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Will Colombia succeed in climbing out of its violence-ridden past?

I could not believe my eyes as I watched on Colombian television the funeral of Pablo Escobar -- one of the most ruthless and feared of the drug lords in the world. Thousands upon thousands of mourners waved hundreds of banners carrying messages in huge letters: 'We are always with you Pablo', 'You will never die Pablo' and many others in the same vein. A drug baron who had become an international outlaw, apparently was a hero to masses of his own people.

Notorious for his killing of politicians, journalists, judges and members of the police force, he, nevertheless, was loved by a great many Colombian poor due to the distribution among them of his ill-gotten wealth. The outpouring of love at his funeral is a true picture of Colombia's dilemma -- violence and working outside the law is an accepted way of life.

It is not only the bandits, drug traders and all types of rebels who plant bombs and maim: the government itself is guilty of torture and massacres. Human rights watchers estimate that in the last few decades over 200,000 have been made homeless or killed, mostly by army and other security forces.

Hence, Escobar's Robin Hood actions gave him a following, much more dedicated than those who supported the established order. Many of the peasants and poor that he aided feel they have no rights in their own country.

I was thinking of this notorious underworld figure as I lazed on Cartagena's beach watching as men, women and children, one after another in a never ending stream, tried to sell tourists trinkets or food. It was a colourful scene, yet, it told a story of a country rich in natural resources but held in the chains of destitution. Instead of dignified jobs, these vendors coming from poverty-stricken villages to eke out an existence, had to beg forever vacationers to buy their mostly shabby goods.

Yet, Colombia is a naturally wealthy land of soaring mineral-filled mountains, fertile valleys, lush jungles and fish-laden seas. There is no need for the majority of its 30,000,000 inhabitants to live on the edge of grinding poverty.

The country is the second largest exporter of cut flowers and coffee and the third major exporter of coal in the world. In addition, it is the region's second largest gold and oil exporter and the chief world producer of emeralds. Its varied climate, from tropical coastal heat to icy-mountain cold and all the variations in between, makes it suitable for almost any type of crop. It is a wealthy land, yet, the pesos which filter down to the masses are very few.

Staying in tourist hotels in Cartagena--Colombia's major tourist city-resort, one cannot get a true feel of the country and its problems. Therefore, I decided to travel and see how the people live. We asked a number of Colombians what was the best way to see the country? Everyone we talked to told us that it was dangerous to travel by oneself -- even on public buses. Kidnappings and robbery were too common. To be safe, my daughter and I joined a tour with a Spanish-speaking group travelling to Santa Marta, 134 miles to the east.

The early morning breezes were invigorating as we made our way around the impressive ancient walls of Cartagena. With the guide's monotonous tone in the Colombian Spanish dialect as a background, I sat back and relaxed. Even though I understand a good deal of Spanish, I could only pick a word here and there. The guide's accent had me baffled. Giving up any attempt to comprehend her seemingly endless droning, I turned my thoughts to Cartagena's near 500 years of history.

One of the oldest cities in the western hemisphere, it was founded as Calmari, later changed to Cartagena, in 1533 by the conquistador, Don Pedro de Heredia on what was once an island. Its fine defensible harbour and the stories of the gold in the hinterland made it a perfect spot for the treasure-seeking adventurers from Spain. The tales of the Chibcha Indians rolling their chiefs, once a year, in gold dust had given birth to the legend of El Dorado -- the mythical land of gold and jewels. An exaggerated fable, it drew men in endless streams to this first bastion of the Conquistador in the South American continent.

In the subsequent years, even though the Spaniards did not find all the gold and precious stones they were seeking, there was enough to fulfil much of their dreams. They robbed the Indians of their treasures and Cartagena became the storehouse of almost all the plundered South American gold, silver and jewels.

There were so many galleons carrying these treasures back to Spain that the route they followed through the Caribbean became known as the 'Spanish Main'. In a short time, the city grew into a wealthy centre and became the leading Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. As the years went by, the town and the treasure ships became tempting targets for English and French pirates. The gold and silver plundered by the Spanish from the Indians became the prey of other Europeans.

Cartagena was besieged by pirates many times and had continually to fight for its life. It was burnt, devastated, pillaged and rebuilt on an ongoing basis. The most successful of these attacks was in 1586 when it was sacked by Francis Drake and forced to pay a huge ransom.

