Colombia’s Magical Realism

Mágico realismo

Consider the parapolítica scandal: the state’s participation in the terrorism and assassinations that rightist paramilitaries have inflicted on Colombia.

Ambassadors, congress representatives, senators, state governors — more than 50 national and local elected representatives who participated in state paramilitarism are under investigation, have been arrested or jailed, or are wanted fugitives in México and the United States.

Colombia’s elite Santos clan — owners of the country’s most influential newspaper, El Tiempo, whose former editor is now the Vice President, and whose cousin is the Defense Minister — are implicated in assisting to organize the first paramilitaries in the Nineties.

The Foreign Minister resigned as her brother Senator was jailed, and an arrest warrant was issued for her former Senator father — who is now a fugitive on the run — wanted for collaborating with paramilitaries.

Accusations that the information director in the president’s intelligence service — Colombia’s CIA — compiled hit lists targeting union organizers and opposition activists to pass onto the paramilitaries to assassinate.

Illegal surveillance operations against opposition politicians and journalists investigating the parapolítica scandal, resulting in several senior police officers being fired, including the chief of police intelligence — Colombia’s FBI — and the national police chief.

The president’s supporters in Congress, whose election the paramilitaries claim to have bought or ensured through intimidation, threats and terror, proposing a ‘presidential coup’ — closing Congress to avoid the opposition taking control as more Uribista delegates are jailed — a proposal the Interior and Justice Minister thought ‘interesting.’

One might think that Colombia is in crisis; the president must be isolated in his palace writing his resignation and waiting to be arrested for acquiescing in the state’s paramilitarization.

But according to the latest opinion polls, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez has an unprecedented 85% approval rating.

Articles in Colombian newspapers are often unsigned, so as to avoid a fate common to Iraqi journalists under American occupation; contentious opinions are often met with threats, assassination attempts and forced exile, but several newspaper columnists in Bogotá have courageously raised questions about the president’s apparent stratospheric popularity.

Referring to Colombians forcibly displaced as a paramilitary war tactic, and to a poor barrio in Bogotá, one writer asks, ‘how many desterrados or workers in Ciudad Bolívar are interviewed in these opinion polls?’

The opinion pollsters state that their interviews take place by phone, and just in the largest cities. One pollster admitted that Colombia’s highest, or wealthiest strata, constituted almost 20% of respondents, even though nowhere near 20% of Colombians are in this elite — even in Spain the highest class is considered to constitute just 15% of the population.

The fact that one hour interviews with respondents were conducted by phone raised further concerns; just 54% of Colombians have access to a private phone, and one can only speculate as to how many workers have an hour’s free time to answer questions. As another writer pointed out, domestic workers cleaning expensive apartments in strata 6 zones — the wealthiest areas — wouldn’t have the time, but the rich whose time is freed thanks to the labour of these workers, would.

In Colombia, where those in absolute poverty are 50% of the entire country, some incredulous journalists refused to accept that the opinion polls accurately reflected Colombian opinion. Those that investigated a little deeper discovered that one influential opinion poll director was an unapologetic Uribista, who expressed his contempt for the poor by claiming the unemployment figures merely measured ‘those who are not interested in work.’

But other unsigned articles seem to be designed to attempt to close down debate; the business magazine Cambio claims that the president has a ‘blank cheque’ from 85% of Colombians to do whatever he wants, while the political elite’s magazine, Semana, without the slightest reflection or doubt, confidently states that ‘Colombians believe Uribe is one of the greatest presidents.’

It is not clear who the writers at Semana have been talking to, but it is clear on whose behalf the magazine makes this claim — Colombia’s richest man, Julio Santo Domingo, recently made the same claim and also hoped that the Constitution could be changed again to allow Uribe to be re-elected to a third term.

It is also certain that there are some Colombians whose opinions this elite believes are not worth consideration.

