Friday, November 9, 2007

Looking For History

A master. . . . The countries of Latin America now have their Orwell.
~ David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker


David Remnick makes a bold claim in regards to Mexican-born author and journalist Alma Guillermoprieto. However, I recently enjoyed rereading a collection of her stories on Colombia in Looking For History, a book I had read for a class during my undergraduate years at the UNC-Chapel Hill. She tells history like a thorough journalist, and cuts to the heart of the matter without being politically correct. Though her essays focus on the violence associated with cocaine and guerrillas, it is a different world from the Bogota that I live in now. When I mentioned this book to a student of mine from Medellin, the stopping grounds for notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar, she said there never was a war in Colombia. She said she never felt threatened or worried.


The truth is that cocaine is grown and produced in the countryside, where guerrilla troops live in virtual isolation. There are two sides that have created what many journalists and politicians call a “civil war” or “war on drugs.” On the far left are guerrilla organizations, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. On the far right is the paramilitary organizations and some members of the army. Both groups have committed human rights atrocities, such as kidnappings and murders. The fact of the matter, Guillermoprieto brings to light, is that the United States is a big contributor of these violations. But she doesn’t make the U.S. a scapegoat for the causes and problems that has plagued Colombia in recent history.


In one paragraph, here’s how and why Colombia has such a bad international reputation. The guerrilla groups originated in the countryside to fight for justice and equality. They believed in socialism. By 1980, cocaine became the drug of choice in the U.S. Meeting this high demand, “Colombia had found what most developing countries lack, a cheap crop that can produce the levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide.... By the end of the decade the illegal manufacture and export of cocaine had ... accounted for 5 percent of the Colombian national product...” (Note: Cultivation of coca cultivation had declined in Bolivia and Peru at this time while it soared in Colombia.) Farmers were earning more money, but they needed protection for the illegal coca crop. The FARC guerrillas protected them from the government’s antidrug patrols. For the protection they provided, the FARC charged everyone taxes in these coca-growing regions, and taxed the distributors of cocaine to the U.S. Thus, they earned hundreds of millions of dollars. The cocaine distributors helped supply the guerrillas with serious weapons, according to one theory. Nevertheless, the guerrillas had big enough guns that the government couldn’t take away their power. On the other side, the paramilitaries, such as the AUC, rely on the drug money for guns and equipment. The FARC also used kidnapping as a source of money through extortion. At certain checkpoints, guerillas set up roadblocks, stalling passengers for hours, or days. “Civilians will be allowed through only if a quick search through a computer database shows that their bank accounts are too small to qualify them as ‘kidnappable’.” (Thus, I have virtually no chance of being kidnapped.) The guerrillas, however, kidnapped some of the wrong people. They kidnapped family members of drug dealers. Bad mistake. In 1981, when they kidnapped the father of a small-time drug dealer named Carlos Castaño, the paramilitary group AUC was subsequently formed based on revenge. Many farmers and citizens in the countryside have supported the AUC because they have become tired of being taxed and threatened by the FARC. However, paramilitary groups like the AUC have included members of the national army, and have caused more human rights violations than the left-wing guerrilla groups they have been fighting. It is the U.S. that has supplied billions of dollars in foreign aid for better weapons to the Colombian army, which is linked and often involved in the kidnapping, torturing, and killing of ordinary civilians. While many lives have been lost, there are many people profiting from the cocain industry. Thus with the lucrative money involved no group has been willing to relinquish its stake in it.


Guillermoprieto cites journalist German Castro Cayedo about the cause and habitual cycle of violence in Colombia, “Manuel Marulanda joined the Liberal guerrillas [as a youth, in the early days of the Violencia] because his family was getting killed; the founder of the ELN, Fabio Vazquez Castano, started that guerrilla group because his father was killed. And Carlos Castano [no relation; the leader of the bloody antiguerrilla autodefensas, or paramilitaries] got into violence because his father was kidnapped and killed by the FARC!” And the author adds, “None of these crimes were ever brought to court, and the list of children with murdered parents could go on forever, because, in Colombia, justice works poorly when it works at all.”

There are a lot of paradoxes in Colombia. Although it has the oldest democracy in Latin America, citizens were not allowed to elect their own mayors until 1988. Though beauty contests are popular and females in sports are a rarity, an estimated 30 percent of the guerrillas are females. In 2000, Guillermoprieto traveled to FARC headquarters for the second time. She had traveled to its headquarters in Casa Verde, outside Bogota, in 1986, where she spoke with its founder Manuel Marulanda. Her 2000 trip was at its new headquarters in the small town of San Vincente del Caguán. There, she met a 17-year-old female FARC member who told her about adapting to life in the jungle at age 12, isolated and indefinitely away from her family, “There were so many of us children. It wasn’t like our mother had time to baby us.... maybe if I’d been some middle-class momma’s girl ... maybe if I hadn’t been of campesino origins, I would have suffered. But I was so used to hard work that what I had to go through felt easy.” Contraceptives are distributed and promoted in FARC camps. However, if a female guerrilla becomes pregnant, the baby will be sent immediately after birth to her grandparents home. Why would any woman want a life like this? Nora, the liaison with the public then, gave the author the patent, often-told answer, “It is because there is so much injustice in Colombia, and one has to struggle against it.”

Since Looking For History was published in 2001, there have been a lot of improvements in Colombia’s economy and safety, especially in cities like Bogota. Since he took office in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe has taken a hard military stance against the guerillas and paramilitary organizations like FARC and the AUC. He still has many critics, more among the poor than the rich, but is currently serving his second four-year term. Even though many Americans don’t believe me, I am telling the truth when I say I feel as safe in Bogota as I did living in Chicago. It’s in certain areas of the countryside and jungle where the real danger lurks. Thus, don’t believe what you hear in newspapers or on television. Colombia, overall, is a very safe and interesting country to live in or visit.