Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #19: Colombia: Fun in Bogota & Wondering about the War – Bogota, Colombia

#18: Colombia: Fun in Bogota & Wondering about the War

1 Apr 2002

“By that lake of Guatavita they made a great raft of reeds… They undressed the heir, anointed him with sticky earth and dusted him with ground and powdered gold, so that he went in a raft completely covered with this metal.

“The golden Indian made his offering, casting all the gold and emeralds he had brought into the middle of the lake, and when the raft landed, the feast commenced, with which ceremony they received the new ruler and acclaimed him their lord and prince.

“From this ceremony came the celebrated name of El Dorado.”

– Juan Rodriguez Freyle, 1636

And Colombia is El Dorado, the land of legendary wealth.

Here, semi-isolated Indian tribes in deep jungle crafted great pieces of art in gold and emeralds, in such sophistication known only in great river valley civilizations such as Egypt, China and India. It was for such riches that the Spanish Conquistadors marched into the deep jungles, killed, enslaved and raped these noble tribes. A new people was born from this rampage, and from the ruins of the ancient ramparts, glorious colonial cities like Bogota, Popayan and Cartagena rose like a phoenix from ashes.

Attracted by the gold and riches of the New World, Sir Francis Drake and other buccaneers attacked these cities like afternoon flies, and legends of heroism, treachery and tragedy filled the pages of local chronicles. The patriots under Simon Bolivar fought for the freedom of the Americas in this mountainous land, only to see the new Republic of Gran Colombia broken up into the present day states of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.

Peace never really came to Colombia in a lasting sense. The 30-year conflict in the 19th century between the Liberals and the Conservatives in Colombia was highlighted in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the masterpiece of Colombia’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The war lasted so long that by mid-point, no one really knew what they were fighting for, especially when at times the Conservatives became more liberal than the Liberals. What remained was only death, misery and the oppression of the afternoon tropical heat.

Indeed, this parallels the country’s current 40-year insurgency by guerilla groups such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army), as well as the subversion of the drug cartels and rightist paramilitaries. In spite of it all, Colombia remains the land of miracles, like Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, where gypsies came visiting in flying carpets.

For the past three decades, Colombia managed to avoid the debt crisis and has historically achieved an annual growth rate of 5%, apart from the last 2 years of global slowdown. Colombia is a major exporter of oil, emeralds and platinum, and the second-largest cut flower producer in the world. The nation produces world-class writers and artists. Its coffee, branded as Cafe de Colombia, is world-famous and fills the world with its sweet strong aroma. Even its women, the most beautiful under the sun, have won beauty contests all over the world.

I arrived in Bogota, capital of Colombia, about a week ago. Futuristic modern skyscrapers and buildings (including a huge glass pyramid that some hate) dotted the city, together with wide freeways and flyovers, plus enormous flashy shopping malls and glass-covered banking towers, all of which contrast sharply with the shanty towns just beyond the hills. My old friend from London Business School, J.C., hosted me with great hospitality. I stayed in his wonderful apartment in a building overlooking the city and next to the mayor’s own, with heavily armed guards, I suppose, in case the guerillas launch an attack.

Bogota is a temple of culture and the arts. Top-class museums and idyllic Bohemian cafes dotted La Candelaria, the historical center. My visit has coincided with the biennial Ibero-American Theatre Festival, which also means that lots of strange characters who call themselves performing artists ran around the city in weird costumes doing ridiculous things like carrying TV sets on their heads, so as to amuse local culture vultures.

We visited the Gold Museum, with its spectacular golden craft of the El Dorado tribes, and the Donacion Boleto, with exhibits from the collections of Boleto, the world-famous Colombian artist who specialised in art of anything fat (OK, or size-challenged), such as a fat Mona Lisa. I was introduced to his friends and went dancing to the beat of Cumbias and Bambucos, traditional dances of Colombia’s Caribbean coast and Andean highlands. Bravo! These people can really dance – what can be a more explosive mixture than the passion of Iberia, Africa and the Caribbean?

Bogota is a fun city to live in. It is easy to forget that all that surface prosperity masks the reality – the country is one of the largest producers of narcotics worldwide, and a bitter insurgency by half a dozen guerilla groups has been ongoing for over 40 years, with 35,000 dead in the last 10 years.

Public law and order is a major problem. The country is considered by many foreigners as the most dangerous in South America. Here are some statistics from John Young Pelton’s Dangerous Places:

  • Each day, at least 10 people are killed in Bogota: 61 murders for every 100,000 people in any given year. During most years, more than 3,500 people are murdered in the capital.
  • Colombia’s overall murder rate of 81 per 100,000 is nine times higher than the U.S. average, making it among the most violent countries in the world for murders. Others say it is only 53 per 100,000.
  • There are 4 kidnappings and 73 murders every day.
  • A car is stolen every 24 minutes, and 142 houses are broken into every day
  • One pipeline near the Venezuelan border was blown up 229 times during a 260-week period.

In 1998, President Pastrana agreed to FARC’s demand for a demilitarised zone the size of Switzerland as a precondition for peace talks. Since then public patience with the peace talks have worn thin, as FARC continues to attack government installations, and expand their area of influence, getting involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, etc. In February, after the kidnapping of a senator and presidential candidate, the president declared war on FARC and quickly occupied the FARC-controlled towns in the demilitarised zone. The guerillas simply melted into the jungles, and bombed power stations across the country at will (see my report on power failure).

Across Colombia, soldiers guard towns and highways together with the right-wing paramilitaries grouped under the umbrella group AUC or United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. At night, however, the soldiers retreat behind army camps while the countryside becomes the domain of the guerillas, who now operate in every department (or province) and threaten to bring the war into the cities. In response, the right-wing paramilitaries run rampant with the army closing one eye, vowing to eliminate anyone who cooperates with the guerillas, but they have often been accused to be acting as the local mafia and death squads. More than 100 trade unionists have been murdered in recent months, along with the Archbishop of Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, allegedly by such groups.

The future looks bleak, and indeed this is the picture portrayed by the world media. But here in Bogota, the feel is that of a modern, prosperous party town. In fact, many travellers I spoke to here felt safer here than in Sao Paulo, Mexico City or Caracas. Are we too paranoid ? Or is this the last burst of glory, like the glamorous balls of the British Raj on the eve of the WWII, or like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude during the great banana boom, just before the sudden deluge that destroys its prosperity once and for all ?

Last year, the US Government report describes the Colombian insurgency as the one that is most likely to succeed. The world has since changed drastically. Since Sept 11, George W. Bush has been examining new options in respect of Colombia. A right-wing candidate whose father was killed by the rebels now seems likely to win the May presidential elections in Colombia. The stakes are now higher than before. We shall see what happens next!