[Encuentros] (resend) The View from Suesca, Colombia from Clif Ross
jess at freedomvoices.org
Sat Jul 12 13:16:41 PDT 2008
I left with Tamara on a seven a.m. bus to Colombia, an hour later than
either of us had planned, but then neither of us had planned that neither
alarm we'd set to wake us would go off, a strange coincidence.
More importantly, neither of us were in a hurry to get to Colombia. I'm sure
Tamara would have preferred to have gotten her visa renewed some way other
than going to Cucuta and I was, simply, in no hurry.
The bus ride to San Cristobal was uneventful as was going through
the process of getting the exit visa. We considered taking a bus to the
border but I told Tamara that, given I was pulling a suitcase around, I'd
spring for a cab.
The driver was an old man who drove the 70s era U.S. made chevy
seemed to have an internal speed limit of twenty miles an hour but, given
the way he drove, I decided he would have been a danger to himself and
everyone else if he drove any faster. He waited for us as we stopped at DAS
and got our Colombian Visas and then we went on across the border.
The most notable thing about the border is the presence of gasoline
black marketeers who line the road with their huge plastic containers of the
pink liquid, selling the fuel bought in Venezuela for pennies for dozens, or
more, times the price in Colombia. As we slowly pass the vendors I reflect
on what Natalia had said a few days before, that one of the first things
this "revolution needs to do is raise the price of gas" which is still set
at somewhere around a quarter a gallon. Undoubtedly Natalia is right since a
quarter a gallon gas gives the wrong message to Venezuelans on the actual
value of this non-renewable resource.
We got out at the bus station where I ended up paying double the
cost of the cab ride because the driver had set the price in Colombian Pesos
rather than Venezuelan Bolivares so I paid him twenty thousand pesos ( about
twenty dollars) rather than twenty thousand bolivares (ten dollars) and
Tamara and I went off in search of a place to have lunch.
Returning to the bus station, which is one of the most crowded and
chaotic border terminals I've been in, and also one of the hottest, Tamara
and I were soon separated and I could only assume she got off safely to
Pamplona while I booked passage to Bogota on what I assumed to be a luxury
"buscama" bus bed.
It wasn't a bad bus, but it took the worst of the two routes to
Bogota, as I later found out. We rode all night through the mountains over a
winding road punctuated with large stretches of rough dirt or mud and
finally arrived at eight or so in the morning after a night of being shaken
awake every few minutes by bad road.
I'd gotten in touch prior to my trip with an acquaintance I'd met in
Merida a couple of years before and went directly to Martha's house where
she prepared a typical colombian breakfast of tamales and hot chocolate. I
got a much needed shower and we spent most of the morning talking about
Martha is a progressive who supports the only progressive party
organized as a party, the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA). "All the other
options are the options of a single person, so Uribe formed a party of his
own to run for office. People don't vote for a party anymore; they vote for
people. They're "Uribistas," for instance. I vote Polo Democratico
Alternativo because it's the only left option that is about building a party
not based on personality but on principles and ideology."
I pointed out to Martha that I'd had no problem since arriving in
Colombia and that Bogota, on first impression, was not only a beautiful
city, but also seemed very safe. She agreed.
"You won't see any of the violence or paramilitary activity until
you go into the countryside, particularly into the jungle. This has been the
result of a recent historical process."
She went on to talk about how the previous president, Pastrana, had
made attempts to open peace negotiations with some limited success. However,
when he organized negotiations with FARC and Marulanda, the rebel chief,
didn't arrive, the whole situation in the country changed.
"Up to that moment the whole country wanted peace to come through
negotiations. But then there was that photo that came out in the newspapers
of Pastrana sitting alone at the table next to an empty chair, waiting for
Marulanda, a frustrated expression on his face. That photo, which appeared
everywhere in the national press, is burned into the minds of most
Colombians and after that they decided that the guerrilla weren't serious
about peace so, after Pastrana bungled his way through a few years as
president, the people elected Uribe who ran on a platform of liquidating the
Martha is part of the minority in Colombia who still believe that
peace can only come through negotiations. Unfortunately Uribe's strong
military approach to killing them off is increasingly popular, and the
recent "rescue" of Ingrid Betancourt only made Uribe more of a hero for the
majority of Colombians and gave him greater backing for a military solution.
