Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cartagena, Colombia

We flew from snowy, freezing NYC to sunny, tropical Cartagena in just a few hours on February 8th. Cartagena is Colombia’s 5th largest city and a haven for travelers, Colombian and foreign alike. The historic “old city” has retained its colonial charm (for better or for worse), including the tall stone walls built to protect the once prosperous port from the pillage and plunder of pirates and colonial powers alike. The colorful stucco buildings and their balconies smothered with tropical vines, narrow but bustling cobblestone streets, and cool coastal breezes only enhance this charm.

The people of Cartagena had a rather bloody struggle for independence from their not-so-beneficent benefactors the Spanish. They lost 1/3 of their population when the crown sieged the city in response to their 1811 declaration of independence, and, as we learned at the city’s quite disturbing Museo de la Inquisisión, its people also suffered a brutal bout of the Inquisition at their homeland’s hands. Colombians finally achieved independence in 1819 after a successful rebellion led by the great liberator Simón Bolívar.

If you venture outside the traditional tourist city center, you quickly arrive in the less polished, more boisterous local scene. Shepard and I walked around these neighborhoods for hours exploring shops, eating patacones con queso (fried green plantains with cheese) and endless fresh tropical fruit, people-watching, and simply soaking it all in. We stayed in one such neighborhood—Getsemaní—a funky area just outside the old city center that was once home to the African slaves that helped build the city.

Our first night in Cartagena we skirted the overpriced tourist restaurants that plague the old city center and instead managed to enjoy enormous platos típicos (Colombian fare) for 4k ($2) each, mostly, I think, because we caught the eye of a bored young Colombian who’s restaurant was empty. Pretty good deal, we thought, until we realized that (as a consequence of our steal, perhaps) he was our new, self-appointed tour guide. So, for the rest of the evening we walked along the murallas, the original stone walls, learning about our new friend and his city.

Somehow the conversation turned early to politics, and he quickly divulged his impatience with Obama, and for anything with even a hint of left, social, political, economical or otherwise. He supports Álvaro Uribe, the current quite-right-wing president, along with an astounding 70-80% of his country-folk. Until recently Uribe boasted the highest approval rating among his LA presidential peers, and for seemingly good reason; in the last eight years of his presidency he has all but turned the country around, creating more stability and peace than the country has seen in decades (or ever?). Though there certainly are still areas of instability and strife, the vast majority of Colombians seem to feel safer and happier about the state of their country than a decade ago, and if it may be used as an (admittedly imperfect) indicator, the tourism industry is on the rapid rise; there are more visitors (albeit still few Americans) here than in ages.

All that said there are still Colombians not benefiting from the current political and economic tides, namely the Cocaleros, or coca-farmers, whose livelihoods (and in some cases their lives) are being wiped out by the indiscriminate spraying of coca fields and all that goes with them—people, homes, animals, other crops and plant species—under the US-backed “Plan Colombia.” With significant funding from the U.S., this initiative aims to eradicate drug-crop production from the Colombia countryside in hopes of stymieing the cocaine trade worldwide and decreasing violent insurgency attributed to it. Critics of the initiative point to the significant negative effects of this effort—environmental, public health, socioeconomic, etc—and to its apparent inefficacy; cocaine is still widely available in the U.S. and Europe.

Many Colombians, our new acquaintance included, have little sympathy for coca farmers and argue that they could just easily grow another crop. I know next to nothing about the validity of that statement (and, indeed, about most of what I’m talking about here… these are simply impressions based on conversations with a few Colombians, reflections with a friend who knows infinitely more about LA politics than I, and the sparse literature I’ve read about the country’s history), so I’ll go no further on that argument here (if you know more about this please speak up!). I’m left wondering, however, how far a people will go, how much they will let go unseen, in the pursuit of normalcy and stability. And, moreover, coming from a country where I can travel without fear day or night, where my freedom of speech and belief is quite uninhibited, and where, born into relative privilege, I have all but endless opportunity at my fingertips, who am I to judge them for it?

We also learned from our new amigo that Uribe has been petitioning for an amendment to the constitution that would allow him a third term in office (he already achieved this to secure his second term). Though Colombian lawmakers supported the referendum, the courts just recently ruled against Uribe on the issue (see article here). Nevertheless, many Colombians still support Uribe’s bid for a third term, our friend included. Shepard and I immediately pointed out the dangers to democracy such a move would pose, but he interrupted our protests and challenged our skepticism by asking how, if the people themselves vote in favor of such an amendment, would it be a challenge to democracy? If the vast majority of the country supports him and things are only getting better and better, he asked, why force unwanted, untested change? And indeed, I find myself thinking why, other than because it’s how we do it in my country, am I so adverse to this idea?

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