Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Brooklynite on Ice has done it again, with a great write-up of My Colombian War, by Silvana Paternostro. It's a memoir by a Colombian-American who returns to the country of her youth to write an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She runs into the realities of the over-100-year-long series of violent clashes that have shaken Colombia--from the Liberal-vs.-Conservative civil war following independence from Spain, to La Violencia in the 40s and 50s, and up to today, where the narco-economics of a relatively prosperous nation, combined with the age-old problem of distribution of wealth, have created a miasma that defies solution. I haven't read it, but I'm putting it on my birthday wish list (hint hint!).

It's serendipitous that Mr. Flan chose to review this book at this time, because I recently completed my first tour of Colombia. It was a quick journey, in which I flew from Panama City (another city that has a strong cocaine and military history that meshes with U.S. imperialism and drug demand) to the mid-sized city of Pereira--about a hundred kilometers north of Cali--and then took several slow bus trips through the lush northern beginnings of the Andes mountain range.

I can't pretend that I had any sort of complete introduction to Colombia. I'm merely a northerner who struck out blindly south, determined to ignore the naysayers and pessimists who repeatedly warned me not to go through Colombia--that it is too dangerous, the rebels are out of control, I'll never come back. Obviously, that was not the case, but in hindsight I think that my naïveté both served me well, and could have potentially done me in. I was surprised to see that Colombia is a well-developed and seemingly resource-rice country. Flying in from Panama, our airplane made a stop in Medellin to process the passengers through customs. Colombia is located at the northern end of the Andes, where the mountain range is composed of cultivated land tracts over peaks that I would guess are a little larger than the
Adirondacks, but much more green and cloud-covered. Medellín sits in a large valley between peaks, and the buildings are uniformly reddish-brown. There is an enormous cluster of large skyscrapers in the center, making it as modern of a city as I've ever seen. It was very pretty, very impressive. I though to myself, "This doesn't look like the civil-war-stricken country I've heard about. What gives?"

Well, of course the details of that conflict cannot be noticed by an overflight, but after spending much time in Central America, where it is relatively peaceful today after many years of internal strife, and seeing the resultant waste, ruin, and poverty that these conflicts have left behind, Colombian society is surprisingly smooth and advanced (from a distance, at least). Even when finally landing in Pereira and entering the city center, I was struck at how modern Colombia is. From the news reports, I would have guessed that business would be at a standstill, that residents would be cowering inside their homes, that here and there and odd balaclava-wearing FARC combatant would peer around the corner and pop off a few rounds at the local police. Nothing of the sort.

To be sure, there were plenty of armed soldiers wherever I went, but life in general (in the cities, at least) goes on much as it does in the U.S. In Pereira, there is a vibrant central business district ringing around the main plaza, where coffee venders sell cups of the country's sweet café con leche to people lazing around. There's an enormous statue of Simon Bolívar, South America's liberator, naked on a horse, under which babies play while their mothers socialize.

Only later was I able to gather information about the conflict, and as all good information does, what I gathered came from a bartender. One night I found a mellow, quiet bar in the center of town, and I went in and ordered a aguardiente, a rough, unprocessed rum-like liquor that is popular in Colombia. I started talking to the bartender, and I asked him why I hadn't seen any gringos or foreign tourists. "Well," he replied, "they are afraid." The FARC? I asked. He nodded his head. (The FARC is Colombia's main rebel group, operating in the countryside and jungle, which has never disarmed following La Violencia. Depending on whom you ask, either the FARC is an insane Maoist organization, or it was prodded into further guerrilla war after right-wing paramilitary groups refused to respect peace treaties it was a party to. Read Alma Guillermoprieto's reportage for further information, and an introduction to Colombia's president Uribe and his paramilitary--and societal--support.) When I asked him if Colombia is dangerous for foreigners, he nodded again, but said that unlike other countries, Colombia is dangerous in the countryside and relatively safe in the cities. The FARC doesn't operate in urban zones. When I asked if the FARC had any public sympathy, he laughed, and said that everybody hates them. But how about Uribe? I pressed. That answer was more ambiguous. "Well, some people like him, but most of him think he's a little bit of a fascist."

The next day, I took another bus further south, eventually making my way to Ecuador, careful now to only take buses during the day, as I was told the FARC is more active at night. Colombia, with its hustle and bustle, vibrant city life, and gorgeous mountain vistas will be well worth returning to. But I left with the feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of the country's character, that I barely grasped its rich history and glimpsed the ugly underbelly that dwelled just outside of my outsider's field of vision. (Last picture taken in Popoyan, Colombia.)

1 comment:

Peter Lettre said...

I've been to Panama City, Florida. Is that where you are? If so, can you buy me a Big Johnson t-shirt and say "hey" to Christy at the Valdosta Blvd. Hooter's? Tell her next time the tip will be much bigger, then wink at her and give her a gentle elbow to the shoulder.