The following article marks my return to The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. I wrote for them in 2006 and 2007, and they recently asked me back to their pages, which I am very grateful for. Thanks Chuck and Meredith! Expect new writing on Colombia for the next three months or so, posted on the first day of every month. Send along any comments and critiques.
“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed?
To answer that question, a good starting point would be Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Colombia’s strong-arm president was first elected in 2002 with the campaign slogan “mano dura y corazón grande,” promising something like compassionate conservatism but with guns. Reelected in 2006 and currently enjoying an approval rating of 70% while contemplating a constitutional referendum allowing himself a third term, Uribe has brought about change in Colombia on a scale that Obama could only dream about––not that their objectives are at all similar.
“Bogotá is safe again,” a man selling cellphones in Bogotá tells me. “And now you see luxury cars cruising the streets, stuff like that. Before, you’d never see that. So I think Uribe has done us alright, the money is flowing.” Right there, seen from the street level, are two of Uribe’s principal gifts to his country: security in the cities and foreign investment.
As if to drill the point home, a taxi driver in Cartagena tells me a few weeks later: “Look, you can say what you will about Uribe. But really, without Uribe, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” Like Lonely Planet alluded to, visits by foreigners are way up as of late, especially among Europeans.
The increase in security has also kicked off something of a rebirth in the arts as well. An entire generation of middle-class young people in Colombia were raised behind closed doors, their parents fearful of the violence in the streets. Now in their roaring 20’s, they have taken to those same streets, bringing with them an explosion of música, new activism and graffiti (more on the street art in a future edition).
This is the boom that resounds through Colombia today. It can be heard in bands like Bomba Éstereo, Tumbacatre, Choc Quib Town, and La Makina del Karibe. It can be understood by watching a crowd of fifty sitting in a plaza listening to a young street poet, or on the faces of tens of thousands indigenous people marching toward Bogotá in search of recognition. It can be seen in the pops and locks of a lone breakdancer busking in the centro to a soundtrack of “Brass Monkey” on repeat. It can be felt as a collective exhalation.
Not that everything is aerosol and roses. Those dark associations that might jump to mind when the word Colombia comes up––blow, the FARC, Pablo Escobar––have hung in the collective psyche of people in the U.S. since Colombia was big news in the 1980’s and 90’s. They are the same living ghosts that haunt the country today.
Take coke, for example. Colombia is of course still the world’s largest producer, and it is mostly Colombian cocaine sold to party people in the U.S. that fuels the “narco-violencia” slaughterhouse spiraling out of control in Mexico––between 3,500 and 4,000 dead so far this year. (Le Monde Diplomatique México, September) The cocaine is imported to the U.S., guns exported to Mexico and dollars exported to Colombia––dollars from both the illicit drug trade and from the U.S. military aide sent to combat it.
Which brings us to the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the rebel group formed in the 1960’s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The consensus today seems to be that by now the FARC has lost any relevant ideological motivation and has become entrenched in a posture of perennial resistance and marred by the use of kidnapping and cocaine as their main income sources, yet the government still estimates their numbers at around 11,000.
It is in this context that the group has suffered many defeats during Uribe’s presidency. While offering other armed groups the chance of peacefully demobilizing, Uribe has embraced the view of the FARC as terrorists and has launched a no-holds-barred offensive on the group. Perhaps his motivation is partly personal––Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnap attempt by the FARC in 1983.
But, like all things in Colombia, it’s just not that simple. Violence has been played like bloody tennis for decades, tit-for-tat massacres and tactics that have left all sides tarred. For instance, the genocide waged against the Unión Patriótica political party in the late 1980’s. What began as a hope-filled ceasefire and an opening to a political solution to the left’s grievances ended in a dirty war that has made all government talk of demobilization since very suspect. (Dudley, Steven. “Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia”) And then there’s the more recent example of the “falsos positivos.”
“False positives” is the name given to young men who are kidnapped by the Colombian army, transported hundreds of miles to zones of conflict, dressed as members of the FARC and shot. This is done to increase the body count, helping the army to look as though it is winning the war against the rebels. Though documented cases go back to as early as the 1990’s, a new scandal broke in 2008 when more than a dozen falsos positivos were identified and many more suspected.
Even the infamous Pablo Escobar seems still able to haunt society 16 years after he was gunned down in Medillín. His pet heard of hippos has continued to grow since his death and has begun to escape the confines of the sprawling hacienda that once belonged to the drug king. Ecologists fear disaster, though surrealism is alive and well.
So why does it matter that “Colombia’s back” thanks to Uribe’s militarization? Well, because as you may already expect, they are your tax dollars that are at work in Colombia. The massive U.S. aide package known as Plan Colombia was set into motion in 2000 in the name of the larger U.S. “War on Drugs.” The majority of the $7.5 billion package goes for military equipment and training. Chided as “Plan Nueva Colonia” by critics who see the plan as disguised interventionism and a doorway to a new colonialism, the program does speak to Uribe’s closeness to Washington. The connection was made yet clearer when former President Bush awarded Uribe a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly before Bush left office in January.
Now key parts of Plan Colombia are set to expire, it was leaked in July that the U.S. has been negotiating with Uribe an agreement that would allow up to seven Colombian military bases to be used by U.S. armed forces and private contractors––all of whom would be operating with impunity from persecution for any potential crime committed in Colombian territory. This is worrisome, given the spotty reputation of U.S. forces in Colombia, a reputation tarnished by incidents such as the rape of a 12 year-old girl in Melga by U.S. soldiers participating in Plan Colombia.
It’s important to know what’s going down in Colombia because Colombia is the front line of the U.S.’s current foreign policy in Latin America. And because at the same time the country is producing some of the most interesting music, art and culture of anywhere in the hemisphere. So for the next few months expect more words and sounds from the south, and expect them to come not from the usual talking heads, but from graffiti artists, human rights promoters and musicians. There are many stories to tell.