The Colombian Media Translation Project

An attempt to bring Colombia closer to an English speaking audience, the Colombian Media Translation project brings selected pieces about Colombia written in Spanish to English speakers around the world.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Free Deaths

This article appears in today's edition of EL TIEMPO, the main Colombian daily, as a response to recent problems in the Colombian security forces. More about those can be read from the BBC's website here.


A few years ago, the rich kids of Medellin and Pereira, along with the sons of the first druglords who thought themselves almost omnipotent, had their nightly dose of fun by shooting up beggars in the street, just to give themselves the luxury of hatred. Gonzalo Arango had published, back in Nadaismo 70, the magazine of the movement, the best of his chronicles: 'Planas - a crime without punishment'. An indigenous boy from Meta told how a general placed electrodes on his testicles. And he also told about how the mayors, the public defenders, the policemen and settlers went out every afternoon to practice the sport of nobles. A sport which consisted in the hunt for indians in the wilderness. Such a healthy activity was called 'cuiviar'. Which in turn is related to the hunting of 'cuivas', prey such as deer or gurres.

One of those involved in the radio interview - an interview is always a part of the rigour of the rituals behind murder - said that he did not know that he was doing something bad. Everybody was doing it. Once, they even invited the indians to eat poisoned sancocho. Those who took their time in dying were finished up with sticks, or buried alive on the garden.

These things bring up fearsome questions, since they involve us, about the true nature of Colombians. Even though they have the most solid democracy in Latin America and are one of the happiest peoples on Earth according to polls on the subject.

The medical students of a university in Barranquilla, faced with a lack of cadavers for their anatomy courses, performed them in the rotting meat of the beggars that always slept at their campus. They shot them to death, so as not to harm them. And then they dropped them in the frigid tables used to train the future experts in hygiene. A gang of lawyers in Ibague, in another fearsome plot in the fun adventures that make up the Colombian legal world, adopted homeless people. They fattened them, took care of them until they were left shining, and then threw them down a bridge. The practice of law can sometimes be confused with the trickery of indian malice. And the practice of medicine...

The latest scandal of the superb national terror, the iniquity of the boys from everywhere left shot up in the fields of everywhere, recruited amongst the hungry of the cities to exchange their rags for holidays at the barracks, is just the latest episode in a long list of extreme infamies. The places lack importance; so do the circumstances, and even the executioners and the names of the victims. They are but appearances, coincidences. What matters is the failure that these things imply. Cold blood as a symptom of a surrendered society.

To assign blame is impossible. It must fall on all of us. In the dialectic of Evil, the victim and the executioner form a single animal that seeks to redeem itself in degradation. They represent the drama of failure. The failure of the preaching bishops, of the politicians that conduce the masses to their fates, of the teachers in charge of the education of all of us, of the philosophies, the system of communication and even of the writers of the journals and the editors of the books. Like me. Each word that I say just multiplies the horror, like a rotten comment, or a light one, fanning the flames of hell, just like my secret dreams ruin my vigil.

A nation where people no longer kill for love, for hatred, out of sheer spite, or for money, like everywhere else. Where you can buy a body with a soldier's license. And where a hand that has been cut off is just tared at the barracks.

But the defect does not lie in the laws. Nor on the apparatus of whistleblowers and rewards. The worst lies in the devaluing of life, the abusive minimization of the Other, the confusion of everything, the unconscious vacuum, the decomposition of everything in a broth of shadow. In pure paranoia, in pure disgust, in pure hopelessness. Andre Breton once said with a perfect lack of responsibility that the greatest surreal act was to walk up the street and shoot at the passing crowd. That is no longer surreal amongst us. For us, it's our daily bread. And it is not poetic in the least.


N.T. - very depressive.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Displacement, II

This article was written by Salomón Kalmonovitz, one of the country's foremost thinkers in economic and social policy; a former member of the Board of Directors of the Banco de la República (the country's equivalent to the ECB or the Federal Reserve), Kalmonovitz writes about the economic consequences of forced displacement, a phenomenon in which Colombia is known for being the second country in the world with the greatest number of internal refugees, following Sudan. Read on to find out more:

The original can be found here.

Kudos to Gacetilla for letting me know what's hot right now.

MUCH VALUABLE INFORMATION from the book "Forced Displacement in Colombia", written by Ana María Ibáñez, a Professor at the Universidad de los Andes and the Director of its Centre of Studies for Development, was left out of last week's column.

With regards to the question of who the refugees are, Ibáñez finds that about 80% was in possession of land, and about 60% of those held property deeds. The fact that the violence was directed against such people, who have been active in the social networks of the affected towns: "the rebel groups attack active members of the community, with the objective of weakening or destroying social networks" (page 78).

The above means that in the lands fought over by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the State, a good portion of middle and working-class farmers has been eradicated, which has intensely affected agricultural production. Ibáñez estimates that annual growth was reduced by about 3% during the past 10 years. Recent statistics about agricultural GDP reveal that a recovery is underwat, but this is based entirely on animal industries, that grow at a rate of 7%: dairy, meat, poultry and fish farming. The annual growth in cultivation does not even reach 1%.

