Colombia: A Nation Reborn

Alvaro Uribe has brought prosperity to Colombia, and is now up for "re-re-election". But the legacy of political chaos will continue to be felt, says Vanessa Neumann

The beating heart of Colombia’s historic struggle can be seen from the air. As you come in to land at Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, you see perfectly parcelled suburban developments encircled by muscular mountains. Colombia amplifies the typical Latin American struggle of order versus chaos and concrete versus bush to epic proportions. Flying the flag for order and civilisation is two-term conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who will hold a referendum in November to change the constitution to allow what Colombians are referring to as his “re-reelection”. He is widely expected to win both the referendum and a third, or even fourth, term.

A national hero with rock-star popularity, Uribe is a skinny, soft-spoken, bespectacled geek who carries a big stick. The ladies clearly love it. Last year, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez threatened war because Colombia had crossed the Ecuadorean border to kill Raúl Reyes, second-in-command of the Marxist guerrilla group, the Farc (Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces). When Uribe discovered laptops revealing Chávez gave $300 million to the Farc, Chávez called Uribe a liar. 

“Then, at the Organisation for American Unity summit in Nicaragua,” relates my guide breathlessly, “Chávez approached Uribe to shake his hand and Uribe refused it! Uribe said: ‘Sir, I’m trying to save my country and will not tolerate any allies of our enemies.’ I cheered and shouted: ‘I love you, Uribe! I want to have your baby!'” 

Uribe is widely considered a conquering hero for quelling the rival armed groups that have shredded the country along the geographic lines of the three Andean cordilleras — Occidental, Central and Oriental: the Farc, the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the several dozen right-wing paramilitaries that sprang up to counteract them, grouped under the AUC (Colombian Self-Defence Forces). When Uribe was elected in 2002, Colombia was a nearly failed state in the grip of a violent civil war that had forced four million people to flee their homes (second only to Darfur in internal displacement). The Farc controlled 40 per cent of the national territory, which is only slightly smaller than France and Spain put together. The Farc were powerfully resurgent after former President Andrés Pastrana had created, and then rescinded, a demilitarised zone the size of Switzerland. Instead of negotiating a peace agreement, the Farc used the DMZ to rearm, grow more coca and build permanent concentration camps for their thousands of kidnapped hostages. On a hard-line platform, Uribe rode a wave of anti-Farc (and anti-Pastrana) anger all the way to the presidency. 

A lone oasis of conservatism in a sea of new socialist leaders, Uribe has been sniped at by Chávez and his followers, who mock Uribe as a puppet of “the Empire,” (the US). It is true that Uribe would not be as popular without $800 million a year from the US, making it second only to the Middle East as a recipient of American aid. The money is given under Plan Colombia, a South American Marshall Plan to fight drug trafficking and coca growing by aerial spraying, manual eradication, social development and alternative crop programmes. In an interview, Foreign Secretary Jaime Bermúdez asserted with characteristic understatement: “The United States is a country that has provided efficient support to Colombia in the area of drug trafficking.” 

The efficiency of spraying, however, is questionable. Coca growers quickly pluck the poisoned leaves before they wither, process them immediately into coca paste and then wait for the plant to sprout new leaves, in about three weeks. So unless the aerial spraying is followed up by hazardous manual eradication (where soldiers may be blown up by landmines or ambushed and shot), the sprayings paradoxically accelerate production, a claim that is supported by recent export figures. 

The 2003 kidnapping of Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes, the three Americans taken by the Farc when their aerial sprayer crashed and who were rescued together with the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt last year, gave the US impetus to increase its involvement in Colombia. The Americans accepted Uribe’s proposed Plan Patriota, under which the US provided greater intelligence and weaponry to chase and bomb the Farc, expanding US involvement from mere drug eradication and interdiction to the active pursuit of narcoterrorists, a plan that fitted nicely into post-9/11 foreign policy. Under Plan Patriota, the US provides unmanned Predator drones and a plane commonly referred to as “the Cross” that hovers silently and gathers intelligence to guide the bombers and Black Hawk helicopters in to bomb and shoot the Farc with pinpoint accuracy.

