Politics on the Panamericana

In December 2008 Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa paid a visit to his counterpart in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The two leaders pledged to intensify bilateral relations through initiatives such as the export of assorted Iranian technological know-how to Ecuador and the export of Ecuadorian bananas to Iran. In an article appearing on 8 December on the website of Ecuador’s daily Los Andes, Correa was reported as denying that the acuerdos signed with Iran were merely “para la foto,” lest anyone doubt bilateral commitment to bananas. The article additionally reported the name of the Iranian President as Ahmadi Nejad; I acquired other interpretations of the international landscape while hitchhiking from Quito to Venezuela with my friend Amelia at the end of January:

ENRIQUE (septuagenarian who picked us up on side of road in province of Esmeraldas
in northwest Ecuador
): Baghdad is the capital of Iran.

Enrique was a retired bakery owner en route to the Ecuadorian coast, where he and his considerably younger wife Gina were hoping to invest Enrique’s savings in beachfront property in case the dollar proved unsustainable and the sucre was suddenly reinstalled as Ecuador’s national currency. Amelia and I offered alternate suggestions for the capital city of Iran and suggested that the installment of the Iranian rial, instead, might grant the Ecuadorian economy a greater degree of insulation in the event of subsequent global financial crises.

US Secretaries of State had also exhibited a tendency to view members of the Axis of Evil interchangeably, and Madeleine Albright’s assertion that sanctions against Iraq were worth half a million dead children was followed up by Hillary Clinton’s recommendation that Iranians consider the possibility of total obliteration. For his part, Enrique dismissed the strengthening of ties between Ecuador and Iran on the grounds that both nations produced fruit and oil and that redundant commercial relations were not worth the wrath of the US; he then addressed other instances of geographical confusion outside of Iran and Iraq, such as why Amelia and I were in the province of Esmeraldas if we were trying to get to Venezuela.

We explained that we intended to travel northeast along the Colombian coast. Enrique asked why we had failed to consult a roadmap, and informed us that the only way to cross from Esmeraldas to Colombia without dealing with guerrillas was on a boat that departed once a week. This revelation complicated our current schedule, according to which we were supposed to reach Venezuela with enough time to insert ourselves into the national health care system prior to the referendum scheduled for 15 February.

Amelia and I had based our medical endeavors on Hugo Chávez’ past offers of free eye surgery to millions of citizens of the western hemisphere, the parameters of which we were hoping could be expanded to include dental work. Direct benefits of such expansion for Chávez, we felt, would consist of heightened convictions among sectors of the international community that there was nothing inherently harmful about leaving him in power for the next several decades, one possible outcome of the February referendum. Enrique foresaw eager replications on the part of Correa of free dental programs for foreign nationals — lack of adequate Ecuadorian resources notwithstanding — and proposed reappointing the evicted Venezuelan ambassador to Israel as head of Ecuador’s new embassy in Iran in order to save on airfare. Gina meanwhile limited herself to flapping her hand in front of her husband’s face every few minutes in order to indicate that he was about to plunge over a speed bump, pothole, or chicken.

After passing the Esmeraldas oil refinery, which Enrique claimed was a likely benefactor of increased Iranian influence in the country, we stopped for seaside piña coladas at the request of Gina, who downed hers immediately and proceeded to recount for us her marriage at age 14 to a British CIA agent 30 years her senior. She appeared to have alternated between the agent and Enrique until the agent’s recent death; Enrique condemned endorsements of the Monroe Doctrine by British individuals and briefly declared patriotic support for Correa’s squandering of public funds on hospitals and roads.

Support diminished when we got back in the vehicle and resumed damaging its underside. As for Amelia’s and my Venezuelan intentions, Enrique and Gina invited us to stay at their hotel on the coast for a night before hitchhiking back east to Quito, where the Pan-American Highway would then lead us north to more navigable sections of the Colombian border. By the time we reached the hotel, the Panamericana had come to constitute a glorious Bolivarian vision linking the nations of the former Gran Colombia with no interference from unmarked mounds of asphalt. (Other potential obstacles to Bolivarianism were ignored for the moment, such as that:

1. the Panamericana was in fact a system of roads linking Argentina to Alaska.

2. the Panamanian portion of the Panamericana was separated from the rest of Gran Colombia by forests and swamps.)

Following a destructive ride to dinner that evening, Amelia and I raised the possibility of Iranian improvement projects on provincial roads. Iran’s expertise in such fields had already infiltrated the borders of other nations in which the US dollar was an encouraged unit in daily transactions; additional similarities between Ecuador and Lebanon included unique interpretations of laws of centrifugal motion on the part of motorists, although reversing down the highway appeared to be less of an institution in Ecuador.

One likely outcome of Iranian contributions to Ecuadorian roadways was the erection of roadside emblems of the Islamic Revolution, replacing current signs featuring the Energizer bunny and entreating drivers to have faith in God but to drive carefully. The substitution of symbols would in turn legitimize the inclusion of the roads in lists of wartime casualties, thereby necessitating additional improvement projects by other concerned nations, as had happened during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Following the war, the US had declared its intention to restore the Mdairej Bridge, the infrastructural culpability of which presumably stemmed from the fact that it helped link Beirut to Damascus; the only difference between American and Iranian postwar contributions to Lebanese roads was that Iran had not provided the weapons to destroy them in the first place.

Enrique explained that Ecuadorian infrastructure was already in danger, as Correa had advocated arms purchases from Iran in order to guard against Colombian convictions that one’s territorial sovereignty did not end at one’s borders. Along with infrastructure, other likely casualties of Correa’s recent policies included Ecuador’s foreign debt—which he had defaulted on in December—and the US air base in Manta, the lease for which was set to expire in 2009.