In response to these assaults, the Spanish built an intricate system of defences consisting of 11 miles of massive ramparts -- seven miles are still standing -- and a chain of outer forts. These saved the city from the fiercest attack of all -- that mounted in 1741 by Edward Vernon.

He came with a large British fleet, commanding a naval expedition which outnumbered the Spanish defenders seven to one. So sure was Vernon of victory that a medal was struck commemorating the expected triumph. However, he was forced by the Spanish commander, Blas de Lezo, who became a national hero, to beat an ignominious retreat. This and the countless lesser battles against pirate fleets gave Cartagena the label 'Heroic City'--a name it still retains.

Passing through the fishermen's village of Boquilla, I was horrified at the piles of garbage spread in murky waters surrounding homes built atop marshy land. I could not believe my eyes. Children were playing in the soggy litter whose smell floated through our bus windows. Tourist officials advertise it as an exotic fishermen's village. Perhaps, none had taken the trouble to see with their own eyes the horrendous piles of refuse.

Villages like Boquilla, drug wars and banditry in the countryside speak volumes as to why so few tourists come to Colombia. In spite of fine hotels, gourmet eating places, very reasonable prices and friendly people, visitors stay away in droves. Even though Cartagena is the country's top resort, only about 231,000 foreign tourists visited the city in 1993 -- an insignificant number when compared to other Caribbean resorts.

All this is about to change according to Zillah Mendez, Chief of Tourism for the city of Cartagena. She said that a large amount of money has been allotted to improve tourist facilities. The sweltering primitive airport is to be renovated and garbage, in and around the city, is to be cleaned up. Hopefully, in the future, towns like Boquilla will become fit for tourist eyes.

The marshy land impregnated with twentieth century trash was soon forgotten as we drove through a green countryside dotted with what appeared to be well-kept farm homes. About thirty-one miles from Cartagena, a man carrying a basket of egg-stuffed 'arepas' and another of soft drinks was let aboard the bus. Almost everyone bought an 'arepa' and soft drink for less than one US dollar -- their breakfast. My daughter was pining away for a cup of morning coffee, but the vendor had none. Half an hour later when we let him off at a rest stop, the food stand also had no coffee. Alas! It did not seem to be the favourite drink of Colombians. In the land of coffee it seemed we were searching for a mirage.

Hugging the coast, we drove on a fairly good two-lane highway -- that is, if one did not mind the sections with broken pavement. Past the neat-looking town of Juan de Acosta, the traffic increased dramatically. Just before enterting Barranquilla, the bus driver had to pay a toll. I was amazed. Why did one have to pay in order to drive on a two-lane pot-holed road?

Barranquilla, with a population of 2,000,000, is the core of the Colombian Caribbean coast's commercial, financial and industrial activities. Its strategic location at the mouth of the Magdalena River and fine harbour has made it an important port, playing host to ships from all over the world. Being the country's most important seaport and industrial centre, it received in the 1940s waves of Arabs, British, Germans, Dutch, Italian and Jewish immigrants. In the ensuing years, these newcomers transformed it into the country's most progressive and cosmopolitan city. We toured the heart of town and other sections rarely visited by tourists. With the exception of the well-built centre, it did not impress us. Poverty and shabby homes were to be seen everywhere. Apparently, the commercial and industrial wealth has not filtered down to the working masses.

Colombia's economic growth of around five per cent a year for the last decade has given jobs to more of the poor and made them less likely to work for the drug lords. However, wages remain low. Industry is expanding but, as a food vendor on Cartagena's beach told me, 'It's only the rich who benefit.'

After we crossed the wide Magdalena River and stopped to pay another toll, two vendors got on the bus, one selling cheese and the other soft drinks -- again no coffee. In a few minutes, we entered a strange and swampy landscape with seemingly endless tree stumps showing above murky waters. The countryside appeared to be like a television picture of Hiroshima after it had been devastated by the atomic bomb.

At the village of Puebloviego, a somewhat cleaner version of BoquiIla, we again paid a tell and in a few moments were driving north along the edge of the tree-covered Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains. Driving on the scenic seacoast road, my daughter and I felt exhilarated by the dry mountain breezes. We felt as if we had entered a restful world and this put us in a good mood as we drove through the streets of Santa Marta -- a resort centre of some 350,000. The city, established on July 29, 1525, is the oldest urban centre in Colombia. Here, from what was the land of the Tairona Indians, noted for their architecture and gold artifacts, the Spaniards sent conquering expeditions into the interior. In the last few decades, instead of these looting armies, its beautiful beaches with their blue and tranquil waters have conquered the hearts of countless tourists.

