Suggested Stops for Obama’s Next Trip to Colombia

by: Kara Crawford

Obama landed in Cartagena, Colombia last Friday for the Summit of the Americas, accompanied by a delegation of about 700 people. This sixth Summit of the Americas, bringing together 32 leaders from across North, Central, and South America (without Cuba’s Raul Castro, barred from attendance, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, not attending in protest) is themed “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.”

According to one news source, “The summit theme particularly suits growing ties between Colombia and the U.S., Obama told Latin American press Friday morning. He will be the first U.S. President to stay overnight in Colombia — a sign of Colombia’s improved security.” [1] Other such problematic language around Colombia’s “miraculous” improvement  has accompanied the reports on the Summit, and the Summit’s location seems to have brought even more attention to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Colombia is considered particularly key in U.S. relations with Latin America because of its prime location, connecting Central and South America. Over the years, its relationship with the US has fluctuated, tracing back to the construction of the Panama canal and accompanying separation of Panama from Colombia, and in more recent years manifesting primarily in questions around drug trafficking and production.

Colombia’s history of violence and reputation for instability is inevitably why no US president before Obama has stayed overnight in the country, but the idea that Colombia is making an unbelievable recovery is an ideological farce of the biggest kind and overlooks those who have been seriously harmed over the years by the country’s economic development.

There are plenty of layers to the reports that could be picked apart.  Since Obama is the first US president to have an overnight stay in Colombia, I’d like to propose to him an alternative itinerary for another trip; this would be to the capital city of Bogota, a city which presents clearly the economic problems facing the country – one that I hope might help him understand both the historical and present effects of US foreign policy on Colombia, to show him the other face of Colombian development.

My church

The first stop on our itinerary would be my church. In this case, though, it is not really to take him to church, but rather for another purpose entirely. My church is located in one of Bogota’s poorer neighborhoods, namely one formed by people who were displaced from their lands during a period beginning fifty-plus years ago generally referred to as la violencia – the violence. This was a period of civil war in Colombia which still continues today in certain parts of the country.

When they arrived to Bogota the inhabitants of these families did not have running water, power, or much of anything with which to construct a neighborhood,  but over time has become a functional neighborhood and has really progressed over the 50 years since its foundation. 

Now it is facing gentrifying pressures from both rich investors who want the prime real estate it sits upon on the mountainside and the Colombian state, who are putting restrictions on where their houses can be located, but not on the rich investors. I would walk him down the street where the expensive highrises are separated by a wall, demonstrating the exclusion and discrimination accompanying these gentrifying forces. In spite of it all, though, the neighborhood, supported by my church, is fighting against that. It is a beautiful example of resilience in the face of difficult circumstances.

Galerias

I would next take him to a commercial sector of Bogota called Galerias. I would show him the effects of globalization in the country, pointing to that the largest stores in the area are foreign-owned. There is even a McDonald’s and a Subway along the main stretch.

We would walk down the rows of street vendors.  It would be explained to him that though this is illegal work and the vendors risk the police taking their merchandise away, it is the only option for many since there isn’t much sustainable work available in the country’s economy; particularly since the economic emphasis is placed on primary materials for export, largely owned and managed by US and Canadian multinational corporations.

Barrio popular

 On the subject of those multinational corporations, our next stop would be a barrio popular – a term referring to the poorest neighborhoods in Bogota – particularly one where more newly displaced families have settled. These families have been displaced from the countryside in the past couple of decades, often being kicked off their lands by paramilitaries contracted by the multinational corporations to help them gain land for their extraction project.

I would explain how these neighborhoods are often run by gangs and that it is extremely difficult for kids living in these neighborhoods to avoid being looped into the vicious cycle. I would also show him the hope and potential of these areas, embodied in organizations working hard to offer alternatives and possibility to the residents of these neighborhoods.

Public transit

Throughout our journey, I would make sure we used public transit. Of course, it would be partially for the purpose of reducing the travel expenses, because gas in Colombia is ridiculously expensive, but more importantly, it would serve another purpose. I think it demonstrates something key to Colombian society and economy.

As with the street vendors in Galerias, the same basic thing happens on the buestas. [2] People get on the bus, selling pens, sweets, peanuts, bracelets, and other small items, performing music, or sometimes just asking for money to help pay rent, food, medical bills, and a multitude of other living expenses. It never ceases to amaze me how many people there are in this country who work in the informal sector, and it is important for people to understand the causes and effects of this phenomenon in the Colombian economy, especially given the strong influence of North American multinational corporations.

Colombian fútbol (aka soccer)

By this point, I figure President Obama might be thoroughly depressed by the harm which US economic and political neo-imperialism has done in Colombia, so I figure we can take a break and see a soccer game, the only proper form football takes. It’s not only uplifting for being an excellent spectacle, in watching both the game and the crowd, but it’s uplifting because when the national team plays, you know that the country is truly united behind a common cause. It is not nationalism of the harmful variety that starts wars and abuses human rights; it is a nationalism that brings people outside of themselves in a communal act of enthusiasm and excitement.

So, Mr. President, if you’d like to escape from Cartagena and from your monstrous delegation of 700 and see more of Colombia than just the inside of the hotel where the Summit of the Americas was held, give me a ring and I can set up your visit. Of course, for the full enjoyment of Colombia, we’d have to go out dancing, too, and I’m sure Hilary would love to come with us. I promise you, while the realities of Colombia may be hard to face at times, you will find on this trip a richness that you would never find stuck in a board room in Cartagena.

___________________________________________________

[1] http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/23425-obama-lands-in-cartagena-us-media-hails-colombias-miracle-comeback.html

[2] Busetas are small buses that miraculously, if not by clown car magic, sometimes manage to cram 60-plus people in during rush hour. See also: metal deathtrap in bus form.

Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.

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