Thursday, June 29, 2017

[Second Opinion] Colombia beyond the drug wars

One of Fernando Botero's sculptures in Medellin (Photo by the author)
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — Colombians have a reputation for being friendly, and even before my plane touched down in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, I was convinced of it. My seatmate, upon discovering that it would be my first time in Colombia, took it upon himself to furnish information about his country. “We have mountains, beaches, historic towns,” he began, listing the attractions of a country that is all at once Pacific and Caribbean, Andean and Amazonian.

“A lot has changed from the 2000s. It’s now completely different,” he said, adding: “For the first time, there is a middle class. Did you know that Colombia is South America’s third largest economy?”

It did not take long for me to experience the middle-class Bogota of which he spoke. The bike lanes, the chic centro comerciales, the well-manicured parques, the branches of Juan Valdez Café with fast internet: All of them hint of an economy that has grown—at least for some segments of the population.

“It’s an exciting time to be in Colombia,” Daniel Buritica, a social entrepreneur, told me, confirming my impressions. “Young people are not bound by old ways of thinking, and are looking ahead.” Last year, Buritica organized a summer camp where he brought together former FARC rebels, paramilitaries, and victims—an attempt to heal the wounds of the conflict. I could sense that his emotions over the conflict run deep, but so is his optimism for the future.

The tension between trying to move on and remembering the past is more palpable in Medellin, a charming highland city where the mere mention of the name Pablo Escobar can still offend locals. For many, he is best relegated to oblivion—not notoriety—even as some continue to view him as a Robin Hood who built football stadiums and helped the poor.

Equally a source of discomfort is a discussion of Colombia’s recent history—and today’s divisive politics. One major point of contention is how to deal with the FARC: A referendum last year was defeated by a hair, but President Juan Manuel Santos has persisted with a fragile peace deal. Meanwhile, Alvaro Uribe, the iron-fisted ex-president, wants a tougher stance. He remains popular, and many are convinced of his view that Colombia is becoming the next Venezuela. As in the Philippines, social media is rife with fake news.

Perhaps the only thing that can rival politics in provoking people’s passions is football, but it is nowhere near as polarizing. While cities contest their La Liga with ferocious intensity, a national football team—currently ranked by Fida as fifth in the world—brings them together, and the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao are sources of pride.

Visiting Colombia’s museums and reading its critical histories, one can find its history of colonization and exploitation depressing; even the distinctive art of Fernando Botero cannot hide the violencia of the past, both remote and recent. Atop Bogota’s Montserrate or aboard Medellin’s cable cars, one cannot deny the visible and enduring social disparities.

On the other hand, one can just as easily see an ebullient side to Colombia, one whose anthems are the upbeat songs of Shakira and Carlos Vives. The people I meet fall somewhere in between, like the petroleum engineer in Bogotá who works part time as an Uber driver, or the tour guide in Aracataca who cannot forgive Steve Harvey for mistakenly announcing his compatriot Ariadna Gutiérrez as Miss Universe 2015. As travelers, I guess we must recognize the complexity of each country we visit if we are to truly learn from it and form a balanced, even if incomplete, view of what it’s all about.

I will leave Colombia with much fondness, and not just because of its beauty or the warmth of its people. Like my beloved Filipinas, this is a country that is misunderstood by the outside world, and one that has been forced into a history not of its choosing. But somehow, it is pulling itself through, which gives me hope that we, too—despite our many contradictions and flaws—can overcome the struggles in our side of the Pacific.

As I learned in my trip, we are only an ocean apart.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

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