Two days into my time in Colombia I'm left feeling a strange mixture of
sadness and relief from what I hear. I'm relieved to find out that the
black and white picture of the country, as painted by left and right, isn't
accurate. My Venezuelan friends had told me to be careful about taking my
tshirts or books into Colombia but Martha, when I tell her that, frowns,
then chuckles. "No, thank god, we haven't come to that yet. You can wear
whatever tshirt you like and read whatever you like. No one will bother you
here." And she has gratefully accepted the gift of the Jose Marti t-shirt,
which she promises to wear. Still, the country seems to be on the edge of
some dramatic change, as if the recent return of Ingrid Betancourt and the
others signals some dramatic turn of fortune in the country. What saddens me
is that I don't share people's optimism nor does it seem true to me that
Colombia has, in the words of the U.S. state department, "made significant
progress in human rights." Uribe's doctrine of "democratic security," which
includes liquidating the guerrilla, is viewed by many, including my
friends, to be a repressive approach to government and one that virtually
guarantees that only a military approach to solving the country's problems
will be implemented by his government.
I'm reminded of this by my experiences of the first day as we
prepared to leave for Suesca and, in the process of leaving, visited a mall
where Martha said I could change money. Posted at the entrance and
throughout the large area were police in army uniforms. The police who
stopped me at the entrance to look in my bag didn't seem to notice my book
by leftist analyst Raul Zibechi and they didn't even seem to be looking for
anything at all as they merely glanced in my bag, lifted it slightly, then
waved me past. After living through fifty years of guerrilla war ranging
from extremely hot terror where the guerrilla seem to have the upper hand
with random bombings in the capital, to the current, almost invisible,
one-sided battle for extinction, everyone seems only to want the whole thing
to end -- with the liquidation of the guerrilla.
I asked Martha if she's bothered by the police presence everywhere.
She shook her head. "Look at them." Outside the cafe where we'd stopped to
have a coffee, were two young men who were playfully swatting each other.
"They're kids. Who could be afraid of them?"
I wasn't worried by them, either, but I was and am worried about the
fact that people like Martha and people who think like her are increasingly
marginalized under Uribe's government. Recently the supreme court of
Colombia ruled that Uribe can't run a third time and there was a resulting
massive outrage about this from people who believe Uribe should be able to
serve a third term. "It seems the people want a dictator," she said,
finishing her coffee. We looked out at the people in the shopping mall
which was now growing into an enormous crowd of people, and we were both
gloomy for a moment. But our mood changed as we went outside into the cool
afternoon and walked to the bus stop to catch a bus to Suesca.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Suesca and we decided to walk
to Maia's house down the dirt road illuminated by the light of a half moon
and a billion stars. The light of the moon was surprisingly brilliant, and
by this light. we managed to avoid the large mud puddles from the recent
Suesca is a town in a beautiful area of Colombia just an hour or so outside
of Bogota where Martha has a house and a number of friends. We have dinner
at one of her friend's houses and I talk with Flaco, a tall skinny man in
his sixties with wild curly brown hair and a salt and pepper beard. I ask
him if he's traveled much outside of Colombia and he says no, but he has
traveled all over Colombia. He talks about trips into the savannah and
jungles and I ask him if it's safe.
"Oh yes. No problem. You see the paramilitaries and they're in the
new jeeps, five or six to a jeep, and you can spot them by their short
haircuts. But they don't bother tourists or anyone, really. Unless they
think you may be a guerrilla." He smiles a knowing smile at me, or maybe
just a smile from the joint he just smoked. Marijuana is cheap and plentiful
and very popular here. And from what I see, it's better than ever as growers
have worked to develop strains similar to what the California growers have
developed. And the price is one hundred times cheaper. I'd joined Flaco and
our host outside while they smoked the joint but passed on smoking,
explaining that I'd quit twelve years ago, but I still enjoy the smell of
Flaco tells me that the guerrilla and paramilitaries have a tacit
agreement not to bother tourists or hikers and they even have some sort of
peace pact. "It's a big mix whereever they are. You'll find a camp of
paramilitaries and then a kilometer or two away, a camp of guerrillas. As
long as neither attacks or they don't cross paths, they just stay like
The host, Hernan, a blonde argentine with blue eyes, makes his
living as a hiking guide. He agrees that Colombia is basically safe for
tourists. "The guerrilla don't kidnap tourists."
