It's been an exhausting but happy couple of weeks. Since I was last on campus, my wife and I have flown through seven different airports,spent quality time with both our families, and surprisingly enough, had the chance to sleep eight hours straight several nights in a row.
We spent the past week with my wife's mother's family on their remote, rural finca (ranch) in Cesar province in northwest Colombia. It was our third visit to Colombia together, and our first as a married couple. Since I'm tired and lightheaded this morning, I'll offer some random thoughts. I hope to have photos up by the end of the week!
First off, almost as much as a good lefty likes me hates to admit it, even I can see how much Colombia has improved in recent years under the leadership of President Bush's only true friend in South America, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The right-wing Uribe was elected in 2002 on a hardline platform of no compromise with Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Many feared a dramatic escalation of violence in what was already one of the most dangerous countries (if not the most dangerous) in the Western Hemisphere. But in many regions, security has clearly markedly improved.
My wife, my mother-in-law, and I all agree that things had improved noticeably in the mere 20 months since we were last in Colombia. The main highway that leads from Bucaramanga (the city with the nearest airport) north to the finca had been repaved and cleaned up. Most of the potholes that we saw in 2004 were filled in. The number of army checkpoints in Santander, Norte de Santander, and Cesar (the three provinces in which we spend most of our time on our Colombia trips) had been clearly reduced. Last time, we were ordered out of the car several times to have our papers checked and to be frisked for weapons. That didn't happen once on this visit.
The small towns near my wife's family's finca all showed signs of increasing stability and prosperity. In Pelaya, Costilla, Aguachica, we saw new streetlights up, new paved roads, and fewer soldiers. We saw more new cars. (Speaking of cars, almost everyone in this region of Colombia drives Renaults; for years, they were the only brand available in the northwest provinces, and even now, they retain considerable loyalty.) We discovered too that people were more willing to discuss politics than they had been in the past; there was a clear reduction in the amount of palpable fear that folks seem to have. In the poor and simple farming communities in which we spent our time, we found surprising (to me) support for the hardline, conservative policies of Alvaro Uribe. Everyone in my wife's family is planning to support him in his reelection bid next month, grateful as they are for his refusal to compromise with the narco-traffickers and the guerrillas who have tormented them.
I confess I grew up romanticizing left-wing revolutionaries and guerrilla groups. In the 1980s, as a teenage socialist, I became enchanted with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (It all started, of course, with a sublimely good Clash album). I became a fan of Fidel and Daniel Ortega and the FMLN; I had the ubiquitous ratty Che Guevara t-shirt. I loved the idea that not so far away from my comfortable home on the California coast, men and women were marching through the jungle, fighting the capitalist oppressors and liberating the poor campesinos. In more recent years, my adolescent radicalism faded into limousine liberalism, but I still made appreciative noises about armed Marxist insurgencies wherever they were in the Third World.
While I had daydreams of revolution, my wife's family had many very real and very brutal experiences with the FARC (the left-wing guerrilla army that has been trying to take over Colombia for decades) and with the right-wing paramilitaries who combated them. For years, my wife's uncle (who owns the little finca) was forced to pay protection money to the guerrillas. Indeed, when we visited in August 2004, the FARC was still quite active in the hills very near the family place. In order to guarantee our protection, my wife's uncle paid the guerrillas a substantial "head tax" (in cattle) for each of us. This was to ensure our safety during our visit; had he not paid it, the guerrillas made it clear that we would risk being kidnapped. My wife's family only told us about this head tax after we returned to the States -- it was a sobering realization, and one of many that put an end to my fantasies about the moral superiority of armed insurgents.
And then there was Matteo, a skinny and lovable mutt who looked a lot like a lab/doberman/retriever mix. Matteo has been guarding the finca for years, and he has the bullet wound and the machete slashes to show for it. It's funny how dense and sentimental we privileged types can be! I can listen to stories of people I've never met getting abducted and killed and be unfazed -- but show me very real wounds on a very real animal and I become instantly enraged! Listening to the story of how Matteo survived a brutal slashing a year of two ago at the hands of the FARC left me shaking with anger and close to tears. And any last shred of sympathy for the cause or the tactics of the guerrillas vanished last week. And even more bizarrely, I come home rooting lustily for President Uribe to win a second term in office!
You see, since the president stepped up his military campaign against the insurgents (a campaign backed by considerable infusions of cash from the USA), my wife's family -- my family -- has felt safer. No one asked for a head tax this time. No one has shot at Matteo in over a year. We walked the streets in broad daylight fearlessly, and my uncle-in-law didn't have to sell a dozen cows to give us the right to do so. That's worth something. Yes, I understand that Uribe's human rights record is less than perfect; yes, I understand that the left-wing press on which I normally rely to form my world-view is deeply hostile towards him for a variety of reasons. But I've been to Colombia three times now, and I've seen very, very real progress for a great many very vulnerable and poor people -- and whether the press in this country reports it or not, I'm going to believe what I've seen and experienced more than what I read.
Colombia is still not a safe country by the standards of the prosperous global North. It still has a high murder rate, and the guerrillas and narco-traffickers remain active in certain parts of the country. But it is clearly getting safer, and is starting to become the sort of place adventurous American tourists could consider visiting more often. Last night, we flew home on COPA Airlines, flying from Bogota to Panama City and then home to LAX. Very few Americans on the first leg of the flight leaving Colombia, but tons on the second leg back from Central America; lots of sunburned folks heading home from a week in Panama or Costa Rica or on the islands of the southern Caribbean. Colombia, of course, is the closest South American country to the West Coast of the USA -- it's only an hour's worth of flying time beyond Costa Rica. It also offers infinitely more biological and anthropological and cultural diversity than the small Central American nations that have become popular with US tourists; Colombia has the mountains, the beaches, the lowlands and the dazzling metropolises. What it doesn't have is a reputation as a top tourist destination (outside, perhaps, of the walled city of Cartagena.) If things keep getting safer and more secure, that might change.