Colombia: The Next Phase of Exploitation, Or Is It Development?

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CARTAGENA–One of the reasons I wanted to come to Cartagena is that I have never been to the continent of South America. I’ve been to the other five inhabited continents, but not this one. So on my personal bucket list, getting to all six inhabited continents accomplishes a life dream. Antarctica can wait until my next lifetime. (And it’s the fifth continent that Rita and I have visited together. She’s missing Australia.)

Getting here is easy, which is one of the reasons we picked it. It is just a four and a half hour direct flight from JFK. It is in the same time zone so you don’t even have to reset your watches. We flew around Cuba to get here, so we are south of Havana, and about 100 miles from the Venezuelan border. Cuban cigars are for sale in the streets and cigar stores, and Cuban big brass bands are a hot ticket in town. The Colombian government is negotiating with its FARC opposition guerrillas in Havana. Cuba’s hand is visible next door in Venezuela where it is helping the pathetic Chavez replacement stay in power. You can see how the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba is going to have big implications in this part of the world.

We spent a few nights at a Hilton in Boco Grande, which is a Miami Beach-equivalent on a peninsula just south of the old Spanish-built city and fort. But we moved because we fell in love with El Centro, the nicest district inside the old walled city. It is a real gem of very old Spanish style gated-courtyard buildings, many of which have been lovingly restored. The bright orange and blue and red colors, along with abundant tropical plant life, were a feast for the eyes. The heat of about 90 degrees each day is a welcomed relief from New York’s nasty winter. (We are quite close to the equator.) Flowers are everywhere, including the brilliant orange Birds of Paradise plants, that are so rare in the States.

A handful of buildings are in bad condition but overall El Centro is more elegant and far nicer than Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, which has been devastated economically, at least as seen on our last trip there. We had some excellent European/Asian fusion type meals at Marea, Carmen’s and Don Juan restaurants, and stayed at a great boutique hotel called Ananda. There is a real sense of style and sophistication here, in contrast with the sprawling communities of huts that could be seen on the approach to the airport. It’s like a tiny slice of southern Europe. Many of the buildings are owned by Europeans and high-end shops like Ferragamo’s are here. This place is a playground for very wealthy people. But overall, Colombia has some of the world’s worst income inequality, according to the CIA World Factbook.

We are surprised by the depth of the language barrier. Very few Colombians, even at hotels or in restaurants, speak more than a handful of English words. Fortunately, Rita and I have taxicab Spanish and can bridge the communications gap. But foreigners with no affinity for the Spanish language might find it difficult here. It’s a deeper linguistic gap than we’ve experienced in Holland or Italy or Portugal. There are no English-language newspapers and just one or two English-language cable TV stations showing the usual late night rubbish. It is also a profoundly Catholic nation and the macho role that men play irritates Rita.

As usual, I find several layers of exploitation/civilization wherever I go and there’s a story with each one. I’m always fascinated with how wealth is generated and by whom. I knew that Cartagena was the key strategic port that the Spanish used to ship a lot of gold back from the New World to Spain, via San Juan. The port of Cartagena is a natural defensive position, as is the port at San Juan. They loaded up the galleons with gold in Cartagena and sent them to San Juan in convoys in an attempt to protect them from English and Dutch pirates including “Sir” Frances Drake, who sacked Cartagena in 1586.

What I had never realized is where the gold originally came from. For answers, we went to the Museo d’Or, which is affiliated with a much larger Gold Museum in Bogota, arguably the finest museum in South America. It turns out that several different tribes had migrated over the Bering ice bridge thousands of years ago and moved south throughout the Americas. In Columbia, the Zenas dominated the territory. Short people originally from Mongolia, according to our tour guide, they knew how to build canals and berms to control seasonal flooding and allow for the irrigation of crops. A matriarchal society, they had elaborate art, music and social rituals. And they knew how to pan the rivers flowing down from the mountains for gold. Beginning about 200 B.C., they started mining the gold and transforming it into jewelry. When their old folks died, they buried them with their gold jewelry. That went on for 1,000 or 1,200 years. To the north in Mexico were the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayans. To the south were the Incas. I knew those famous tribes had existed, but I didn’t realize that there were many other sophisticated tribes. There was also a pattern of trade among the tribes, also something I never knew.

The Zena civilization began to decline, for reasons that still are unexplained, and the Spanish arrived soon thereafter, in 1533. The Spaniards were little more than grave robbers, the basest form of parasites. They found all the old burial sites and plundered them. They killed a lot of the indigenous men but took the women as wives of convenience. Then they brought in slaves from Africa to do the hard work of building the walls that surround Cartagena and the castle of San Felipe that protected the town. It’s because of the wholesale importation of African slaves that I am surprised by how African many people in Colombia appear. I would have thought it was a more Caucasian society, but only 20 percent of the population is considered white, according to the CIA. Everybody else is African, Indian or some blend thereof. Colombia and Brazil are the two countries of South Africa with the largest African populations. Others such as Chile and Argentina have different ethnicities, pitting the mixed race Latinos against lower class indigenous people, but they do not have significant African populations, or so a pair of Brazilian travelers told us.