There have been allegations, dubbed the Parapolitical scandal, that Uribe’s aggressive pursuit of the Farc has made his administration a distasteful bedfellow with the right-wing AUC, which battles the Farc and yet has the same fundraising strategies: kidnap, torture, extortion, murder, terrorism and drug-trafficking. Evidence of AUC donations to congressmen and even Cabinet members has rocked the Uribe administration and threatened its US Free Trade Agreement, which would expand and cement the biannually-renewed preferential tariff status Colombia enjoys. At the behest of Uribe, who argues he needs the FTA to grow and stabilise the economy away from drugs, President Obama has promised to push it through. 

When I ask Foreign Secretary Bermúdez about the impact of the scandal on the free-trade negotiations, he angrily answers: “First, this government is the one that has most battled the paramilitaries. They were taking over the government, taking over the regions, people knew where they were and nobody battled them efficiently. This government is the first one that decided to battle them so strongly and to propose to them that if they are truly interested in peace that they should cease hostilities. The government initiated the process. It is this government that has managed to demobilise 30,000 men. Therefore, there can be no doubts [as to our position].”

I ask a taxi-driver about the impact of the Uribe presidency. “Well,” he answers matter-of-factly, “at least now we can drive on the motorway. Before you couldn’t drive anywhere, like from Bogotá to Medellín. Depending on where you were driving, the guerrillas or the paramilitaries would set up barricades and they’d stop every car, check ID and enter it into laptops before deciding whether to kidnap you, kill you or simply rob you.” On a country walk, a fellow rambler tells me: “President Uribe has given us our country back.” 

Nevertheless, precautions are still tight.   At the Andino shopping centre, the bogotanos spilling out of the Juan Valdéz Café are watched by machine-gun-toting guards as bomb-sniffing dogs inspect the boot of every car entering the underground car park. Unfazed, they continue to shop in Bulgari or the Spanish high-street chain Zara, which is tremendously successful here.

Other shop windows betray the national obsession. The nation’s two bestselling books are Captive, Clara Rojas’s account of her kidnapping with Ingrid Betancourt, captivity and jungle childbirth, and Out of Captivity, about the captivity of Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes and their rescue in last year’s acclaimed Operación Jaque (Operation Check — as in checkmate), the military rescue where not a single shot was fired and the Farc were duped into mistaking the Colombian military for a humanitarian organisation in Venezuelan helicopters.

Much of the vastly increased security has been achieved along two fronts: by Plan Patriota’s relentless pursuit of the Farc, which has lost three of its leading commanders in the past 18 months, and the AUC’s demobilisation under the Peace and Justice Law, where reinsertados, former paramilitaries who admit their crimes, make restitution to the affected families and enter a government programme for their “reinsertion” into Colombian society. Only the most important and violent commanders face that great persuasive negotiating stick: extradition to the US for trial, every narco’s greatest fear.

It is in Medellín that I find the best example of the Colombian miracle of regeneration. I arrive at Cepar, a school where both reinsertados and the victims of their violence receive schooling and vocational training that hold the key for possible government funding to restart their lives. In the room in which we are meeting is a poster featuring a favourite success story: a skinny young man stands in front of caged birds and holds quail eggs in his hand, instead of the AK-47s of his previous life. Sitting before me is an array of men, from teenagers like Wilson Castaño (former AUC), with spiky gelled hair, and William Miraldo, who shifts periodically to try to conceal the numerous tattoos under his red shirt, to the middle-aged Jairo Gómez, who lost a son to the AUC and thought the Left was the answer. All of them finished their schooling around the age of ten and have been driven here by desperation and the slaughter of loved ones. 