With the strong growth in the economy during the past three years, and the protection enjoyed by landowners, the problem of internal displacement has come into play to reduce the supply of agricultural goods and thus worsen the inflation of food prices. Thus, internal displacement, a problem which is hidden in the subconscious mind of all Colombians, returns to worsen the scarcity that slaps the entire population of the country.

Another negative impact of displacement, which is currently being investigated by Ana María Ibáñez, has to do with wages in the informal sector. She and her team have found a reduction of about 18% in the real wages of more than half of the urban workforce that works in the informal sector, yet another hidden impact brought about by the seismic shift of the rural population due to the internal conflict. On the other hand, rural salaries must have had to improve, in the sense that many of the displaced families provided farm workers during the plantation and harvest seasons of cultivation.

The negative consequences of displacement are thus threefold: it has a direct negative effect over agricultural production due to the abandonment of lots and their abandonment or their transformation into pasture, it reduces and greatly increases the price of the workforce that was previously available to tend to the plantations of those who did not have to flee, and finally, it places significant downward pressure on urban salaries.

When faced with the question of whether they would be willing to return to their former lots, only about 11% would do so. But this is not due to economic reasons: their reality is that of a radical increase in poverty, hardly compensated by the many official programmes, most of them temporary, and access to which is still problematic. They remain fearful of returning because the new social order imposed by the violent remains, and the Government is not interested in confronting it. In other words, for the refugees, to claim back their belongings and their property carries a risk of losing the very lives that they barely saved when they fleed in the first place.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Investor's Confidence

An article from Antonio Caballero, the anti-globalisation firebrand that writes the backcover article at the Colombian weekly 'Semana'. He writes about the financial crisis in the Spanish original found here.

Being exposed to the worldwide crisis, which right now only affects the world's financial superstructure but which will end up affecting the infrastructure of the real economy, the world's neoliberals are quickly converting into decided interventionists. Sarkozy in France and Brown in England, Berlusconi in Italy and Merkel in Germany: all of them emulators of the policies of deregulation and dereglamentation associated with Margaret Thatcher (responsible for bringing the 'mad cow' epidemic due to a lack of sanitary controls and which is bound to bring even more climate madness due to a lack of environmental controls). Even the Bush admistration in the United States, that is so neoliberal that it falls into neoconservatism, and that even yesterday still remained a fervent believer in the magical virtues of the market's 'invisible hand', is taking the plunge with more than $700 billion in public funds (the cost of a war) intended to rescue banks from bankruptcy. After the swinging years of prosperity, just like during the 1929 crisis, we are returning to humanist recipes, or at least recipes which are more human, to keynesian theory and rooseveltian practice.

Although we will have to look closer and see - and we shall - whether this rescue being undertaken by the europeans and the Americans doesn't end up being a rude copy of the many interventionist bank rescues performed in Colombia. In other words, the simple socialisation of the losses in the bad years after having privatized the gains during the good ones. The term "rescue", after all, is very ambiguous. During the conquest of America, the Spanish used the term to describe the plundering of Indian gold by force.

In the meantime here, and with the pretext of confronting what fallout Colombia may have to deal with from the global crisis, president Uribe announces two new policies: the removal of the meagre controls that still persist for foreign capital, in an attempt to see if it comes, and a tributary amnesty for exiled capital, in an attepmt to see if it returns. Curious. All analysts agree that the result of the crisis is a lack of control, and here the Government wants to dismantle the few that remain, those that survived the neocolonialist gale of the Washington Consensus.

But perhaps it is another example of the "superior intelligence" that distinguishes our omniscient and omnipresent President - an extremely astute maneuver of high-flying economic strategy. Uribe, who undoubtedly has eagerly read Ayn Rand's ultracapitalist fiction, perhaps imagines that, seeing themselves persecuted around the entire world, the world's running capitalist savages will come with their money under their arms to seek refuge in Colombia, where our Investor's Confidence will give them safe haven.

He may be right. And if so, even worse. As far as escaped capital goes, he must refer to the unreliable fortunes of the druglords: Santo Domingo is not bringing back what he took out following the sale of Bavaria with great efforts in tributary imagination. And regarding foreign capital, the generally harmful role that they have played in Colombia is precisely due to a lack of control and an excess of guarantees on the part of governments: due to Investor's Confidence. After all, just to list off some extreme cases, that's where we got the Killing of the Banana Plantations made in defence of the american United Fruit Company, or the enslaving and extermination of the indians of Putumayo on the part of the anglo-peruvian Casa Arana, almost a century ago. From there we've gotten things like the financing of the paramilitaries of the AUC on the part of Chiquita Brands, and of the ELN on the part of Manesmann and the oil companies. Due to a lack of regulation and an abundance of guarantees, foreign companies in Colombia, whether they be in mining or forestry, in electricity or contrusction, in rubber or oil, regardless of their being Spanish, German or American or soon enough Chinese, have always left a trail of ransacking and corruption. It is an experienience that is well-known to any colonized or newly colonized nation: foreign capital has the habit of ripping out the elbow when given the hand.