We toured the castle of San Felipe, which is the strongest castle the Spanish ever built in the New World. I’ve seen Spanish castles at St. Augustine in Florida and in San Juan, but this one is on a much grander scale. And its builders used some devilishly tricky ways to confuse and kill attackers. The system of tunnels that is built deep into the rock under the castle were intended to lure attackers in, presumably in search of treasure. But the tunnels keep getting smaller, which was intended to work against the larger English and Dutch soldiers and pirates. Spanish soldiers were smaller and could be more deadly in confined spaces. As the tunnels go deeper into the earth, there are attack stations that have been designed in such a way that the attacker cannot see into the pitch black, but the defenders can surge out with bayonets and gore them. Our guide led us about 150 meters down into the system of tunnels and said, Wait here. We stood in silence and complete darkness. He went about 50 yards higher and whispered to us. We could hear him clear as a bell. The acoustics of the tunnels allowed the defenders to communicate with each other and to anticipate the movement of any attackers.

We are surprised by the enormous size of the country. It is the size of Texas and California combined and has 46 million people, meaning it is sparsely populated. (California has 38 million and Texas 26 million for a total of 64 million vs. Colombia’s 46 million.) We are on the very northern Caribbean shore and we hear that it is a 12-hour drive to Bogota, the capital, and another 12- or 14-hour drive to the area where coffee is grown. Most elite Colombians simply fly from here to Bogota or Medellin or Cali. Aside from FARC, there are other paramilitary groups controlling territory. The country’s economy would obviously be in much better shape if they can bring about greater stability.

Although we never felt in the slightest physical danger, the drug business also casts a negative cloud over the economy. Cartagena is the safest city in Colombia, according to the guidebook, because it has 2,000 policemen and countless other private security guards. But I can feel the subtle effects of the drug wars as I try to get my hands on (cheap) Colombian pesos. The Hilton Hotel does not trade pesos for dollars, the only hotel in the world that I can recall that refused to change money, and I can only speculate that it is because of counterfeiting. When I find an exchange shop on the street, the guy is behind a glass window and I have to be fingerprinted. The guy performs a number of tests to make sure my $50 bills are not counterfeit. Although Colombia is a relatively “wired” nation and lots of people have cell phones, it seems that tapping websites in the United States is tricky. American Express wouldn’t let me into its site to check my account because they are suspicious about anything Colombian. Yahoo sent me an email, warning me that someone in Colombia was trying to access my account (it was me.) In short, the drug business seems to create an atmosphere that holds back the entire economy.

The president, Juan Manuel Santos, is a young relatively progressive guy and he is trying to encourage more college education and more English-speaking. We all know that higher education levels translate into greater wealth-generation capabilities, but the language issue is less well-understood. My personal theory is that linguistic sophistication translates into economic gains for a country. Think about countries that move ahead in the world. The Europeans speak many languages and so relatively small nations such as Holland, Finland and Sweden can play outsized roles in the world economy. The Koreans, Singaporeans, Chinese and other East Asians have emphasized the study of English and it has helped them create huge wealth. (The Japanese seem to have gone into a kind of linguistic isolation, but have just enough English that they are still a powerful economy in the world.) But the Colombians are way behind in global race to master English and therefore navigate their way through the global economy.

After the Colombians kicked the Spanish out, there have been other levels of dominance.  The major American multinationals are here, of course. We stayed at a Hilton Hotel, and they had a convention for Kimberly Clark, which must be active in the region. Coca-Cola products were everywhere. Visa, MasterCard and American Express were very visible. Ford Motor and Chevrolet have a relative handful of cars on the roads. So the American masters have left their layer of civilization.

But the big action recently seems to be coming from East Asia. Every telephone I saw was a Samsung. Every display screen at the airport was a Samsung. Every air conditioner I saw was a Lucky Goldstar. I saw a lot of Lenovo computers on desktops at hotels and other places. Elevators were made by Mitsubishi. The automotive fleet had samplings from all over the world, but the Koreans clearly owned the market. Hyundai and its Kia brand were everywhere, including a lockhold on the city’s taxi fleet. I didn’t see much other evidence of a Chinese presence, other than the Lenovo computers. But I know that the Chinese are buying a lot of raw materials from Colombia. They must be physically present on the Pacific Coast where they can ship directly to the mainland. The Chinese are now a big force in South America. They are literally propping up the bankrupt Venezuelan regime, for example.

So by turning to the East Asians, will Colombia be able to make it to the next level of economic development or will they have merely exchanged one set of conquerors for another? My sense is that the world is sharply divided between those who know how to manufacture and innovate technologically vs. those who don’t. If the Colombians can’t do that, they are in the same spot as the Portugese or the Puerto Ricans, where we have visited in recent years. The Colombians have art and handicrafts, they make fine clothing, they mine raw materials, they export coffee and flowers, and they have some tourism. But they don’t seem to manufacture anything very sophisticated. If President Santos wants to help his country climb the rungs of the global economic ladder, it’s obvious that he needs to make continued progress in defusing the FARC conflict and in reining in the cocaine trade. But he also has to change mentalities and cultures to get his country focused on competing globally. And that could prove to be much more difficult work.








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