Bogota has been in a depressive slump for too long. The complacent belief that the city is “the Athens of South America” has allowed governors to rule with decadent indifference. Something must be done to arrest the decline of a city that looked more developed and prettier in black and white. We must banish a collective fatalism that whiffs of the last days of Pompeii.
Of all the fatuous platitudes I hear in Macondo, “Bogota, the Athens of South America” most gets my goat. Monsignor María Rafael Carrasquilla made the bogus claim in 1895 (he was education minister at the time), and it has stuck since. Pericles would shudder at the comparison, I’m sure.
When Alexander von Humboldt climbed to 8,000 ft above sea level, he was said to be bowled over by the volume of intellectuals and artists he met; a cultural oasis rather than the Arcadian isolation he must have imagined awaited him. He saw a city built on academia not on the Greek god Pan’s shepherd paradise, and he was impressed.
Many have assumed it was von Humboldt who first talked of Bogota as a form of Athens, but according to Carlos Rincon in the Harvard Review, the origin is more likely to have been Elisée Reclus, who, on reading von Humboldt’s account, claimed “the Colombian continent is proud of having many (versions of Athens) among them the two principle ones, Buenos Aires and Bogota”. Reclus never visited Bogota himeslf.
Bogota certainly remains a student city, with dozens of universities catering for all levels of ability. It is also home (by birth or adoption) to many great writers. Walk through El Centro, cross over the Avenida Caracas, and you’ll see too that Santa Fe was once the home to proud colonial palaces, to architectural brilliance and elegance. Rush down and see the reconstruction (before it is finished) of the Carrera Septima (once called Calle Real for its majesty) between Avenida Jimenez and the Bolivar Plaza. The earth there has been turned, revealing for the first time in years the rusted tramlines made obsolete after the catastrophic and violent events following the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on 9 April 1948. Poignant, at the time when the government has agreed with the FARC to set up a truth commission to uncover the history of Colombia’s conflict.
There are signs of grandeur (albeit faded) in Bogota, undoubtedly true. But every time I stick my nose in the archives and marvel at the city in the black and white era, I’m left depressed by the reality that Bogota is the only city I know that looks better developed in the past than it does today.
The once glorious avenues of the centre have been replaced by the Dickensian apocalypse of the pedestrianised Septima on a Sunday. Walk from the Calle 26 to Jimenez and it’s a freak show of the marginalised, and the malcontents; those warped and deformed by basuko (cocaine base) have escaped for the day from the Bronx (once El Cartucho, considered for a time the most dangerous neighbourhood in the Western hemisphere). And mix this with a dose of desperation at the sight of the abjectly poor selling the tat and detritus they’ve managed to mine from the refuse bins of those who live in posh Chico or Rosales, or even middle-class Chapinero.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a certainly a Bacchanalian raucousness to this penury. I love the Septima, and it is perhaps the most democratic use of the precious little public space Bogota has. But it is a brutal reminder of the extreme and sickening privation lived by too many Colombians. This is Hades’ domain.
I grant there is something Olympian about the glinting modernity of the new Bacata skyscraper. A sign of hope that Bogota, governed well, could find again its greatness. There is no reason a city that generates a third of Colombia’s entire GDP could not invest well and rebuild the streets it has left to wrack and ruin.
Look at images of the Plaza Bolivar taken before the Bogotazo of 1948. Why can’t the glorious fountains be restored? And although it is too much to say the central gardens were lushly Babylonian, they too were elegant, almost genteel. It would be minimal fuss to replant them. Even as a first step, why can’t the district government wash off the paint bombs thrown by the romantic revolutionaries every time there is a march?
The money is there, but a lack of political will coupled with inexplicable indolence has led to decadence and decay. Last week I noticed the statue of Bolivar had been blindfolded in protest. The pigeons – like a distinctly inferior version of the vultures in Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch – circled, picking at the sad figure of the Great Liberator. An apposite message of resistance to the pitiful second-rate Ancien Regime blaggards across the square perhaps; but isn’t it rather neglectful of the government not even to maintain this pride-of-place monument?
The signs of decline are everywhere, not least in the creaking transport system where attacks on passengers are increasing in number and severity. Bogota feels like a city unloved by its people, and untended by those who run the place.
But for me, it is not this evident physical capitulation that alone debunks the Athenian myth. More dramatically, it is the city – and the nation’s – clear perversion of the Periclean ideals of, “equal justice under law”, and democracy that so runs at odd with the birthplace of the polis.
Read Pericles’ funeral speech during the Peloponnesian war and you will see it as manifesto for Athenian values, “we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few”. That same idea made it through the Western revolutions and was echoed in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Now stand by that blindfolded statue of Bolivar, you’re equidistant from the modern Justice Palace to the north – seat of a judiciary facing quite incredible charges of corruption – and to the south, the neo-classicism of the Congress with its shamelessly Athenian columns and palatial ostentation (the building was not finished until 1926).
And now ask yourself how many in these buildings fight for “equal justice under the law”, or for ensuring that the many not the few have a say in the governing of the country?
Colombia’s oligarchical and largely discredited democracy is absolutely anti-Athenian in nature. If anything, “Athens of South America” is an elaborate lie to hide the truth that the politics are more like the excesses and clientelism of Rome. So the next time someone complacently and unknowingly quotes Monsignor Carrasquilla, point down to the potholes, up to the Che Guevara mural on the Universidad Nacional campus, and even bring out the photos of historical Bogota.
Colombia’s leaders have been negligent with Bogota, allowing it to decline.
Bogotanos must stop acquiescing to the fatalism of the last days of Pompeii and force their leaders to get on with the job of first restoring the city’s former glory and then second planning its future.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.