It's the kidnapping that has upset most Colombians, including
Martha. She tells of families who have had to leave Colombia after having
members kidnapped, in one case, more than three separate kidnappings in one
family."That particular family was left penniless at the end. They were what
you might call petty bourgeoisie; they had a small store and a little money,
but they were left with nothing and had to flee Colombia. The insecurity was
terrible. That turned most people against the guerrilla and led them to
support Uribe's policy of extinction."
The next morning we decide to hike up into a valley just over the
ridge, following part of the Camino Real, supposedly built by the Spaniards
when they first conquered the country, but more likely much older than that.
I get my first views of the area as we leave Maia's house where
we're staying, and walk a few hundred yards up the dirt road to where Flaco
and his family live and have their shoe shop. The imposing wall of rock
which runs alongside the Rio Bogota is a big draw for rock climbers who
scale the cliffs covered with Spanish moss, known here as "old man's beard"
(barba de viejo).
Flaco's house is on what, to me, is a large piece of land that
begins at the road and ends over the horizon at the river. I ask him how
many hectares he has and he shakes his head as if to say that it doesn't
amount to a hectare. Then he describes the boundaries by the fence on one
side, a tree on the other, the road and the river.
Flaco and his wife and daughter of nearly two, Maia, Martha and her
daughter Daniela and I eventually leave and walk into the grey cloud of rain
coming toward us as I ponder the wisdom of our walk in this weather.
Fortunately my guides know the weather better than I, or at least
seem less concerned about getting wet, and the mist gives way to sun, the
even lighter mist, and it goes on like that as we walk up the road which
reminds me of the Roman road I used to walk when I lived in Switzerland and
which passed through old villages with rustic houses and ever-running
fountains. On this road, however, we pass through no other villages and see
no sign of anyone until we reach the valley itself and see the orange flags
dotting the landscape, indicating where houses will be built in the near
We head up into the valley and stop at a few large rocks which have
been spiked for climbing. All along the way Flaco has let his daughter walk
by herself and he's helped her climb up steep parts of the path and little
boulders on the way. At two she's already learning techniques which I'm
sure Flaco will be happy to see her put to use on Suesca's famous cliffs in
We stopped in a pine forest and saw our first "amanita muscaria,"
the powerful hallucinogenic mushroom fame to be poisonous if not properly
used. We saw more of the bright red fungus with little white spots and I
explained to Flaco how the mushroom has to be dried before it's consumed. He
says people around here just leave them alone, preferring to stick to "safe"
things like aguardiente, or cane liquor.
We have lunch of bread, brie cheese, tomatos and basil up at the top of the
meadow overlooking another distant valley where the sun is shining brightly.
Then I go off and explore, looking for more amanitas, which I find under
another group of pine trees. Flaco comes up and talks with me and takes a
look at the two large beauties I've found then we leave.
The women have all gone ahead of us so we mount a ridge and try to
see if we can spot them on the road below. Meanwhile, Flaco tells me about
life in Colombia.
We started off talking about the division between Santander and
Bolivar. In these two men one can see the origins of the political processes
of the two countries. I admit to having only a minimal knowledge of the
complexity of the relation between these two men, but I know that Santander,
Colombia's first president, is demonized in Venezuela for having broken with
Bolivar and separated the "Great Colombia" which was Bolivar's dream. I ask
Flaco about this history and he admits to knowing little about that himself.