The hooded eyes and tired, impassive expression on the broad, fleshy features of Diego Fernando Hurtado Loriza, a 25-year-old victim of violence who is on his first day at the school, light up with remembered agony as he tells me how three of his brothers were murdered by the warring factions. Five years ago, when he had a child and heard of Christ, he decided to turn away from drugs, he says. “Christ forgives everything and He taught me to forgive. I encourage everyone here to learn that lesson.” He now works with his mother in her biscuit bakery and wants to study to help her grow the business.

While a few of them decided to turn their lives around after the birth of children, this is not the case for everyone. Luís Edison Gavíria Jaramillo is 27 and has nine bullets in his body, one for each year he was a bush-dwelling paramilitary. “I didn’t quit,” he says. “I was part of a political deal.” Such is the reality of the Justice and Peace Law. But even the unrepentant Luís, who must have committed many an atrocity, is a victim of violence. Returning to his family farm from visiting a neighbour, Luís’s younger brother passed some guerrilleros. He found their father’s body, his tongue, nose and eyes gouged out with machetes. “They tortured him,” Luís says, “probably in order to find me.”

Uribe would like to demobilise the shrinking Farc as well, under a deal similar to that he granted to the AUC, but the Farc have yet to respond to his condition that they cease all illegal activities for four months. But Medellín is living proof that Uribe’s policies work. The city’s Comuna 13 neighbourhood was the site of his only urban military assault. Fed by drug money and a steady stream of weapons coming in over the mountains, Comuna 13 was racked by non-stop shooting. In 2003, Uribe took over from the overwhelmed mayor and sent in helicopters, tanks and soldiers to fight an urban battle that raged continuously for a week. Today, I soar over Comuna 13’s poorest houses in the world’s first mass commuter cable car, which takes them to their jobs in the city’s prosperous centre or to the new parquebiblioteca (park-library), where
everyone can surf the internet, read bestsellers or learn of the area’s history. Similar schemes are now being tried out in Caracas, Venezuela, and São Paulo, Brazil, transforming Medellín from a global cocaine exporter under the cartels to an exporter of urban renewal.

Exhausted from endless violence and the world’s highest kidnap rate, Medellín’s citizens staged their own Velvet Revolution and elected a coterie of liberal intellectuals who were not affiliated to any of the traditional parties to various city offices. They quickly established community crime reporting centres, increased policing, improved schools and provided vocational training. Now they are well into their second term and Medellín is living up to its nickname, “The City of Eternal Spring”. 

The city’s Finance Minister (a mathematician) arrives at our interview dressed in a striped pink shirt, jeans with red stitching and hiking boots, his long wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail. As we talk over a distinctly unglamorous lunch of over-grilled chicken, rice and lettuce in the dining room outside his office, he rattles off figures and anecdotes of educated children and employed single mothers who are no longer the hapless victims of endless violence. That he is a true believer there is no doubt.

I’m told such zeal is typically paisa, as natives of the Medellín region are called. Alvaro Uribe is paisa, too. “We paisas are renowned for being clever and hard-working,” says my guide, “and Uribe is an example to us all. He works 20 hours a day and constantly travels the country to meet his people and shake their hands.” 

I fly to the coffee region north-west of Bogotá and meet Don Ignacio, an energetic, machete-swinging septuagenarian who lovingly farms his four-and-a-half- hectare farm. Don Ignacio is surprisingly typical: Colombia’s fractured mountainous geography means that 95 per cent of coffee farms are five hectares or less. As he shows me round and explains about what he intends to plant to draw pests away from his coffee trees, two men in blue-and-yellow Coffee Federation T-shirts tell me how they are helping Don Ignacio and his ilk to enter the modern era. “We come and check his crop and give him advice on the latest farming techniques to help him produce an excellent crop so he can get the best price possible when he takes his beans to the collective, who will then negotiate the packaging and export. Don Ignacio is also taking computer lessons with us. Soon he will be able to email other coffee growers.” Don Ignacio admits he is more excited about emailing his daughter, who moved away when she left university and got married.

