As I traveled through Colombia over the last three months, I remained ignorant of Colombian history. Specifically, the history of violence. Of course I knew there were guerrillas here, and they lurked somewhere in the corners of the country. But the publicity campaign to reassure the rest of the world that it is now safe to travel in Colombia worked for me. A Brazilian friend from Rio convinced me Colombia was the place to visit now. And once I arrived, it was all to too easy to appreciate the beautiful blue-green scenery of the Colombian coffee zone mountains, the stunning hot springs framed by waterfalls in Santa Rosa, the fresh juice stands in the streets and the new fruits I found here like lulo, and the intoxicating worlds of salsa and tango in Cali.
I noticed a lot of military in the streets, but I never felt fear of violence. Colombia felt a lot safer than Brazil. Colombians whom I would meet on buses and would help me through my various travails (like being sick on a bus, or without a place to stay for the night) would tell me there are buenos and malos (good people and bad people) in their country, but there are far more buenos than malos. I hadn't met any malos so I didn't really know what they were talking about. In fact, for me, the country seemed overwhelmingly full of buenos, people who are sweet and eager to help.
The distinguishing characteristic of Colombians, for me, have been super amable (nice) people. When they say goodbye, they say, "Que le vaya bien" ("that you go well") and "cuidate" (take care of yourself). Colombians always say hello and how are you. It is common to be affectionate with strangers, and call them "mi amor" (my love) or "mami" (honey). People are exceedingly generous. (Though they can be savage in line at the corner store, not waiting their turn! There is a disorder in Colombian culture that can be infuriating. The concept of a line sometimes does not seem to exist.)
In some ways, Colombians felt too nice to me. I aspired to be Brazilian because I appreciated Brazilian wildness of spirit and charisma and their strong national identity, the music, dance, appreciation of the moment. Although Colombia also offers many of those qualities, I didn't feel the same attraction to be "Colombian." Colombians seem insecure. They always want to know how their country appears to you. "Como te aparece Colombia?" After decades of violence, and the resulting stigmatization of the country, it is understandable that Colombians are curious about what foreigners think. Generally I don't ask people what they think of San Francisco when they visit. I assume they will be impressed.
Colombians are nicer to foreigners than they are to each other. They want to be friends with the rest of the world after being cut off for so long.
What I find the strangest of all is how such a nice people could also have been capable of so much violence. The violence in Colombia has diminished considerably over the last ten years as the former president Uribe cracked down on the two remaining guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups. It really is much safer now. Until recently Colombians did not travel on buses, and they left their homes in fear of being kidnapped. I met a couple in Barichara who left their home for that reason.
I had the perception that the drugs and narco-trafficking and guerrilla groups came first and then came the violence. But the violence in Colombia precedes narco-trafficking and guerrillas. The history of Colombia, while democratic, has been characterized by widespread violence. For example, when the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assisinated in 1948, violence erupted in Bogota and throughout the country. Liberals and Conservatives fought in the streets, and more than 300,000 people died in the late 40s and 50s.
Once the drug economy and narco-trafficking grew, the endemic violence in Colombia grew as well. According to this Latin American Review published by Harvard´s Center For Latin American Studies, ´´more than 50,000 died in the Drug Wars of the 1980s and in the escalating guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.´´ The author continues, ´´it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Colombias history is one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with organized killing existing at chronically high levels, punctuated with episodes of high intensity murderousness, for nearly two centuries.´´ Only the Sudan had more displaced families, people who had left their homes for fear of being kidnapped.
At a certain time, the military gave rewards to soldiers for killing guerrillas. So the military kidnapped men from the countryside and dressed them up as guerrillas and killed them. These were called the falso positivos. It is this kind of cold bloodedness which is hard to square with the incredibly sweet Colombians who I met along my travels. The person I know best in Colombia, William, told me he could never understand the capacity for violence in Colombia.
We went to see the Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso one evening. A telenovela and book that has now been turned into a movie (and is a telenovela in many Spanish-speaking countries), this slick movie tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who prostitutes herself to drug dealers in order to get the money for breast implants--and the easy life she things large breasts will provide. The movies is splattered with violence: botched breast implant surgery, random killings, and overall loss of respect for human life. I sat in the cinema at the end of the movie feeling shell-shocked. William wasn't fazed. For him, the movie was an accurate depiction of life as it is.
So how can such sweet people also be so violent in their history? Are the buenos just really bueno, and the malos really malo? Is this a country of passionate extremes and I am lucky to have come at a time when the malos are on the run? I am still perplexed by the combination in the Colombian character. If anyone has any clues, do tell.
Sasha Cagen is traveling through Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina in 2010. Read more of her adventures and observations at quirkyalone.net.