But he agrees that Santander isn't respected the same way in Venezuela as he
is in Colombia. I argue Bolivar's side for Latin American unity and point
out that only by unity will Latin America be able to maintain independence
from the empire. Flaco agrees but says that nations also need to guarantee
their sovereignty and independence from each other. It seems to be a version
of the argument that took place in the U.S. in our civil war between
the "Union" and "States rights." Having lived in the south much of my life
I confess to an affinity for both views, but also recognize the debility of
both, but particularly the problem of "states rights" that grant slavery or
an alliance with imperial powers.
Eventually we start talking about Flaco's Colombia. As Flaco talks I
have a strong sense of recognition: he looks so much like an old friend Bob
Rivera that I almost can believe they are related. He lacks, however, the
pedantic manner and the gay affectation that characterized Bob, now long
dead. He also lacks Bob's fire, Flaco being a much calmer, meditative
"It was the U.S. demand for drugs that really wrecked this country,"Flaco
says as we walk up the meadow. "Everyone got in on the act: the guerrilla,
the government and the paramilitaries. People saw fortunes amassed over
night and wanted to get in on the action. They also wanted to get rich
quick." Flaco, I notice, punctuates his sentences with "si o no?" "yes or
no?" and I quickly realize he's not expecting me to respond, that it's just
a linguistic tic.
"But the majority of the campesinos got nothing from the drugs.
They're left out in the cold. Still, because of the drug money, the
guerrilla and paramilitaries can recruit members. Most Colombian kids have
no work. They're sitting at home with nothing to do and the paramilitaries
or the guerrilla come through and offer them seven hundred thousand pesos
(about $400) and a gun, which makes them feel powerful, and they go for it.
If they don't, the same paramilitaries or guerrilla come through and tell
the parents that they'll be coming back to "draft" their sons into their
army in a couple of weeks."
Flaco then tells a story about a friend of his who actually joined
the army, went off to fight and one night slept on top of a mine. When he
got up in the morning, the mine exploded and left him disabled and missing
one leg. He went into job training and got a small pension from the
government. He then went home to his town which, in the meantime, had become
all guerrilla. They took him back, even though he'd been in the guerrilla,
"because that's where he was from."
Flaco and I start walking back down the road as the rain starts up
again. I slip and fall a couple of times, once injuring my wrist which I
only notice that night as we sit around a fire. Maia has gone into Bogota,
leaving us her house after we have a delicious vegetarian meal which is the
result of a collaboration between Martha and me. After dinner we'd gone off
to watch Daniela climb a nearby cliff but had arrived too late. Martha and I
walked up the railroad tracks in the dark trying to find the way back and I
followed her through the woods and back to the house where we made coffee
and sat outside until I got too cold and we went inside to build a fire.
Flaco and Daniela arrive on Flaco's motorcycle and join us around the small
fire we've built.
We're silent for a long time, gazing into what one of Martha's
friend's calls "the poor man's television" and moving closer to the "screen"
for warmth. Inevitably, the conversation turns to politics. That's when I
find that Flaco, who has admitted to some sympathies for Chavez and also,
under pressure from Martha, finally confesses to an early sympathy to the
guerrilla, especially the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the long since
abandoned M19, finally admits to having voted for Uribe. Martha is incensed
and they argue over the efficacy and morality of Uribe's policy of
extermination of the guerrilla. Flaco openly admits that that policy was
exactly why he voted for Uribe in the first place.
"The FARC aren't like the M19 or ELN. They have no ideas. They're a gang and
they only want to take power by force of arms. They've shown they aren't
interested in negotiations. What alternative is there?"
Martha still insists on peace talks, and the argument continues,
with Daniela coming in to join her mother in the discussion. When I come
into the conversation to say that what disturbs me is the prospect of the
complete destruction of the guerrilla and the hegemony of Uribe, the U.S.
and the paramilitaries, everyone turns on me and I have to clarify that I
don't support the FARC. That's when I realize just how marginalized the
guerrilla in Colombia actually is. And when Flaco leaves at midnight and
shakes my hand goodbye, that's when I realize just how sore my wrist is.
That's how life works: you worry about wars, thefts, drug dealing
killers and shadowy guerrillas and you end up injuring yourself on a stroll
with friends. Or at least, if my new friends can be trusted, that's how life
happens in Colombia.
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