“Everybody knows, the dice are loaded,
Everybody rolls, with fingers crossed…” – Leonard Cohen.
Colombia is a country of stark contrasts, paradoxes, and incoherences.
Extremes of wealth and ostentation, of hopelessness, hunger, human violence, and natural beauty live side by side, almost as if meant to co-exist here, where the Andes protect us from an equatorial sun’s cruelest rays.
Under the right-wing government of Ivan Duque, this narco-state which exports $8-$12 billion US in cocaine every year, according to official figures, is paradoxically America’s strongest remaining ally in a region swinging leftward by the second.
This could change dramaticaly, if, as expected, a coalition led by leftist Gustavo Petro wins in presidential elections this spring.
Or if, as is also expected, he is prevented from winning by a corrupt electoral system and judiciary allied with the ruling elites, triggering mass protests, such as erupted in May 2021, when hundreds were killed in brutal police repression.
Typically, in a piece of journalism like this – a “scene-setter,” or a “situationer” – the correspondent interviews candidates, describes some of their proposals, samples public opinion in so-called “vox pops” and speaks to intelligence sources in the diplomatic community, quoted as “western diplomats in Bogota.”
I have done none of this, deliberately, basing my analysis on what I have ingested osmotically, as it were, over a period of months. My only source is “everybody.”
– impunity reigns, there is no justice;
– democracy is a sham;
– corruption is endemic: everyone has a price;
– the elections will be “cooked,” or the winners bought off;
– if Petro wins, Columbia becomes Venezuela – “communist” with Russian and Cuban troops defending him and the privileged few in his entourage;
– the economy will collapse, in that event. (And God have mercy on our souls…)
Petro has promised to phase out oil exploration in Colombia’s Amazon, riddled with paramilitary gangs who terrorize (and murder) dissident environmentalists, many of indigenous origin.
Another paradox: as if a country that has embraced “green” ideas with a passion were in denial of the blood spilled to keep the oil economy flowing. Good luck with that, Señor.
And yet: to my mind, one of the more spectacular paradoxes in a country where impunity rules, and “nobody” has faith in any system of laws, is the degree of Colombians’ voluntary compliance with principles of basic civic courtesy, and respect for one another, in the absence of enforcement.
Examples: Covid – 19 prevention measures (including masks) are solemnly adhered to. Cities are cleaner than many in Europe; people pick up after their pets, and smoke-free areas, in one of the world’s biggest exporters of illegal narcotics, are religiously obeyed. (PersonalIy, I find this absurd, but then again, I am a lonely tobacco smoker).
Many drive like maniacs, accidents are frequent, but they are investigated, guilt is assigned and the guilty appear to pay up.
The malls of Medellin, a city I last visited in 1989 when Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel were blowing each other up in the streets, sparkle today with displays of latest designer brands, not to mention high-tech.
The stores are not full of shoppers, on the contrary, they could not possibly be surviving on such meagre traffic, and “everybody knows” many of them could be money-laundering devices, but so what?
The most violent country in Latin America is also one where good afternoon is a prerequisite for any conversation, and please and thank you are sovereign.
Is it like clean underwear you wear to church, or something deeper?
Maybe everybody doesn’t know: pride and self-respect can run deeper than fear…
What else does “everybody” not know, (and I believe):
- There IS hope for this country, perhaps not through radical change, but through slower, cultural and educational advances, led by a newer younger generation tired of “same-old same-old” griefs and disputes.
- I base this argument on an indisputable fact: more than 20 million people out of a total population of 52-million (about 40%) have been born since 1990, amounting to a new “digital” generation whose potential to bring about change has yet to be tested.
The world is impatient for them to show us what they can do.
Hi! I’m David-Norman Gollob, a Montreal-born screenwriter living in Medellin, Colombia, after six years in Europe (Sicily, and Bordeaux, France).
Following 25 years in journalism (including ten In Latin America) and ten years in business communications, I left everything in 2016 to fulfill a life-long ambition of becoming a penniless author living in a garret.
Success! I AM an author and… penniless! I have since written two novels, produced four art-films in music video format based on my music (did i forget to say I am a singer-songwriter as well?), and recently completed my first screenplay: “Queen of the North,” an action-drama feature with thriller elements, set in the snowy wastes of Quebec winter, with a hot core of Latin-American passion… Colombiana meets Scarface, perhaps!
(The author is a former Latin America correspondent for CBC, BBC, NPR, The Times, among others. He lives in Medellin).
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