On the Pacific coast live the most desperate and poorest citizens in Colombia, descendants of Caribbean slaves brought to this tropical rainforest in 1728 to mine gold for the Spanish empire. After the Colombian Republic ended the slave trade in 1851, American precious metal companies moved in to expropriate the land and still, American fruit companies continue to exploit Pacific coast workers on banana, sugarcane and palm oil plantations.

In the largest Pacific coastal state, Chocó, this relentless exploitation has resulted in an incredible 85% poverty rate. At least 50 children have died due to malnutrition so far in 2007, and state disinterest, according to the leftist opposition Polo Democrático, has left health, education and nutrition in a critical and precarious position.

‘Chocó’s cacaos’ — the corrupt bosses in the state — have participated in the paramilitaries cocaine wars, the Polo states, deliberately displacing peasant workers that resist their communities’ militarization. The displaced have created desperate shanty towns on the Pacific coast where, in scenes reminiscent of the poverty and inequality in Haití, many Colombians are now forced to scrape a living on less than 2 dollars a week.

Colombia’s most prestigious sociologist, Alfredo Molano, writes, ‘Chocó is a colonial state,’ paramilitaries, politicians and corporations, ‘have left children displaced, malnourished and dead…’ Black Colombians ‘have been exploited by the white elite and their racist, thieving economic liberalism,’ and this elite has been protected by Uribe’s Democratic Security policies that militarise the shanty towns and criminalise dissent.

But in Colombia’s magical realism state, editorial writers in Bogotá are convinced that ‘Colombia’s greatest president,’ and his ‘undisputed’ 85% approval rating, reflect reality. There is no desperate hunger in Colombia, there are no desterrados — the paramilitaries are not resurgent and union workers are not assassinated.
¿Parapolítica? ¿Qué es eso?’ declares Semana. ‘The president continues rising in the polls,’ headlines El Tiempo. It is as though the deeper the crisis becomes, the more Colombia’s elite retreats into their own reality, a magical Colombia that will forever believe in the president’s 2006 election campaign slogan, Con Uribe, más que nunca — ‘with Uribe, more than ever.’


¿Parapolítica? ¿Qué es eso? Report in Semana, Bogotá, 12 March 2007.

…Ni qué niño muerto, Alfredo Molano, El Espectador, Bogotá, 31 March 2007.

Death squad scandal circles closer to Colombia’s president, Simon Romero and Jenny Carolina González, New York Times, 15 May 2007.

Chocó: la crisis, las intervenciones, las mentiras de gubernamentales, Polo Democrático Alternativo de Chocó statement, Quibdo, 18 April 2007.

Cuestionario para el encuestador, Daniel Coronell, Semana, 12 March 2007.

Desterrados: crónicas del desarraigo, Alfredo Molano, El Áncora, Colombia, 2001.

El largo brazo del narcoparamilitarismo colombiano, Hernando Calvo Ospina, Telesur report, Caracas, 9 May 2007.

Días de tempestad, headline report in El Espectador, Bogotá, 20 May 2007.

Presidente Uribe sigue arriba en encuesta, article in El Tiempo, Bogotá, 8 March 2007.

Cocaine wars, photographer: Scott Dalton, New York Times, 2007.

The best laid plans of presidents and war criminals: The unintended outcome of Colombia’s demobilizacion process, Garry Leech, Colombia Journal, 17 May 2007.

¡Ave María! Cover report in Cambio, Bogotá, 20 May 2007.

Chocó – ¿el pasado o el futuro? Aurelio Suárez Montoya, Centro de Medios Independientes, Quibdo, 9 April 2007.

Entremeses, Alfredo Molano, El Espectador, Bogotá, 20 May 2007.

La favorabilidad del presidente, O L González, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 12 March 2007.

Los niños del Chocó, Libardo Muñoz, Centro de Medios Independientes, Bogotá, 30 March 2007.

Más que complicado, Alfredo Molano, El Espectador, Bogotá, 7 April 2007.

¿Uribe III? Report in Semana, Bogotá, 29 de enero de 2007.