After a short stop on the beach bordering the heart of town, we drove to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, situated on the outskirts of the city. Here, we stopped for an hour to explore the preserved hacienda of Simon Bolivar in whose gardens has been built a majestic monument to his memory. In this museum estate of today, Simon Bolivar died on December 17th, 1830. Gardens with their centuries old trees surround his preserved home and stables in which one can see exhibits from his era. The estate is a tribute to a man who was responsible for the freedom of five South American countries: Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. He wanted them to be one strong nation, but history decreed otherwise. Today, he is hero to all these countries and his statues proliferate their plazas and parks. For my daughter, the estate was unforgettable. In its cafeteria, we at last found a cup of coffee.

From the hacienda, we drove nine miles to El Rodadero Beach, located on the Bahia de Gaira. Here we spent three hours romping in the clear turquoise waters. However, we could barely enjoy ourselves. The waters were polluted with cans, plastic bags and innumerable other litter.

Passing through Barranquilla on our way back, I was aroused from my semi-slumber by my daughter's voice. 'Look! A man is bleeding on the sidewalk!' I glanced back. Everyone was detouring around him. No-one stopped to see what was the matter. To me, this bleeding man was a true picture of how Colombians view murder and violence. Nobody cares. Humans do not count for anything unless they are from the affluent or ruling establishment. It is money and status in society which counts. Yet, strange as it may seem, Colombia has the longest history of democracy in Latin America. Only for a ten year period at the end of the nineteenth century was it a dictatorship. On the other hand, democracy since its inception has been scarred by political and social violence. Virtually an unending conflict began at the turn of the century, between the Conservative and Liberal parties. During a ten year period in the 1940s and 1950s, 300,000 Colombians died in a civil war between these political factions. Later, thousands more were killed in an uncompromising struggle between leftists and rightists.

In the last decade, the continual fight between the government and the drug cartels has added many more casualties. During the presidential elections in 1990 alone, three of the candidates were murdered. According to German Guzman, one of the leading authorities of the era of La Violencia, violence in Colombia has no end and society has come to tolerate brutality -- seemingly a constant process, at times subsiding, then springing to new life.

Colombians are passionate human beings, prone to violent actions. Rarely do they tolerate differences and this usually leads to inflexibility and aggression. However, this violence does not seem to be rational. The people are courteous, generous, kind and gentle, and Colombia does not deserve the reputation as the most violent country in South America. Even though killings average some 5,000 a year -- eleven a day for political reasons alone, in fact, it is safer than either Brazil or Peru.

Yet, violence with all its manifestations, is only one of the country's ills. Corruption in all facets of life has been rampant for years. Kidnapping of the affluent for ransom is ongoing and, according to long-time residents, on the increase. Without payoffs, the police will do nothing. This inclination to accept bribes by the security forces has given the political establishment and the wealthy the ability to achieve any goal they may desire. On the other hand, there are faint clouds of hope on the horizon. In the last few years things have begun to change. The ruthless drug barons have been brought somewhat under control. Even before the killing of Escobar, their influence was beginning to wane.

However, all is not what it seems. A Colombian woman who had studied in the USA told me that even though the government claims there is only 11 per cent unemployment, the actual figure is more like 25 to 40 per cent. Literacy is not universal and there is no compulsory schooling -- at least 25 per cent of the population is illiterate.

While prices are marginally lower than those in North America and Western Europe, the minimum wage is only $120 US monthly. As in many Third World countries, the affluent have their ways of not paying taxes.

I thought of all these problems on our way back as darkness fell. Will the quality of life for the poor be better in the future? From talking to people and observing conditions with my own eyes, I could not tell. Yet, I felt there was hope. A great deal of money is being spent by the government in fighting counter-insurgencies and the drug cartels. These wars have displaced thousands of people and wasted much needed pesos. Topping all this, the drug trade and smuggling continue to fuel the country's thriving underground economy. However, the upgrading of roads, some improvement in education, gradual industrialization and the updating of tourist facilities, along with a friendly and hospitable people, should give Colombia a better image abroad and a hopefully bright future for its inhabitants -- that is, if drug barons, corruption, kidnapping and especially violence can be overcome.

[Habeeb Salloum is a travel writer and author from Canada.]
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Author:Salloum, Habeeb
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:2751
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