doses.

Colombia aims to have at least 70% of its most vulnerable populations vaccinated this year, with the latest “group 3” population (those 50 and older) just now starting to get their shots.

The latest InterNations global survey of the “best and worst” nations for living and working abroad finds that Colombia ranks 11th out of 59.

Colombia’s highest rating (third overall) is in the “personal finance index” but its worst ranking (38th overall) is in the “working abroad index,” according to InterNations.

“With more than 12,000 respondents, this is one of the most extensive surveys about living and working abroad, sharing insights into expat life in 59 destinations,” according to Munich-based InterNations.

Besides making it into the top 10 for “personal finance,” Colombian ranks fourth in “ease of settling-in,” fifth in “cost of living,” and 25th in “quality of life,” according to the survey.

In total, “46% of expats in Colombia have mostly local friends and acquaintances, which is 26 percentage points more than the global average (20%). Close to two-thirds (65%) also agree that finding new friends in general is easy in Colombia, whereas globally only 48% of expats feel this way.”

Meanwhile, “81% of respondents rate the cost of living in Colombia positively, compared to just 48% globally. Colombia ranks high in the personal finance index (third), where only Vietnam (first) and Mexico (second) perform better,” according to the survey.

“Most expats (84%) in Colombia say their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover their expenses (versus 77% globally). What is more, 76% are satisfied with their financial situation (versus 64% globally) — 40% even very much so (versus 23% globally).

“The majority of expats (86%) is happy with their life in general (versus 75% globally), and nearly all of those with a partner or spouse (98%) are happy with their relationship (versus 87% globally).

“Actually, more than three in five expats in Colombia who are in a relationship (61%) are romantically involved with a local resident, which is a lot more than the global average (38%).

“For the majority of expats (97%), Colombia’s natural environment is also a highlight (versus 84% globally). However, with close to one in four expats (23%) rating their personal safety negatively (versus 8% globally), Colombia lands in the bottom 10 of the ‘safety & security’ subcategory (50th).

“Another 19% also rate the country’s peacefulness negatively, ten percentage points more than the global average (9%). And less than half the expats (49%) are happy with the political stability in Colombia (vs. 64% globally),” according to the survey.

Another Colombia weak spot is the “working abroad index,” ranking 41st in the “career prospects & satisfaction” subcategory, “with just 31% of expats rating the local career opportunities positively (versus 45% globally) and one in five (20%) being dissatisfied with their job (versus 16% globally),” according to InterNations.

“Moreover, 22% of expats rate the state of the local economy negatively, which is slightly above the global average (19%),” the survey added.

According to the survey, the top 10 destinations for expats are Taiwan (first), followed by Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Canada, and Vietnam (10th).

The worst countries for expats are Kuwait (59th), Italy, South Africa, Russia, Egypt, Japan, Cyprus, Turkey, India, and Malta (50th), the survey concluded.

Antioquia Acting Governor Luis Fernando Suárez announced late this afternoon (May 17) that the current shopping and curfew restrictions aiming to hobble Covid-19 infections will continue for another week -- until at least 5-am Monday, May 24.

Curfews and booze-sales-bans will continue daily from 10-pm to 5-am, while “pico y cedula” shopping restrictions will continue on odd/even rotations, as in the past week.

Hence people with cedulas ending in even numbers (0,2,4,6,8) can shop on even-numbered days (such as Tuesday, May 18), while odd-numbered cedulas qualify for odd-numbered days.

Restaurants and hotels continue to be exempt from pico-y-cedula. All the other restrictions including mandatory face masks, social distancing and strict health protocols for public and private spaces will continue.

Suárez added that compliance with both personal and public restrictions will continue to aid the recent trend of declining Covid-19 cases.

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About Medellin Herald

Medellin Herald is a locally produced, English-language news and advisory service uniquely focused upon a more-mature audience of visitors, investors, conference and trade-show attendees, property buyers, expats, retirees, volunteers and nature lovers.

U.S. native Roberto Peckham, who founded Medellin Herald in 2015, has been residing in metro Medellin since 2005 and has traveled regularly and extensively throughout Colombia since 1981.

Medellin Herald welcomes your editorial contributions, comments and story-idea suggestions. Send us a message using the "contact" section.

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