Oh yes, it leaves a few crumbs in the extended hand. Those are the fruits of what is now known as Investor's Confidence, of which only the name is new.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

5 Colombian Tragedies

(original Spanish version here)

The international community is moved by the dramas of five victims of the [drug war] suffered by the country. SEMANA presents the impressive testimonies that Europe heard during the last week

Vicepresident Francisco Santos took the faces of Colombian violence along with him to Europe. He was shocked to have the Dutch Minister of Health tell him during his visit to Bogotá last year that no-one in his country knew that drug trafficking produces death, kidnapping and mutilation on this side of the Atlantic. And he decided to start a campaign, as shocking as humanly opssibly, in order to show that reality to the public.

He travelled to London last week with the company of five victims of violence. Natalia Rodríguez was kidnapped for three years; Aura Amelia Abril was a refugee from Tame (Arauca) due to death threats from paramilitary forces; Paola Carrillo, a survivor of the bomb in the El Nogal night club; Emperatriz de Guevara, the mother of a kidnapped policeman who died in captivity; and Olanda Girón, who lost her eyesight and part of both hands due to a landmine. It is not difficult to find martyrs such as them. But they are not known in Europe, one of the fastest-growing markets for cocaine, where there is a diffuse image of what the war against drug trafficking means for the country. Over there, the image is dominated by stereotypes that range from total permisivity - in other words, a corrupt and complicit government - up to that involving a well-intentioned albeit impotent government. A distorted perception, and in any case, a perception without a face or a visible symbol.

SEMANA has gathered the shuddering stories which were personally written by each one of them. The idea is to jolt clueless Europeans and their equally clueless government officers responsible for Colombia into an awareness of what living through a cruel war fed by drug money is like.

The message that the campaign is seeking to transmit is that there is a relationship between the line of cocaine that clubbers so lightly apply themselves during a party night - which is done even with the collective recognition that they are doing something which is in vogue - and the violence in Colombia. And the purpose is to put forward a strategy based on shared responsibility: that consumers assume their part in the cost - the money, the loss of prestige and the institutional wear-and-tear - that is brought about by having to fight illicit drugs. This is not an exclusively Colombian problem.

The campaign is ambitious. Apart from the contacts of the victims with the media - whose experiences have already been picked up by several media outlets - it includes impressive TV ads, the presence of victims in other continents and a call for the United Nations to review its efforts in order to curtail consumption.

The discourse on shared responsibility goes back to some of the initiatives undertaken at the end of the 80's. Back then, the Virgilio Barco administration bought ads in the most widely circulated papers in the United States in which a byline describing a group of cocaine consumers read: "Drug addict or terrorist?" The objective then, as now, was the same - to associate consumption in the capitals of the First World with the violence suffered in Colombia.

The idea of corresponsibility had an effect. Both the United States and Europe adopted commercial preferences that favoured Colombian exporters. Tariffs were slashed and restrictions were removed. More recently, these instruments have been changing. The United States changed the ATPA [Andean Trade Preferences Act] for a Free Trade Agreement that has implied reciprocity in the commercial aspect. And additionally, the U.S. adopted Plan Colombia which, while involving a donation of resources, is based on the assumption that the war on drugs can be won by fighting it on Colombian soil. On its part, Europe ended the SPG-Drugs program that established preferences for the countries affected by the scourge of drug trafficking, and replaced with a more flexible structure that also covered some of its former colonies.

The new campaign seeks to restore equilibrium. Its success will depend on whether a few obstacles can be surmounted. Experience shows that if the message is not repeated in a sustained way, it is diluted away. And the cost is high. The way in which it will be received in the United States also remains to be seen, where the conception of corresponsibility is seen through the eyes of Plan Colombia: war is waged 'over there' more so than demand is reduced 'over here'. The truth is that without an initiative like this, Colombia would continue to be in the worst of both worlds: stuck with both the violence and the image that she is the only one to blame, when in reality, she is the victim. Let its story be told by the following five painful and symbolic experiences published ahead.

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Purpose and Introduction

The purpose of this weblog is to provide the English speaker with a set of reliable translations of selected pieces in the Colombian media that should enable him or her to get a better grasp of the sometimes shocking, sometimes cheerful, and sometimes sombre reality of life in the Republic of Colombia.

In the eyes of many foreigners, Colombia is ultimately a highly misunderstood country. On the one hand, people are friendly, warm and welcoming; but on the other, many Colombians, both rich and poor, have had to adjust to the realities of life in the country. Some of them have seen mutilation and death first hand in the civil war that still ravages the country. Some of them have seen riches beyond their wildest dreams, and poverty beyond their wildest imaginations. Colombians treasure family and tradition, but their society has become extremely matriarchal following the essential collapse of the nuclear family brought about by instances of irresponsible fatherhood at all of society's levels.

Hopefully the translations that I will be posting here will help expatriates and other English speakers to understand the country a little better. Since I am doing this for free, you cannot expect me to churn out material on a daily basis, but weekly or biweekly translations of articles that piqued my interest seem to be reasonable for now.