by Tom Feiling
Before reading this book, my knowledge of Colombia could be summed up as follows:
- extreme danger
- Shakira (singer)
- Sofia Vergara (actress)
This is not uncommon. As British ex-pat Tom Feiling walks around Colombia, he meets many who lament their country’s image on the world stage. Most Colombians, after all, are not narco-trafficers, wealthy landowners, members of the FARC guerilla group, or the paramilitaries or government soldiers who oppose them.
Who are the Colombians?
Nine out of 10 Colombians are descended from an indigenous mother and a colonialist (European) father, and 20 million Colombians live in grinding poverty. (As I heard in a TED talk once: extreme wealth creates extreme poverty. Think slavery. Think emerald mines. Think cocaine. Think U.S. and British oil interests.)
There are 104 different indigenous tribes in Colombia, 9 of which hover on the verge of extinction. Some of this historical travesty happened only recently: Between 1992 and 1996, the Nukak people, who encountered colonists as late as 1972, declined from 3,000 to half that number thanks to Western diseases.
In the department of Antioquia, (Colombia’s term for state or county), many people look like Sephardic Jews. This is because many Jewish people came to this part of Colombia after their expulsion from Spain at the close of the 15th century. There are also folks of obvious Japanese descent like the emerald baron Eishi Hayata. And there are Afro-Caribbeans, brought over from Africa in the 1500s to work the gold and emerald mines in what was then called Nuevo-Granada.
Feiling describes the Colombia national personality as group-minded: lacking the solitary ambition which haunts so many Anglo-Saxons. In fact, he says, “they weren’t hampered by loneliness of any kind, which is rapidly becoming the biggest cause of physical and social ills in the West. While they prided themselves on their love of hard work, nobody was striving to improve, better or reinvent themselves. They seemed to have little interest in self-expression, self-discovery, or self-anything for that matter.”
Unlike the reading, gardening, and knitting that are beloved solitary passions in the West, Colombians tend to enjoy hanging out with their families even if all they are doing is watching TV, getting together in cafes to talk/socialize, and/or dancing the salsa and the samba. They seem happy, he says, and contented despite the high level of danger in their country.
And this interests me strangely, considering that my book group just read Shutting Out the Sun, a treatise on how the Japanese community-mind is destroying the lives of the next generation of young men, due to the awful pressure to conform. And the feeling that the neighbors are always watching, always judging.
Who Are the Terrorists?
Politics in Colombia are anything but straightforward. There don’t seem to be any good guys. Obvious bad guys include the FARC and the narco-terrorists; and then there is the government. While the U.S. struggles with repeated demonstrations from police officers who feel they are above the law, Colombia recently weathered the Directive 29 scandal:
1) The Colombian Army promised any soldier who killed a guerilla or paramilitary fighter in combat to a 1,000 pound (about $1,550) reward.
2) Individual soldiers began befriending any young, unemployed man and enticing him back to base with the promise of work. The soldier would then kill the young man, drive him into the countryside, dress him in the uniform of a FARC guerrilla and taken him to the Army morgue, “to become another number in the Army’s body count and further proof of its successful prosecution of the ‘war on terror’.”
Genocidal democracy, more like*. President Santos promised that on his watch, trade union leaders, journalists and teachers would no longer be murdered for speaking out. Didn’t happen.
Many Colombian military officers learned tactics at the notorious U.S. led-School of the Americas in Panama. According to excerpts declassified by the Pentagon in 1996, training manuals encouraged Army officers to use “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions, and use of truth serum…” when handling sources.
Proud to be an American
(With apologies to my old friend Gabrielle from Argentina, who used to get so incensed when I would thoughtlessly refer to myself as “American.” She would puff out her cheeks and declare, “I’m American too!”)
I’ve often asked myself why we in North America seem to have a more lawful society than Zimbabwe or Iran or Colombia. Why are we so lucky? I’m proud of my country for that. And yet, if extreme wealth causes extreme poverty, does our comparatively safe society and comparative lack of political chaos cause the horrific human rights abuses in other countries around the world?
According to Wiki, (yes yes I know, but they do cite sources)–in a 1981 study, human rights researcher Lars Schoultz concluded that US aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens…to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” And in 1998, Latin American professor Martha Huggins stated “that the more foreign police aid given (by the United States), the more brutal and less democratic the police institutions and their governments become.”
It is definitely incumbent upon us, you and I, to do whatever we can to minimize our government’s support for brutal Fascist regimes and to lesson its unreasonable terror of Marxism. Even if that is just to learn what they’ve been doing, and remember it. Talk about it. Post on Facebook. Seriously.
I always knew Colombia had some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world and that I would probably never feel safe enough to travel there. Sad.
Best book I have ever read on Colombia. And the only book I have ever read on Colombia.
PS–Actress Sofia Vergara’s brother is said to have been murdered in 1998 in a botched kidnapping. She has since moved to Miami and become a U.S. citizen.
*Phrase “genocidal democracy” coined by Father Javier Giraldo, who founded the NGO Justica y Paz in 1988. The group maintains a comprehensive database of human rights violations in Colombia. It makes me wonder if this could be the Catholic Church organization that is fictionalized in Senselessness by the brilliant El Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya.