Military police conducting body-searches,
Bogotá. Photo by Adam Jones.
The state of emergency goes into effect on the evening of May 1st. No-one in Bogotá pays much attention. It is, after all, the third suspension of the constitution in the past two years, and it results in no noticeable increase in the number of armed security personnel in the streets, nor in the frequency of hands-against-the-wall body searches.
The emergency measures are aimed, instead, at circumventing the six-month maximum allowed by the constitution for criminal cases to come to trial. For some days, the papers have been full of government and editorial hand-wringing over the impending release of more than eight hundred accused delinquents charged with kidnapping, drug trafficking, "terrorist" activities or common crimes whose cases have been mired at a preliminary stage in the sclerotic Colombian judicial system. The state of emergency will tack on a ten-day grace period to the constitution's six-month limit. Government spokesmen are front and centre pledging that the measures will not be abused. (Nor will they be effectively used: I return to Colombia some weeks down the line to find more editorial venom, criticizing the release of most of the eight hundred.)
I arrive in Bogotá on a direct bus, the only one of the day, from Ambalema. Five hours to travel a hundred and fifty tortuous kilometres, up mountain ranges that snatch the breath from your lungs and fill the bus with vapour. That's five hours on a good day - without the treacherous conditions caused by the heavy rains of the night before. It ends up taking us six, with the extra hour spent in an impotent slither at the bottom of a muddy thirty-degree grade. The driver chuckles as he manoeuvres the bus backwards, sideways; he succeeds only in sliding us up against a forty-metre bank of glistening earth at the side of the road. I look out the window nervously. Armero has taught me something about the power of mud. "Maybe you should move to the other side of the bus," a Colombian traveller offers from across the aisle.
Not a bad idea. But rescue is at hand. The driver's assistant has managed to squeeze himself through the narrow crevice between doorway and mudwall, and has made his way to a construction site half a kilometre down the road. I watch his heartfelt pleading, and then a stolid bulldozer detaches itself from the work crew and huffs over to us. A cable is attached; our wheels come loose with a grateful sucking sound; and we are on our way. My only injury is a bruised knee, the result of leaping back onto the moving bus after jumping out to capture the scene on film. "Nice souvenir!" the driver yells, giving me a thumbs-up. I rub my kneecap ruefully.
We cross the boundary of the capital district a good hour before we reach the Bogotá main terminal. Like most cities in Colombia, Bogotá has boomed and sprawled at an epic pace over the last thirty years, swallowing up a number of outlying towns and villages along the way. So my first glimpse of this monster - the only city on the trip that truly makes me nervous - is strangely pastoral. There are large, empty fields with only a few cows grazing. Some serious land speculation is likely going on: many of the fields sport signs bearing cautions, along the lines of, THIS PROPERTY NOT FOR SALE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? NOT FOR SALE. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES - But they are hardly productive tracts, and my guess is that the bovines are there to preserve the land's "in-use" status, as insurance against seizure or tax hikes. When prices rise high enough in these outlying areas, you can bet the cows will head to the slaughterhouse, and condominiums will graze instead.
The suburbs proper are filthy. I mean sloppy, rubbish-strewn, stray-dog filthy. Devoid of everything but the limitless energy of the new arrivals, determined to make it big (or at least bigger) in their squalid corner of La Capital. And it is not long before the notorious traffic of Bogotá clamps down on us like a rabid hound, refusing to let go, no matter how the driver wheels and honks and curses. My head spins from the belching diesel fumes. Grey, grey everywhere on this drizzly winter morning.
We pull, at long last, into Bogotá's gleaming transport terminal, still a long way from downtown, and I plod along the busy halls just to stretch my legs. It's Saturday. I'm coasting on the seven thousand pesos, or thereabouts, that I saved in Ambalema by shifting from the Motel Los Ríos to the Barcelona. With the banks closed until Monday, it's a choice between springing for a taxi into town or splurging on that very handsome and, really, absurdly cheap Guns N' Roses T-shirt hung invitingly in the window of a terminal boutique.
Half an hour later, G N' R shirt safely stowed, I'm stuck again in an infernal traffic jam - this time aboard a Bogotá public bus whose shock absorbers gave up the ghost around the time of Simón Bolívar. The driver takes a perverse pleasure in riding up over the curb on every sharp corner. My knee bangs painfully against the seat in front.
The bus starts half-empty, but is soon filled to bursting with bogotanos. One of them is a speechgiver. He brandishes hospital documents and a tattered bit of X-ray film to back his tale of woe, and he rakes in a decent haul from the passengers. There will be more evidence of this over the next few days: the surprising generosity of bogotanos, whose big-city aloofness melts in the face of an outstretched hand.
"Gringo! Your stop!" The driver's yell startles me into action, and the other passengers chortle indulgently as I squeeze out the back door ... and smack onto Carrera 10, probably the busiest street in Bogotá, a crazy tangle of taxis and busetas jockeying for position as they inch up the boulevard. I survive this first thirty seconds in the heart of the jungle, and pause across the street for breath. Cool air here, almost fresh; we are nearly three thousand metres above sea level.
Once past the sidewalk stalls and road-repair crews, Bogotá exudes a curiously genteel ambience. It's the tail end of lunch hour in the city centre, and the scene is something out of the 1940s. Respectable-looking businessmen in pinstripes; solid brownstone architecture, mingled with the occasional colonial flourish. If there are thieves and pickpockets everywhere, as the stories suggest, they're well-hidden.
It is a ten-block walk to a hotel in La Candelaria, the colonial core of Bogotá, and once in the vicinity I circle aimlessly, unable to register the street numbers in my muddled brain. A high, keening headache is setting in. It's the altitude; and besides, I'm famished, the bus having left Ambalema well before my stomach woke up for breakfast. It feels like the dregs of a hallucination, the tenth hour of an acid trip when all that's left is a body-buzz and a vague mental queasiness.
The foyer of the Hotel La Concordia is set at the end of a long, dank hallway. The keys behind the desk have HOTEL GRAND embossed on them. And perhaps it was grand, once; it has the same down-at-the-heel faded dignity of much of the downtown core. The rate of decay is greater within the walls, though. The cherubic young woman proprietor shows me to a single room. It's tiny and rank with mildew, but somehow appealing: the first carpet I've had in a Colombian habitación; the first wallpaper; and the bed is comfortable and well-blanketed.
Then there's that hot water the guide spoke of. God, what a luxury that will be, after a month of cold showers ... not. The lady at my elbow grimaces. "Sorry. Only cold water now." And there's no current in the electric socket, and the woman who's supposed to provide a laundry service has mysteriously absconded, hasn't been seen for days, and that water is cold, baby - so cold it's almost scalding. But it's three bucks a night, it's central, and it will be home for the next week-and-a-half.
But the capital is still a world apart. It is four times larger than any of its rivals, and growing out of control. With its demographic edge and political supremacy, it gives off a haughty air, a conviction that its ways and attractions are several notches above anything its baby brothers can offer.
This is a fairly recent occurrence. A tour through the city's perfunctory Museum of Urban Development shows a mere nucleus of today's metropolitan tangle in the early twentieth century. In the late 1700's Bogotá had only 17,727 inhabitants, and was outstripped even by Ambalema. A lithograph from the 1820s, sketched from the high hills that bound the city to the east, looks like a vista of an English country town. La Candelaria is still about all there is; the savannah stretches, empty, many kilometres into the distance. As recently as 1938, Bogotá had fewer than 400,000 inhabitants.
The explosion came in the latter half of the 1940s. The city's industrial growth began attracting peasants from across the land, and that pull was accompanied by the "push" of La Violencia, the phenomenally bloody civil war that, in less than a decade, turned Colombia from a predominantly rural country into a predominantly urban one. In 1954 the capital district came into being, and the tide of migrants continued, filling in the wide reaches of the savannah.
The first morning in town Sunday I join the pilgrims to the church of Monserrate, five hundred metres above the city proper, up a winding trail dotted with hawkers and juice stands. It's another grey day, but Sundays are the only time it's safe to walk up the hill alone. Safe from thieves, that is; altitude sickness is another matter. Whether it's the thin air or the cigarettes or both, I find I can walk only a couple of hundred metres before sagging at the side of the path, heart pounding, head ringing.
Halfway up the hill is the most expansive view I will have of Bogotá: Candelaria and the Centro Internacional, the central business district, below and to the left; the wealthy northern suburbs off to the right; and everywhere else that anonymous low-built sprawl, with autoroutes disappearing into the haze like Nazca Lines.
Near the top - after one or two dispiriting false summits - the clouds close in like the embrace of your least-favourite aunt. It begins to rain, then to pour. I take shelter with dozens of laughing bogotanos under the leaky eaves of a food stall. It's nearly an hour before the weather lets up enough to continue.
At the mountaintop church I offer a silent prayer of thanks for my leather jacket. It had been a sweaty encumbrance on the walk up, and is a godsend now. Visibility is perhaps fifty metres. I warm myself with a cafe tinto and a smoke, and decide to wait out the drizzle. Not a chance. After another hour, with the afternoon waning and my stomach growling, I trot back down the clammy steps to Avenida Jiménez and the comparative warmth of the hotel, the smell of wet leather filling my nostrils.
Away from the plaza, Simón Bolívar's stamp is everywhere. There is the Quinta de Bolívar, a luxurious villa donated to the Liberator by grateful municipal authorities. Rejection would come later, not long after the attempt on Bolívar's life in 1828, which saw him spirited out the rear window of his house just off the plaza that now bears his name - saved by Manuela Saenz, his mistress. (Bolívar took refuge under a nearby bridge, where legend has it he contracted the lung ailment that killed him.)
The house in which the assassination attempt took place still stands, as do Saenz's own, more modest dwellings. She outlived Bolívar, and was among the handful that stayed true to him to the end. Reading J.B. Trend's Bolívar and the Independence of Spanish America, I'd found myself as fascinated by Saenz as by Bolívar himself. Among other things, she authored what must be the most brutally amusing "Dear John" letter ever written - to the English husband she abandoned for Bolívar:
No, no, no! No more, man; for God's sake! Why do you force me to write and break my resolution? What do you gain by it, except the pain you give me by telling you No a thousand times? Oh, sir! you are excellent, you are inimitable. I will never say anything except how good you are. But, my friend, to leave you for General Bolívar is something; to leave any other husband without your good qualities would be nothing. And yet you think that I, after being the General's lover for seven years, and with the absolute certainty of having his whole heart, would prefer to be married to the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost or the Holy Trinity! If I regret anything, it is that you were not even better than you are, so that I could have left you all the same. I know quite well that nothing can unite me to him under the auspices of what you call honour. Do you think me less honoured because he is my lover and not my husband? Oh, I don't live under the social preoccupations invented for people to torment one another! Leave me alone, my dear Englishman. We will do something else: In heaven we will be married again; but not on earth. Do you think this is a bad arrangement? If you do, I can tell you that you are very difficult to please. In the heavenly country we will live an angelic and wholly spiritual life (for as a man you are a bore). There, everything will be as it is in England; for the monotonous life is reserved for your nation (in love-making, I mean; for in other things, who are cleverer at shipping or commerce?). You prefer love without pleasure, conversation without wit, walking slowly, greeting with reverence, getting up carefully and sitting down, joking without laughing. These are divine politenesses; but I, miserable mortal ... I want to laugh at myself, at you and at all those serious English ways. How badly I should get on in heaven! As badly as if I went to live in England, or Constantinople; for the English give me the idea that they are tyrants with women, though you were not one with me, but certainly more jealous than a Portuguese. That is not what I want! Have I not good taste? But joking apart: politely and without a smile, with all the seriousness, truth and purity of an English lady, I tell you that I will never come back to you! You, Church of England, and I an atheist: that is the strongest religious impediment; and the fact that I am in love with someone else is a greater and stronger impediment still. Don't you see how formally correct my thoughts are?
Your invariable friend, MANUELA.In the margin of her rough draft, she added: "N.B. My husband is a Catholic, and I was never an atheist; only the longing to be separated from him made me write like this."(1)
There are dangerous parts of town, the guides say, and I edge into them with some trepidation. But as in Medellín, no-one pays me the slightest heed, unless it's to offer a smile and try out their halting English on a foreign visitor. There are scruffy street-people on many corners, but they have some dignity, and are not threatening in the least.
It's on a stroll through one of the no-go zones, on Calle 21 to be precise, that I spy a knot of men standing outside a doorway. A couple are peering eagerly inside. I join them for a peek, and ...
Have you ever wondered what a whorehouse looks like inside? I know I have.
But this is more like a warehouse than a whorehouse. It's late afternoon, and the place is packed with the kind of crowd that might gather at the local pub: businessmen in suits, nervous-looking student types, all of them jostling in the hallway or sitting peaceably on benches against the walls. Woven through the crowd are the main attractions: a couple of dozen whores in skimpy dress, chatting with customers or each other, cadging the occasional cigarette but otherwise holding back from the hard sell.
I buy a beer from a surly bloke in a booth. Seven hundred pesos - more than twice the price at your average corner café. Then I settle back to watch the action. It's all unusually sedate and civilized - more like a high-school prom than a den of iniquity. And like the prom, it's up to men to make the first move, while ladies wait for an invitation to get horizontal. Occasionally one brave soul gathers himself for a proposition, and the pair depart for the rooms upstairs.
I strike up a conversation with my bench-mate. He's Rafael, 45, with dark Indian features. He guzzles what is clearly not his first beer with a quiet intensity. "It's a strong name, yours," I tell him, and he puffs out his chest, pleased. "There are no fewer than four - four! - cabinet ministers with this name." He isn't one of them. He paints cars for a living, which explains the flecks on his faded suit.
"You're from Canada? Ah, a beautiful country, they say. All those waterfalls. Niagara."
How often do you come here, Rafael? "De vez en cuando. Now and then. It's very expensive! Ten thousand pesos for an hour with these women! But such beautiful, beautiful women." His eyes water as he surveys the room.
I find myself wondering what he would be like as a client. He is not the most attractive of men, and is perhaps drunk to the point of impotence. But he's more interested in window-shopping for the moment, and he is good company. From his no-doubt-paltry resources, he insists on buying me a beer and showing off his isolated phrases of Italian and German. "Say something to me in English!" he commands, and I tell him, "It is good to come to a strange city and find a friendly person like you who offers me a drink." When I translate it for him he nods earnestly and clasps my hand: beer-buddies for life.
"You're not going to take a woman? Who would you have if you felt like it?" That puts me on the spot. I mention the young woman sitting in front of us, immersed in conversation with an eager male who looks about sixteen. For that matter, so does she, but she stands out in this crowd. She is dressed much more casually and conservatively than her co-workers: jeans, a printed blouse buttoned to her throat. Black hair cascades Niagara-like down her back. "I think she's very appealing, but it's hard to think of her in a sexual way," I whisper to Rafael: the woman is only a couple of metres away. "She's more like a younger sister. Or" - remembering Claudia in Medellín - "a younger brother." It's the cheapest (and probably most boorish) of jokes, but Rafael erupts in gales of laughter, and draws a few stares.
After a while I excuse myself and wander back to the hall. A number of whores are gathered there, in cramped quarters with men arriving and exiting. One touches my arm lightly as I walk past. "Want to buy me a beer?"
She is a Black woman, full-breasted and gorgeous. Yeah, I tell her, but I don't have the money for much more. A couple of thousand pesos. What I'd really like is to ask her a couple of questions. Five or ten minutes of her time - will two thousand cover it? She shrugs: "Sure."
I fetch the beers and we detach ourselves from the throng, talking quietly. She is from Buenaventura, the largest port on the largely Black Pacific Coast of Colombia. "My name's Consuela. I'm twenty-four. Two young kids, the father isn't around." She looks distracted, scanning the crowd for more promising clients as she answers my queries.
Why is she in the trade? "The money is great. I work when I want. The house gets its cut from the extra that guys pay for the room, and from the markup on the booze."
What does she think of the guys who come here? She shrugs. "It's natural, I guess. They're looking for a bit of company. They don't expect me to fall in love with them." What are her ground rules? "A condom always, always. And I won't" - the Spanish word is vulgar, so she mimes the action, sucking on her finger. "They can't do that to me, either."
She has her regular customers, of course. And she has a lover, a man. Does he know what she does for a living? "Sure. But he knows the money I'm making. And he also knows there's a part of me I save for him, that I won't share with anybody else." She is a devout Catholic, she tells me, attending Mass every Sunday.
A few days before I left Canada I'd bought the latest issue of The New Internationalist, the progressive monthly with a Third World focus. The theme of the issue was prostitution, and the articles, all written by committed feminists, offered a slant very different from the standard. In an article titled, "Prostitution: soliciting for change," Nikki van der Gaag notes that "Prostitution is one of the few ways in which women with no other skills and little education can earn a living." A Canadian whore tells Erica Scott that "In order for women to be truly free sexually they have to have the right to say 'no' and also to say 'yes' but on their terms. It's not about sex. It's about power. Women become prostitutes because they decide to go for the best deal for the amount of time they put in - the money is good. It's right up there with being a lawyer." In a Third World country, it arguably beats hell out of a twelve-hour shift in a cafeteria kitchen. (Or the male equivalents of prostitution, work as a sicario or petty drug-dealer or emerald-miner.)(2)
The greatest threat to prostitutes, perhaps, is not anything ignoble or debilitating in their labour - AIDS aside, and whores everywhere are among the best-informed and most rigorous about disease prevention - but the police, who harass, molest, arrest and exploit them with near-total impunity. To the police threat must be added - in Colombia at least - the attentions of right-wing death squads, who often view themselves as vigilantes of public "morality." The thugs who toss grenades at street-kids are the same ones who co-ordinate drive-by shootings in the red-light districts, to "cleanse" the streets of delinquent elements - like the single mother trying to earn enough for her family's keep by providing solace to lonely, curious, or alienated men.
Half an hour later, I'm still standing there, feeling my freshly-washed hair turn to razor-wire, wondering what my chances are of contracting irreversible pulmonary damage. A few last broadsides of black diesel smoke, and I've had enough.
"The bus to Zipaquirá? Not around here," a gentleman tells me, back on the sidewalk. "You have to catch it up around Calle 80." About seventy blocks north.
I hop a bus that lumbers through the insane traffic and then, around Calle 75, veers west into unknown territory. Uh-oh. "You want Zipaquirá?" a young woman offers from the seat in front. "Best to get off here and walk over to the Autopista Norte. Down that street, over the bridge ..."
It's raining lightly, enough to turn the streets slick, as I slosh along to the northern highway and finally flag down a "Zipa"-bound bus. Already my head's spinning, my chest aches. It's not yet noon.
The rain gives Zipa's outskirts a ghastly pallor. Even the guidebook concedes that the city, fifty kilometres from downtown Bogotá, "is of little interest." The reason to come here is to see Zipa's claim to fame: a massive underground cathedral, carved out of solid rock-salt in a mountain that, it's said, has enough of the mineral to meet the world's salt requirements until the end of the twenty-first century, even after a hundred years of steady exploitation. "A monumental work of engineering," the guide glows. "The huge interior is some 25 metres high, and is capable of holding 10,000 people."
But where is it? Underground cathedrals don't exactly leap out at you, and the guide is of little help: "The cathedral is a 20-minute walk uphill from the centre of town." Where, for that matter, is the centre of town? Zipa is spread out like any aimless Third World blue-collar suburb, with the added disadvantage that any street into the hills to the west of town seems to loop back on itself after a couple of hundred metres. The rain falls steadily. I find myself muttering curses, getting only the vaguest information from passersby: a sweep of the arm, "Up there, over there." Finally one pleasant young man adds an additional, crushing piece of news. "The cathedral? Oh yes. It's closed."
Closed? Closed? The only reason in the world to come to Zipaquirá has decided to go on holiday? Has the roof fallen in? My grumbling is a sure sign of blood-sugar crash - those breakfast empanadas are ancient history - and so I repair to the nearest restaurant. The waitress, at least, has the good grace to make flirtatious eyes at me. Her name is Marta, and she brings me really a very good tamale, wrapped in a steaming banana leaf. Should I make a pass at her? And then what?
Belly full, it's back to the street. There is a piece of graffiti splashed over the wall opposite. Nothing from the M-19 or FARC, this time. It's the plea of a lovelorn fool: S. I am an idiot. Please forgive me. William. The day nods in melancholy approval.
Finally the route to the cathedral becomes clear, but as soon as I round the last bend, I can see my earlier informant was spot-on. A chain bars the path; there's a small sign reading, THE CATHEDRAL IS CLOSED. "Until July," says a guard at the nearby booth.
"What's going on? Is there some danger?"
"Well, isn't there anything at all to see up there?"
The guard shakes his head, and his eyes add: It's an underground cathedral, dummy. What else could there be to see? I slouch back to a main road, and am grateful when a Bogotá-bound bus rolls immediately into view.
I fumble for change and run off to a café to read the astonishing news. By a five-to-four decision, the Colombian Supreme Court has ruled that the possession and consumption "for personal use" of marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and hallucinogens will cease, as of midnight tonight, to be a crime in Colombia. Restrictions on the production and sale of drugs will remain; but the Court has ruled that jailing someone thirty days for a first offence, up to a year for a second, is a violation of Colombians' constitutional right to "privacy, autonomy, and the free development of the personality."
The justices in the minority protest that the legalization of drugs is a violation of the constitution's equally-entrenched guarantees for the rights of the family, "and, especially, of citizens' right to live in peace." Prominent police officials add to the criticism, claiming a bit dubiously that a high percentage of assaults and homicides in Bogotá "are carried out by persons under the influence of hallucinogenic substances." (The real culprits, one suspects, are booze, and possibly glue - both legal. And then there are those carrying out homicides not under the influence but under orders ...)
I pore fervently over the report in El Tiempo, the conservative (though Liberal) Bogotá daily, and it's all I can do to keep Handel's Hallelujah Chorus from bursting forth. My first thought is, Oh, man, is the U.S. ever going to be peeved. That's certainly one mark in the Supreme Court's favour. Then it occurs to me that a real blow has been struck for individual liberty and common sense. This tempers my exhilaration somewhat. Neither liberty nor common sense has ever been much in vogue among the Colombian political class, and it's reasonable to expect an immediate counterattack from the bastions of privilege.
It will begin the next morning, with newspapers full of vitriol - editorial and otherwise - against the Court's judgment. OVERDOSE, El Tiempo blares on its front page, lining up an impressive array of politicians, security officials, and church leaders who join in "unanimous condemnation" of the decision. President Gaviria is heard to mumble something about a constitutional amendment that will recriminalize drug use. And from the U.S. there is, predictably, damnation and dismay.
But all that's tomorrow. First I have to get through the evening, and since the Court's decision doesn't take effect until midnight, I'm stuck with presently-legal drugs to take the edge off the restlessness and gloom that have descended over the course of the day. Friday night. Normally I'd be getting ready to head down to the Fogg N' Suds, to chat with Andrew or Elvis behind the bar. It would be a rare Friday that J. wouldn't drop down with an evil glint in his eye that bespoke the presence of "rocket fuel," ready for smoking, in his jacket pocket. And maybe C. would stop by in a sexy mood, to drag me off for one of our occasional bouts of casual slamming. Vancouver seems a long way away. Tired and thirsty, I stop by a café across the street from La Concordia and slug back four Poker beers in rapid succession. Then I weave my way through boisterous early-evening streets, with salsa pounding from the rumbeaderos up on Calle 25. I plant myself briefly at another dive, and down three thimbles of aguardiente in quick sips. "You're drinking fast," the proprietor says. "You must be from Germany." I'm walking fast, too - unsteadily by now, but I feel enough artificial exuberance to dull the homesickness and the failed explorations of the day. What next? A sidewalk tout hands me a slip of paper: "BABILONIA. Multiple shows in erotic showers. Body massages. Video show." Worth a look? But it's pathetic, a few business types sipping overpriced beers as combination-hookers-and-strippers make the rounds. Occasionally the music rises to an ear-shattering crescendo and one of the girls does a bump-and-grind onstage, flinging off her clothes and escaping as quickly as possible to the changing room.
Enough of this shit.
It's only just gone nine o'clock, but Friday night in Bogotá is winding down, at least at street-level. The vendors are closing up their stalls; a few straggling couples are hailing taxis; and the alcohol high has worn off enough to make me realize I'm hungry. I walk for blocks trying to find some sustenance; nothing's open, and I end up at the Super Perro Suiza, a hot-dog stand near the Plaza Bolívar. I inhale two heavily-laden dogs - odd dressings, including something like Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, but palatable - and burp the last few blocks home. Lying on the bed at La Concordia, a nightcap smoke just makes me feel wretched; the room spins when I close my eyes.
Dizzy, dusty-mouthed sleep comes.
One side-expedition proves fruitless. Passing the new Congress building a couple of days earlier, I'd had a good giggle at the sign posted at the main entrance: FOR YOUR SECURITY, PLEASE DEPOSIT YOUR FIREARMS HERE. But when I head over to take a snap, the sign has mysteriously disappeared: there is only a patch of drying concrete. Someone, it seems, has decided the message is out of keeping with "the new Colombia."
"The new nation," in fact, is all the rage as the country works to throw off its unhappy international image. Even the police have gotten in on the act, promising "a new era" free of the corruption and abuses of the past. Change is the dominant theme in Colombia's presidential-election fever - except that this is more of a mild flush than a fever. The main preoccupation of the political class is to deal with the embarrassing dilemma of absenteeism, which is predicted to surpass fifty percent in the national poll scheduled for the end of May.
The general consensus in the press is that this year's voting will be an exercise in controlled tedium. That is how many Colombians apparently prefer it. The last round of presidential voting, in 1989 and 1990, was anything but dull. It was also anything but peaceable. Four presidential candidates were assassinated, including the projected winner, the Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Galán was gunned down at Bogotá airport in August 1989, presumably at the behest of the Medellín cartel, whose organization he had vowed to eradicate. His death was a watershed, "felt in Colombia much the same way that the killing of Benigno Aquino was felt in the Philippines, or the murder of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was felt in Nicaragua," according to María Jimena Duzán.
The high-profile killing of a mainstream candidate overshadowed a much more far-reaching and bloody campaign against the Unión Patriótica, a coalition of leftist parties (including the Colombian Communist Party) cobbled together by the FARC guerrillas during a brief truce worked out with the administration of Belisario Betancur. The process, aimed at incorporating the FARC into the civilian political process, soon foundered. The organization remains the most active, and incidentally the wealthiest, of Colombia's guerrilla groups, in large part thanks to its lucrative skimming of cocaine profits in the areas it controls in the south and southwest of the country. But the civilian coalition thrived, "successfully establish[ing] itself as the country's third political force and main opposition party" (according to Jenny Pearce); it won nearly five percent of the vote in the 1986 elections.
That immediately exposed the UP to the wrath of the right wing, furious that a "guerrilla front" was permitted to contest national elections at a time when the truce with the FARC had broken down and the rebels were continuing their campaign of subversion in the countryside. A retired general, Rafael Peña Ríos, voiced conservative and army concerns in a widely-cited 1988 interview with El Tiempo. Asked, "Don't you think that the [leftist] political groups are one thing and the guerrillas another?," Peña Ríos responded: "The violence of the so-called paramilitary groups [i.e., right-wing hit squads, often working in tandem with the army and drug traffickers] comes from the transparent relationship between political groups and guerrilla groups. It wouldn't have arisen if from the beginning in the [peace] agreements the former were made responsible for what the latter did."
Nearly two thousand UP members and leaders were exterminated in the runup to the 1990 elections, and close to forty thousand other Colombians died in the same period - most of them leftists slaughtered in perhaps the worst paroxysm of state terror the country had ever seen.
After the carnage of the late '80s, the emphasis in the 1994 elections has shifted to symbolism rather than substance. On a surface level, the campaign has all the trappings of its correlates in the West. Bright billboards are everywhere; there are upbeat radio jingles and TV spots, energetic discussion in the press about the ostensible differences among the candidates. But the bluster cannot disguise that this is very much a two-horse race, as has been standard in Colombia since the advent of the modern party system in the mid-nineteenth century. The problem is, the Liberal-Conservative dyad has blurred so much over the years that it's often difficult to tell who is riding which horse.
As in Lebanon, the most significant twentieth-century transformation in the Colombian political system was the striking of a "National Pact" aimed at ending (in Lebanon's case, forestalling) a debilitating civil war. La Violencia, which began as a straightforward Liberal-Conservative feud of the kind familiar to historians of Colombia and Latin America more generally, had spiralled out of control. Not only was the country facing economic and social breakdown, but a real threat of revolution had appeared on the horizon. Peasant bands in the countryside were moving away from their explicit Liberal or Conservative allegiances, and establishing power bases of their own, becoming the de facto authority over large swaths of rural Colombia. (The FARC guerrillas, for instance, date from this period.)
To avoid the collapse of an élite-run political system, Liberals and Conservatives united in 1957. They agreed to support a single presidential candidate, and to divide cabinet and state appointments equally for sixteen years. Though formally abrogated in 1974, the agreement continued to structure Colombian politics in reality until at least 1990. And it would be a dissenting voice indeed that didn't consider the National Pact still the philosophical bedrock of national political life. On one level, it has functioned smoothly, preventing a renewed flaring of the Liberal-Conservative civil war and allowing high levels of macroeconomic growth. On another, it has created an ossified, noncompetitive political system that has excluded more than it has incorporated. The high levels of absenteeism, along with the numerous guerrilla groups and other non-state actors operating throughout the country, testify to popular disenchantment with a system based on cronyism and the backroom divvying-up of the spoils.
In Ambalema, over a beer, I'd asked William - a young café employee - just what was going on. "It's hard for a foreigner to figure out. You have Ernesto Samper the Liberal candidate, right? And Andrés Pastrana, the Conservative. So how come I keep seeing 'Liberals for Andrés' banners?"
William had smiled. "Look. Being Liberal or Conservative doesn't say much about what you really believe. It's a matter of tradition. It depends on the family you're born into. I was born a Liberal, for instance. What you have these days is a lot of courting of support across traditional political lines. Pastrana, for example - he's younger than Samper, so he's going heavily after the youth vote, whether Conservative or Liberal."
Like Democrats-for-Reagan. And in fact, the U.S. political system, with its entrenched two-party oscillations (the two branches, that is, of the Capitalist Party), seems to parallel Colombia's closely.
The Liberal and Conservative platforms are strikingly similar. Jobs (for). Corruption and narcotrafficking (against). Peace and reconciliation (pro, with various caveats). A straw poll I've been conducting as I travel the country has yet to turn up a single person who doubts the Liberal, Samper, will emerge triumphant. ("As far as I'm concerned, he's the only one who's not an outright thief and scoundrel," one woman had told me in Cartagena.) Samper is playing the "kinder, gentler" angle for all he's worth, promising a "social capitalism" that will accord a strong role to the state in guaranteeing public welfare. Pastrana, a former TV journalist and mayor of Bogotá who was briefly kidnapped by the Medellín cartel in 1988, is pushing free enterprise, a tough line against guerrilla "assassins," and heavier punishments for "delinquents and terrorists." "I've presented my candidacy as a multiparty movement," he tells El Espectador, "in which people from every party or from no party can participate. Because this is what corresponds to the new vision of Colombia."
Bringing up the rear is Antonio Navarro Wolff, a tall, ascetic-looking former guerrilla leader, now presidential candidate for the M-19/Democratic Alliance, which accepted the government's peace offer in 1990.(3) Wolff now presents himself as the candidate of "the centre-Left," and rejects accusations that he has sold out progressive forces in Colombia by joining the civilian process - at a time when the other ex-guerrilla coalition, the Unidad Patriótica, is being exposed to one of the most savage assassination campaigns against an organized political force in hemispheric history. "The Unión Patriótica was part of a project that advocated the simultaneous pursuit of armed struggle and political struggle," Wolff told Marc Chernick in November 1993. "This type of project is not viable ... We could either persist in a politics that was not viable and thus forfeit the possibility of ever gaining power, or choose a path that was more politically viable despite the inherent limitations." He, too, claims to represent "a force for change."(4)
This year's campaign has not gone perfectly smoothly. There is the nagging problem of generalized political apathy; UP members and leftist forces more generally continue to be targeted; and, in late April, the treasurer of Ernesto Samper's campaign in Antioquia department was killed. El Tiempo's editorial comment on this last outrage was revealing. The paper - a strong supporter of Samper - discounted suggestions that the killing was politically motivated. It took pains to point out that "The campaign for the presidency has developed more or less tranquilly, without acid expressions or verbal aggressiveness from the participants, especially [the major] candidates, who have tried to stay calm and avoid offensive allusions and personal provocations." El Tiempo did take a stab at one "well-known" figure in the Pastrana campaign (perhaps Pastrana himself?) who had "seized every opportunity to return to this dangerous style of politics," using "every error, suspicion, or rumour to launch attacks against the Liberal candidate." Nonetheless, "nothing has happened that would imply serious repercussions," such as political murder: this would threaten "the internationally-recognized [!] democratic stability of the country." The editorial closed with a plea for National Pact-style unity: "On May 30, Liberals will open our arms to our ideological opponents, ready to forge a better nation."
Time, on this final day, to go looking for Bogotá's other face - the south of the city, home to the bulk of the city's population, and the destination of tens of thousands of poor migrants who flood annually into this locus of perceived opportunity and upward mobility.
If I'd felt nervous about visiting Bogotá in the first place, the prospect of busing out to the southern slums alone, and with no idea precisely where I'm going, is even greater cause for anxiety. But I find myself on Carrera 10 anyway, trying to choose among the dozens of busetas streaming south. On an impulse, I hop a 689 circular route, and settle myself by the window.
We roar a good thirty blocks south on Carrera 10, and the shanties come into plain view to the southeast: a tangle of low-slung buildings, extending to the very limits of settlement on Bogotá's southern fringe. There are only green mountains beyond. I'm beginning to wonder whether the bus will just do a U-turn at the end of the main thoroughfare, which so far looks not much different from its more central and northern stretches. But suddenly we are winding up to the left, and I begin to realize my arbitrary choice of the 689 was an excellent one. The bus seems determined to traverse every major road in these barrios, and I sit, glued to the window, waiting - for what?
For a shantytown, I guess. You know: cardboard shacks, festering streets choked with mud and ordure, pigs rummaging through the garbage. Children with torn T-shirts and runny noses. Barefoot women with hopeless expressions. Men standing idly or menacingly by, or passed out on the sidewalks.
But it quickly becomes clear that Bogotá - at least in this broad southeastern stretch - is very far from Managua, or Manila, or Port-au-Prince. For one thing, the construction is sturdy: brick and concrete, densely-populated but habitable. There is little in the way of jerry-built corrugated-iron housing, except where a coop has been added to an existing roof. There's certainly no one living in cardboard boxes or stacked sewage pipes. Many of the dwellings, though simple, are tidy and brightly-painted; sidewalks are no more litter-strewn than their downtown counterparts.
Yes, sidewalks. The roads here are mostly paved, right up to the edge of most recent settlement. Even there, on this sporadically drizzly afternoon, the streets are hardly a quagmire. Electrical lines are everywhere in evidence, and it is the rare home that lacks a television aerial (even, in a couple of instances, a satellite dish).
The people strolling past, or boarding the bus, seem well-dressed (who am I to judge, with my soiled pants and three-day-old T-shirt?). Kids seem healthy and well-fed. Not once in an hour-and-a-half of touring these slums to their furthest periphery do I see a single example of the desperately grimy street-life of downtown Bogotá. There's no-one sleeping in doorways, no sooty urchins with heads buried in gasoline cans or pots of glue.
Those people, of course, may be commuters from these very slums, headed to where the opportunities for scavenging are greatest. But I don't think so, somehow. There is too much determination and vivacity evident here. The streets are alive with formal commerce: metalsmiths and car-repair shops and sign-painters and corner-store proprietors. There is playful mischief and good humour (one man runs out to pinch the bum of a friend who's leaning into a car window, and retreats quickly, with an expression of blithe innocence). There are plenty of smiles, even a couple for me as I dismount at the end of the bus's route and hang around a few minutes, licking a street-stall ice cream, before catching a bus home.
So what am I not seeing? A great deal, obviously. The grind of unemployment. Crime - though I wonder how much more pervasive it is here than downtown, given the vibrant community life everywhere on display. Alcoholism, domestic violence, abandonment. The migrant's daily struggle to make ends meet in unfamiliar and intimidating surroundings. But I feel confident in making one vow: henceforth, I will expunge the word "slum" from my vocabulary in describing these southern settlements. Barrios populares captures the atmosphere perfectly. People's neighbourhoods. That's what these seem to be, functioning and cohesive neighbourhoods, with one insuperable advantage over other poor urban zones I've seen: they are full of Colombians, who appear determined to undermine my pat stereotypes and suspicions at every turn.
When I finally hop off the bus back at Avenida Jiménez, Bogotá has gone all soft and mushy on me. The sprinkle of rain has subsided, and downtown is aglow with late-afternoon sun that turns the buildings pink and orange, and erects a magnificent rainbow high over the peak of Monserrate.
2. The New Internationalist, No. 252 (February 1994). The articles carry the pro-whoredom argument further than many might be comfortable with. What special opprobrium should be reserved for "child prostitution," asks Maggie Black, when "the overhwelming majority of 'children' in prostitution are well past puberty, mostly in their mid-teens, and many are beyond the legal age of marriage and of sexual consent? ... And as for [being] 'forced' into sexual work, in many cases the 'force' is metaphorical. There is often a strong element of volition, if not to enter, certainly to stay."
3. Ernesto Samper and Antonio Navarro Wolff, too, have had their brushes with terrorism. The March 3, 1989 assassination of Unión Patriótica leader José Antequera one of three UP presidential candidates to die in a single campaign seriously injured Samper, who had stopped briefly to talk with Antequera when the assassins struck. "To this day, Samper ... still has four bullets lodged in his body. People joke that he carries the 'heaviest artillery' of any presidential candidate." Navarro Wolff can boast only one bullet, still "lodged in his throat, making his speech difficult." He also lost a leg in the assassination attempt, but "still was a good salsa dancer." Jimena Duzán, Death Beat, pp. 143, 242.
As an aside, has there ever been a presidential election in which, of six candidates in total, four were assassinated (three from the UP alone), while even the survivors could set off metal detectors with the ammunition still in their bodies? Reading Jimena Duzán's firsthand description of the 1990 elections, one has the sense that a journey through Colombia a few years ago might have been a different and more frightful experience, at least in the larger cities. Car-bombs in the streets were regular occurrences, and levels of state terror and paramilitary activity were higher than in 1994. "The truth is that all of us who were still living felt like survivors of a bloody war in which we lost the most important members of an entire political generation. The majority of Colombian households had experienced death close at hand. Mothers lost their children, brothers lost their cousins, and cousins lost their best friends" (p. 255). Jimena Duzán lost her sister, Sylvia, shot down while working on a British TV documentary that dealt with narcotraffickers' involvement in the elections.
4. The viability of the armed struggle was also addressed by a group of prominent Colombian intellectuals, most noted leftists, including Gabriel García Márquez and some 60 others. In a November 1992 open letter to the Coordinadora Guerrillera, the body that coordinates relations among the major guerrilla groups, García Márquez et al. wrote: "As a group of convinced democrats who oppose violence and authoritarian solutions of all kinds ... we oppose the means you use to carry on your struggle. Armed struggle, instead of leading to greater social justice, has engendered all kinds of extremisms, such as the resurgence of reactionary violence, paramilitary forces, merciless crime and excesses committed by the armed forces, which we condemn with equal energy. ...
"Your war, understandable in its origins, now goes against the grain of history. Today your standard tactics include kidnapping, coercion and forced contributions, all of which are an abominable violation of human rights. Terrorism, which you had always condemned as an illegitimate form of revolutionary struggle, is today a daily recourse. Corruption, which you also rejected in the past, has contaminated your own ranks through your dealings with drug traffickers. ... It is time to search for a new and innovative form of politics more in tune with the realities of today's world. Your war, gentlemen, lost its historical significance long ago."
The Coordinadora responded courteously, "extend[ing] our greetings and thank[ing] you for your important observations on the persistence of armed insurgency in Colombia. ... It is important to underscore that the revolutionary guerrilla struggle in Colombia developed and continues to grow as a result of the permanent violence of the state that impedes with fire and blood the existence of an opposition to the establishment. Armed struggle has not been either an end or an objective. It has simply been a means by which to resist aggression and fight for democracy and dignity.
"It must be said that if certain practices and historical conceptions have lost their historical significance, it is precisely the practice of state terrorism and the systematic use of institutional mechanisms to assassinate and 'disappear' political opposition. Such practices have converted despotism into the natural form of governing." For the full text of the letters, and the interview with Navarro Wolff, see Marc Chernick, "Is the Armed Struggle Still Relevant?," NACLA Report on the Americas, 27: 4 (Jan./Feb. 1994), pp. 8-13.