Actualizado: jun 22
Bogotá, January 17th, 2020
All my travel superheroes home for dinner, a dream come true!
Welcome to Colombia, welcome to El Dorado. The country that brought you Juan Valdez, Sofia Vergara, Ugly Betty, Shakira, Carlos “el Pibe” Valderrama and James Rodriguez, the current champions of the Tour de France and Wimbledon doubles, one of the top 10 football teams in FIFA, the most emeralds and birds in the world, 2 out of every 3 flowers sold in the US, the most books exported in the region, Avianca -the second airline in the world by a mere 2 weeks after KLM- the amazing art of Botero and the literature of García Marquez and his Magical Realism, which here we simply call reality.
Arguably, one of the most underrated and underexplored destinations for extreme travelers, this is a country of remarkable contrasts and contradictions. A country born out of its geography more so than out of shared ideals, now celebrating its 200th year of independence it is a country striving to become a nation. I will do my best to give you now a brief, broad, crude, non-partisan and candid view of where we are now.
Ironically, Colombia has been the strongest democracy in Latin America, boasting the most stable economy, the third in the region after the collapse of Argentina and Venezuela, never being a rising star yet the only country never to have missed a debt payment.
It is the least communist in Latin America but the one with longest lasting communist rebellion. The most violent for many years, where in the 80´s the prime cause of death was murder, and which suffered by far the highest kidnap rates ever recorded in history.
Even though it enjoys coasts of both oceans, it is arguably, the most inward-looking country in the western hemisphere. Governed mostly by a centralist system yet federalist in spirit, the conflict between parties brought about 100 years of civil wars back in the XIX century, even though “La Violencia” refers only to the period between 1948 and 1957 that saw the killing of 250.000 Colombians, and which gave rise to liberal guerillas, the forefathers of FARC. The country where Bolivar was both liberator and dictator, and the land of General Santander who kept us tied to the letter of the law more so than to its spirit, thus making us slow to develop and adapt even today. It is said that while Colombia litigated, Venezuela perforated, and as I speak today, Uber has 2 weeks left to service a market plagued by abusive cabdrivers. This is a country that only had a national anthem until 1886 -the longest in the world-, and a central bank until 1923 when it was compensated with USD 25 million for the loss of Panama
A country that gave a damn when both Venezuela and Ecuador split apart from the Gran Colombia in 1830, and the only one in the continent not sharing a border with the US to loose territory to the great power up north when the Panama Canal became an enterprise that could not be missed.
Yet it remains by far the most pro-American in the region, not only because it is the third largest recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt, whose troops fought alongside the US in Korea and whose veterans, in the thousands, now make up the elite guard of the emir of Abu Dhabi and fight its war in Yemen.
It remained for 200 years the least welcoming to immigrants, of which my family is among the few and grateful ones. But it is also a country that recently, and bravely, welcomed in close to 2 million Venezuelans while remaining home to 7 million internally displaced people and the birthplace to 5 million countrymen living abroad.
A country of regions and cities like no other in this part of the world, with a capital built 2640 mts closer to the stars, at the very heart of its map, yet far from everything else, where 60% of the land, flat and full of jungle, remains void of population. A country in great part developed through family-owned small plots of land dedicated to growing the best coffee in world because the majority of its arable lands lie at ideal altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000 mts along three cordillera ranges, soils also rich in the blood shed during its history.
It is certainly not a country developed by the likes of the large land owners and multinationals of Central America, but a country where trade unions grew out of large banana plantations and oil companies that coincided with the birth of the Soviet Union and the arrival of American multinationals, situations which in turn brought about the enacting, among others, of universal suffrage and the blueprints of land reforms still pending to be truly successful.
Geography lies at its essence. It is so complex that for instance, it was the hardest country to divide into regions in NomadMania, with the Andes branching out in three as they enter from the south, thus splitting the country in six and making it the most difficult country to govern. Hence, no great Indian cultures flourished here which in turn created no great Spanish viceroyalties to talk about like the ones in Peru or México. Self-sufficient regional economies were hardly motivated to export or import, but this, in turn, gave rise to strong provincial ruling families and infamous mafias. A country where the province of Panama felt closer to the viceroy of Lima, the province of Pasto had more to do with Quito, the vast Llanos to the east still have more in common with Venezuela, and where San Andres is more akin to the Nicaraguan Misquitia coast. A country that had it tough to win its war against Peru in the 1930´s because it could hardly reach Leticia by boat, only accessing it via the mouth of the mighty Amazons using a boat seized from the United Fruit Company.
A country where geography made it tough to build roads, tax people, police the territory and draw maps, thus making it tough to issue documents of ownership and to settle land disputes. These reasons, to a great extent, explain the genesis of the conflict and that of groups such as FARC, an army made up mostly of peasants from underprivileged classes, and of other guerrillas like the bourgeois M-19, the Maoist EPL, the Indian Quintin Lame, and the catholic ELN inspired by Liberation Theology. A country where war has been fought mainly in rural areas, and only in the cities when it was waged by the drug cartels of yesteryear. A country of many guerrilla and paramilitary groups with little popular support and with many illusive peace deals over the past decades, hoping that this one can pave the long road ahead to a true and meaningful peace, one I believe will not be achieved for as long as cocaine remains illegal here and abroad.
A country that was ruled by two parties for over 170 years and partially by the Vatican for 100 years, up until 1991 when our current constitution was drafted at the height of the drug war and the romanticism that came about with the peace signed with the M-19. A country now of multiple parties but hardly a concrete platform, never having a communist party of relevance. A country that, by a small margin, voted against the peace deal with FARC and a now struggles with a peace deal approved by Congress in a country overwhelmed with corruption and impunity. A country that legalized the marriage of gay couples but struggles back and forth with abortion. Once upon a very catholic country devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ and where the hitmen of the Medellin Cartel devoted themselves to the Virgin Mary before the slughter, now has a very politically strong 20% of evangelicals, and where only 50% of its people vote. A country where 90% of bank managers are women. A country that was 50% rural and 25% illiterate a mere 40 years ago, but now is 80% and 95% respectively. A country made up of Indians 5%, blacks 15%, mix blooded 70%, and white 10%. With improved social security coverage but bad pensions and a steady 10% unemployment rate. A country which for many years had a black market of dollars trading at 20 to 30% below official rates courtesy of the vast inflow of cocaine money. Colombia is a country said to always be in bad shape even though its economy does well, and whose economy does even better under the worst of times.
Welcome also to Bogotá, known as the Athens of South America, not for its ruins but for its intellectual elites, a city of 300.000 inhabitants when my father came from Poland in 1929 and now a bustling metropolis of 10 million, and for whom us Colombians, the truly extreme experience could have been tomorrow leaving town using the lanes of mass public transportation, courtesy of the City of Bogotá, thus allowing us avoid our huge traffic jams. A city that in 1957, when my mother arrived from Hungary, had already spent many years planning a metro line that will only start to be built later this year. A city of great culture, splendid culinary, fascinating museums, a myriad of festivals, and of “ciclovías”, our marvelous bike routes on Sundays, a project envisioned and developed by the late major August Ramirez Ocampo, father of Felipe Ramirez sitting with us today.
As we drive down tomorrow to Marquetalia, and hike along Colonial-era Caminos Reales, I invite you to let the landscape and patterns of settlement sink in and subliminally feed you the answers to the many contrasts and contradictions of our history and endemic violence, and to fall in love with the beauty of this passionate country now wanting to find a better future for itself.