But reminders of the Farc and the narcos are never far away. The various narco groups don’t ask nicely when they take over farms, but simply plant coca and encircle the area with land mines. I meet a woman whose legs were blown off when she went for a walk around her own farm, not realising coca had been planted on a corner of her land. The Farc’s latest trick is to indenture indigenous tribes who live in national parks, as they are allowed to grow coca for cultural reasons and the parks cannot be sprayed.

There are some, though, who always glorify the ruthless, and Colombians are no exception. Popular on the airwaves and at teenage parties are narcocorridos or corridos prohibidos. In the glory days of the Medellín and Cali drug cartels, corridos, old-fashioned folk songs sung in a childlike mariachi style, were commissioned by gang bosses to glorify the narco lifestyle in a Colombian version of gangsta rap or Homeric hymn. A current favourite is one entitled “Hugo Chávez”, satirising his ambition to rule in the tradition of the Liberator Simón Bolívar, whose Gran Colombia comprised modern Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panamá. 

On the outskirts of Bogotá, just past rolling farmlands, sits a South American legend: the Andrés Carne de Res steakhouse-cum-nightclub, a favourite haunt of the wealthy, as well as passing tourists. The serpentine queues give fair warning of the crowds within. The long wait for the loo, whence some emerge two-by-two, energetic and jolly, make me suspect that not all of Colombia’s most famous product is for export. I am one tequila, half a mojito and several slabs of steak into my dinner when the trance and house music turns to salsa and the entire clientele breaks into an ad hoc chant: “Ooh, aah, Chávez sí va!” (“Chávez will go!”). 

Another flight takes me to the north-eastern state of Santander, a mecca for the adrenalin junkie. Having survived a white-water rafting jaunt down the Foncé river, I decline an invitation to jump from a mountaintop strapped to a parachute. In the picturesque town of Barichara I rediscover the charms of the Colombia that existed before narcoterrorism and has been reborn under Uribe. Tucked away at the end of several hours of gut-twisting road, its colonial architecture, artisans’ boutiques and cobblestoned streets beckon the tired tourist. 

But it is back in the tobacco region of Santander that you can clearly see the victory of concrete over bush and order over chaos. In Floridablanca, the Ruitoque Golf Country Club reminds me of that other great Latin American classic: the class struggle. Designed by Chet Williams, from Jack Nicklaus’s design firm, Ruitoque is billed as one of Latin America’s top five golf courses. Its main clubhouse has a portrait commemorating the owner’s “contributions to golf culture in Colombia”. Peppering the course and its environs are a five-star hotel, under construction, and houses for sale for $250,000-$500,000, pricing them more for foreign retirees than the local clientèle. 

None of this would have been possible, of course, without the economic prosperity brought about by Uribe’s successful and ruthless subjugation of his country’s warring factions. Nevertheless, the dailies El Tiempo and El Mundo and the weekly magazine Semana contain endless editorials warning that the November referendum and Uribe’s likely re-reelection will endanger the entire democratic process. 

For all their failings, Colombians have always prized the democratic process, usually more than their neighbours. Early in the post-colonial period they rebelled against Simón Bolívar’s dictatorial tendencies, which Venezuelans found palatable. Many claim that although they are Uribistas, they oppose the re-reelection process for the sake of democracy. Others who say they are not particularly Uribistas cannot name any other candidate for whom they would vote. On my travels, I could find no one who didn’t think Uribe would win, inspiring his fiercest critics to compare him to Chávez, his “evil twin”, on the grounds that they both lead personality cults and have enormous personal power, though they use it for opposite ends. The only serious alternative candidate is Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, but he would have had to resign by the end of May to stand. 

Colombians fear the return of a president soft on the Farc, like the leading Congresswoman Piedad Córdoba, who heads the Colombians for Peace party and is a constant thorn in Uribe’s side. She wants to politicise the Farc and bring them into Congress, so Uribe will not allow her to negotiate with the guerrillas for the release of hostages, some of whom have been held for 11 years. With nearly every Colombian having been personally touched by the cancer of Farc kidnapping and murder, she may well be what Colombians fear most at the polls and, unintentionally, Uribe’s greatest boon. 

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