As for other Iranian military apprentices aside from Correa, Enrique reprimanded Hamas for the “lluvia de cohetes” (rain of rockets) that had prompted Israel’s own convictions on the nature of territorial sovereignty; he then backed down under pressure, illustrating the susceptibility of Latin America to pernicious outside influence:

ENRIQUE: There was a lluvia de cohetes.
US: There was not a lluvia de cohetes.
ENRIQUE: Yes, you’re right.
GINA (downing further piña coladas): Enrique is like my father.

Enrique was subsequently demoted to grandfather and then to devil, which was the same label Hugo Chávez had previously applied to George W. Bush. In a show of regional continuity, Correa had then proclaimed the label offensive to the devil; additional continuity was exhibited in the Ecuadorian referendum of 2008, which resulted in the passage of a new constitution potentially permitting Correa’s reelection to two more consecutive terms. (Correa had thus far refrained, however, from establishing a unique time zone for Ecuador, according to which Ecuadorian clocks would strike the half hour when the rest of the world’s clocks — minus those in Venezuela and a smattering of other locales such as Iran — struck the hour.)

Three days later Amelia and I found ourselves on the Panamericana in the southern Colombian department of Cauca, where a Colombian truck driver analyzed Álvaro Uribe’s compatibility with regional continuity and added that at least neighboring political leaders held referenda to assure their immortality. As for competing geostrategic interests in South America, the truck driver expressed the imperial tendencies of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in terms of the number of people from his village who had lost fingers, tongues, and other appendages to paramilitaries.

The Pan-American vision Amelia and I had concocted had already begun to fade prior to this point, due to certain realities such as that:

1. the Panamericana often appeared to be a euphemism for cliffs, falling rocks, and Colombians posing with shovels in one hand and receptacles for donations in the other—part of an ongoing road improvement charade.

2. the Ecuadorian Energizer bunny was superceded in Colombia by ubiquitous black four-pointed stars outlined in gold that were painted on the road to commemorate victims of traffic accidents. (Amelia and I quickly adopted billboard slogans in favor of star reduction, such as “No más estrellas en la vía.”)

3. standing on the side of the road in Colombia with one’s thumb extended was an ineffective means of travel, thanks to the seemingly pervasive assumption that female hitchhikers were accomplices in plots to deprive motorists of their savings and/or physical wellbeing.

Amelia and I had arrived to Colombia via the Tulcán-Ipiales crossing, where the goal of a Latin America without borders appeared to still be within reach given that it was entirely possible to cross from Tulcán to Ipiales without being asked a single question aside from “Qué es eso?” — in reference to the cups of yerba mate we were holding. During the several hours that then elapsed between the time we stuck out our thumbs and the time we got a ride, we were thus able to contemplate not only why the FARC was not keeping tabs on foreigners standing alone on the side of the road but also why US financing of the war on drugs had merely produced curiosity in the national beverage of Argentina.

In order to combat Colombian resistance to hitchhiking, Amelia and I eventually devised new tactics such as drawing Spanish-language stop signs on notebook paper in red marker and stationing ourselves in the middle of the street. When vehicles continued to careen by undeterred, we began approaching checkpoints belonging to the Ejército Nacional de Colombia, where — provided there were people on duty and not life-size cardboard cutouts of people on duty — we recruited mercenaries for our hitchhiking cause. The Ejército enjoyed a higher rate of success than we had at stopping vehicles, underlining the fundamental link between possession of arms and prospects for social change in Colombia, and Amelia and I were inserted onto a succession of trucks, eventually making it to the city of Cali.

In Cali we were picked up by a father-son team en route to Bogotá in two separate trucks marked TÓXICO. The truckers described their toxic cargo as products for farmers; they did not specify whether the products were meant for use by farmers on their own crops or for use on farmers and crops alike by government airplanes.

During a stop at one of the various roadside establishments bearing the name Restaurante Panamericano, Amelia’s and my geographical sensibilities were once again called into question when the truckers asked why we were going through Bogotá to reach Venezuela. The confusion, which this time stemmed from the fact that our map of Colombia featured rivers and not roads, was rectified by transferring Amelia and me to a different road leading to the city of Cúcuta on the Venezuelan border. The transfer took place at an Ejército checkpoint after the city of Ibagué in the department of Tolima, where the Ejército confirmed that the Pan-American Highway did not begin and end in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and loaded us into a truck with a driver named John. John was transporting feminine hygiene products to a city near Cúcuta, accompanied by very loud salsa music.

Our trajectory was promptly interrupted when a two-truck collision resulted in the closure of the road for 4.5 hours. John amused himself with even louder salsa music, interspersed with shouted lectures on how the distribution of the Ejército across Colombian thoroughfares brought far greater seguridad to the nation’s poor than the distribution of Venezuelan wealth brought to poor Venezuelans. Amelia and I, in turn, tried to interest John in possible Iranian contributions to the campaign against estrellas en la vía.

John rejected Iran’s ability to reduce fatality rates and suggested that Iranian road works would consist of replacing the estrellas with Hezbollah martyr posters, which he speculated might already line the streets of Caracas. Once the accident had been cleared, we continued in the direction of Venezuela, where the upcoming referendum will help determine future intersections of the Panamericana and the Pax Americana.

Belén Fernández is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opalińska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at: belengarciabernal@gmail.com. Read other articles by Belén, or visit Belén's website.