For some time I have been observing and attempting to identify a couple of the more idiosyncratic tendencies in the Colombian psyche. My latest conundrum surrounds that of the need to place the blame, create an excuse and indeed shirk a responsibility. I feel that all of these traits can fall under the same cockeyed linguistic umbrella which hinders Colombian societal progress.
How often have I heard the following phrases: “malicia indigena”, “idiosyncracia costeña”, “el pais de los más vivos.” I once had a plasterer in Mompos who couldn’t work one day as: “se me cayeron mal unos tragos.” Even the drinks were to blame for his hung-over state, not the arm which fed the drinks to his mouth and down his throat or the cause for a celebration on a work night.
So, who is to blame for the ills of contemporary Colombia? The cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the guerrillas, the Bacrims or can we attribute it to Spanish colonial designs dating back to the 18th century? It’s everyone else’s fault, the indigenous, the Spanish, corrupt politicians, the heat, the rain, a desire for one-upmanship and so on.
Now, for some in the mainstream media, there is no better way than to tar Colombia’s progress than to point the finger at Colombia’s corrupted youth and society caused by an increase in foreigners visiting or living in the country. Of course, we are not as morally sound as Colombians, we are not as god-fearing in that we fail to attend mass and our liberal stance towards relationships between consenting yet unmarried adults and illegal drugs may just rock the Procurador and his cronies to the core.
So, it is time to address the most recent “documentary” on foreign travellers to Colombia on Caracol. Watching Septimo Dia this evening the overwhelming impression that I received was that, were I ever to step foot in a hostel in Colombia, I would immediately be received by a scantily clad underage prostitute with mountains of free cocaine on a silver platter for my personal consumption.
This is an attack on two fronts by Caracol’s flagship primetime “investigative” journalism show. Firstly, there is the feeling that every traveller to Colombia has but one thing in mind and indeed, that every foreigner that has decided to stay here, set up a business and live, is chasing a cocaine trail secreted by prostitutes across the country.
How hard have we all worked over the years to promote Colombia, drive tourists and their contribution in to the local economy to out of the way destinations? It has been a strenuous challenge and combating the justified and unjustified reputation that Colombia has in the international press is a continual battle. In 2014, Colombia, a country still in conflict with all manner of problems, stands to receive and host more than 4 million international visitors. Something is working.
Yes, there are those that come to Colombia with only the worst intentions. I’ll argue that this fluid group, that is present in every generation, was coming to Colombia even as far back as in the 1960s. They would hole up in ne’er do well cockroach hotels near the port in Santa Marta (read Charles Nicholl’s the Fruit Palace) and pick their toenails until the fruit vendor would open to sell them some product. Yes, they still come today. But, they represent a small minority of those coming to Colombia just as every Colombian coming to visit the UK or US is neither a drugs mule nor a guerrilla nor a capo.
Scandal sells and of course this documentary will make for easy headlines and then of course an increase in viewers, which is what television, is now all about anyway. Since there’s no money in journalism it’s all about advertising and the amount of goggle eyes you can claim to have stuck to the screen as the latest commercial with El Pibe Valderrama flogging whatever it may be this time skips before their eyes. Seriously, you have to admire El Pibe; does he turn down any offer?
May I remind you that Pablo Escobar is a fascinating character that you created? How on earth did he get elected into political office, how did he get away with it all for so long, why is his death so fascinating and still the cause for argument about who was involved? Sure, supply and demand and all that…but, the supply and demand for cocaine still continues and there is currently no serious rival to even approach the notoriety of Escobar at the height of his fame. This was of your doing. And, you continue to do so, be it Caracol or RCN – Las Muñecas De La Mafia, El Patron del Mal, La Viuda de la Mafia, Tres Caínes and I am sure these soap operas will continue. Who is to blame Colombia? So, of course a foreigner to Colombia is interested in the myth, life and times of Pablo Escobar. Write a fascinating book about Francisco de Paula Santander or Candelario Obeso and make it available in English and this too will sell. I guarantee it. Why is a drugs kingpin more famous than the first black poet from South America and the tale of an emancipated Colombia?
May these contradictions end here.
Until there is an actual framework as to how to police, register and control hostels, homestays and hotels and that each category is appropriately moderated according to its category and clientele, these problems will remain in Colombia. Cotelco, Migracion Colombia (formerly DAS) and other entities all play an important role but by no means are any of them wholly effective in their policing and cataloguing of tourist establishments. Hostels, for the most part, have been overlooked by the tourism authorities and are seen – unfairly so – as dens of iniquity. Backpackers are viewed as dirty, drug consuming vagrants despite the fact that Colombia caters to a higher quality of backpacker than any other Latin American country due to the perceived difficulty and danger of travelling here.
I cannot speak for establishments based in major cities, but in my small world of Mompos, we receive backpackers/ travellers/ visitors from all over the world, who perhaps use a backpack for convenience given the lack of efficient transport infrastructure in these parts, possess one or two university degrees, travel with a partner and hold professional employment such as that of teacher, journalist, doctor, web designer or psychologist and beyond. They have read about Colombia, in fact they have most probably read more Garcia Marquez than the average “educated” Colombian, they know who Fernando Botero is, in equal measure they are excited with the news of James Rodriguez’ transfer to Real Madrid and they are concerned about the state of human rights in the country just as they are following the on-going peace dialogues between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Cuba. This is the traveller of today. They have money to spend and prefer to spend in in a certain way. This neither makes them a drug addict nor a curb crawler on the streets of El Poblado.
Colombia is the happiest nation in the world – or at least amongst the happiest – but I would dare to suggest that also she suffers from a true complex of low self-esteem. This Septimo Dia documentary not only plays on xenophobia towards anything different resulting from a policy of isolationism that still applies in today’s international politics. Yes, there may be more of us foreigners about but in no way are we all chasing cocaine and prostitutes in hostels. To say this, and to suggest this is to undermine the progress that has been made by the authorities and lay groups and foundations such as Colombian Hostels and la Asociación de Alojamiento de La Candelaria (ASACAN) which have worked tirelessly to promote Colombia, regulate businesses with a code of conduct and condemn the use of drugs and any type of sexual exploitation.
I suppose, since there is no scandalous news coming out of Cuba, no issues regarding the newly emerged criminal gangs, no issues of droughts and no crime in Colombia – the target must be honest hardworking folk just trying to promote and export the best that Colombia has to offer.
Manuel Teodoro, you may want to rethink your editorial policy if you think of yourself as a real son of Colombia. This is an example of weak, insipid and rehashed journalism so when you want to film images of Casa Ifta, don’t mix it up with images of the Quiebracanto bar from 2008. Hopefully the owners of Quiebracanto will sue for calumnia.
Your inserted and throwaway comment about how: “there are establishments working for the good of the country” just before the third advertising break will have fallen on deaf ears.
The damage has been done and there will be hundreds if not thousands of Colombians who now believe that foreign visitors come here only for sex and drugs.