Los errors de Gallup, Daniel Coronell, Semana, Bogotá, 26 March 2007.

Barbacoa children and streets, photographer: Kris Lane, William and Mary College, United States, 1995.

Paramilitary ties to elite in Colombia are detailed, Juan Forero, Washington Post, 22 May 2007.

¿Una encuesta embuchada? María Isabel Rueda, Semana, Bogotá, 19 March 2007.

Al Chocó lo esta matando la rosca, Néstor López, Quibdo report in El Tiempo, Bogotá, 1 April 2007.

La confianza en las encuestas, O L González, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 2 April 2007.

Momentos amargos, article in El Espectador, Bogotá, 20 May 2007.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mark said on June 4th, 2007 at 2:04pm #

    Unfortunately, your article leaves out FARC when talking about the plight of the poor. All your accusations of abject poverty are true, only in the light of Colombia being a country held hostage by a terrorist organization, that being FARC.

    Movement of people, investment, etc. has been stifled because of the dangerous environment created by this organization. Thus, Colombia is a great country held in a death grip. Perhaps, there wouldn’t be so much poverty if investors and businesses were not afraid due to FARC.

    Alvaro Uribe is nothing more than a man. Yet, he is a man of vision. No other president has advanced that country and helped it than he. Transmilenio demonstrates the investment and progress that can be accomplished.

    Fortunately, the people are wise, unlike many foreigners, to FARC’s little song and dance of being Marxist/communist. When in fact, they have become nothing more than drug dealers and terrorists.

    As for the Marxist route, it is with great hope that Colombia does not fall for the tired song of failure the world over. Time after time, socialism/Marxism/communism has demonstrated its failure, such as Venezuela that is collapsing into dictatorship, and yet, many still follow this sad religion down the path to greater suffering and exploitation.

    Yes, corruption exists, but it exists everywhere. For now though, perhaps a good beginning, such as Uribe is providing, is just what this country needs.


    p.s. I lived in Colombia for many years and am aware of the issues.

  2. Paul said on June 7th, 2007 at 7:24am #

    Tha article was actually about President Uribe and how the Colombian media fall over themselves in their attempts at denial.

    Any one of the scandals I referred to would be headline news for weeks in the United States, but in Colombia they are barely mentioned and hardly investigated.

    Unfortunately, courageous journalists do not have much opportunity to pursue their work, not just because of the death threats and being forced into exile, but also because there is not much ‘editorial pluralism’ in Colombia.

    There is one (one!) daily national newspaper, and that is owned by the same Santos clan from which come the vice president and the Minister for Defense. (As compared to Venezuela, which has ten daily newspapers, only one of which, Últimas Noticias, supports President Chávez).

    You are right that the Farc have lost any ideological justification – the continued holding of hostages is an inexcusable war crime – but it was the lack of social assistence and investment that allowed the guerrillas to attract campesino support from impoverished areas, and the displacement, as a paramilitary war tactic to seize valuable land, of peasant workers that continues to push desperate people into the arms of the Farc.

    I think you overestimate the influence of the Farc on foreign investors in Colombia, though. The Colombian economy grew at its fastest rate for thirty years last year, and labour laws ensure that workers can be fired at will and paid barely a living wage, while business has no need to be concerned about paying high taxes or even health benefits for their workers.

    These considerations are far more important to business, and as shown by the US companies financing paramilitary death squads, any problems with union organising can be, literally, eliminated.

    I am not sure why you felt the need to refer to Marxism or Venezuela in response to the article, but political opinions in Colombia tend to be highly polarized, and your comments reflect the response of many Uribistas who immediately assume that opposition to the President equals Bolívarianism or Communism.

    Actually, there is an emerging social democratic political opposition to the traditional conservative parties in Colombia – the Polo Democrático Alternativo, and should their concentration on social justice issues – improving health, education and labour conditions – attract more support, then that might attract people away from the extremism of the guerrillas and be good news even for the right in Colombia.