Colombia Politics recently reviewed British author Tom Feiling´s excellent ´Short Walks from Bogotá´.
Feiling kindly agreed to a candid interview on his views and reflections on Colombia. We are publishing this conversation in two parts. We hope you enjoy it.
CP: ´Short Walks´ begins by arguing that the outside world is largely ignorant of Colombia. In the country itself the talk is of record levels of investment, of tourists and President Santos’ efforts to secure a place at the big table.
Do you see this reflected in increasing awareness of the country, albeit from a low base?
TF: Well, the last three news stories from Colombia that I can remember making it into the British press were the start of peace talks, the arrest of Daniel ´Loco´ Barrera and several months ago, the salsa-dancing immigration officials that greeted the England Under-21 football team when they went to Colombia. Those stories indicate what the British press is interested in hearing from Colombia: progress on achieving peace, the on-going soap opera that is the cocaine business, and the odd bit of ‘Latin passion’.
CP: Well, quite!
You decided to subtitle the book ´journeys in the new Colombia´ but I sensed you were purposefully avoiding what’s new about the country, shunning the cities, for example, for a more rural account.
Why was this?
TF: The subtitle is a ploy to get British readers to engage with Colombia. The truth is that the ‘new’ Colombia is largely an invention of stock brokers and novelty-seeking journalists. Travelling around Colombia last year, I saw very little evidence that the boom in mining and resources extraction has led to an improvement in living standards for most Colombians – and that includes those living in the big cities. The security situation has improved of course, but it’s still too early to say whether President Santos’ ‘democratic prosperity’ is any more than a slogan.
CP: Many will agree with that assessment, Tom.
My English friends tell me that the image of Colombia is still one of bandits and kidnappers. Your book is too honest about the reality of the criminality here to help change this perception. Does this concern you?
TF: Your question is telling. Of course I’d like to see Colombia at peace, and foreign tourists to see what a wonderful country it is. But I’m not concerned about being ‘too honest.’ The Colombian government and much of its press put a lot of effort into ‘image management,’ often at the expense of the truth about modern Colombia.
Besides, bandits and kidnappers are only one, newsworthy side of the story. What about corruption, collusion and impunity? No amount of ‘image management’ can whitewash the ‘disappearance’ of over 100,000 Colombians over the past 20 or so years.
CP: ´Short Walks´ is certainly not afraid to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but does so in a sensitive way. I found the first hand accounts of those on the ´front line´ particularly moving.
These conversations, however, are more often with the victims of the paramilitaries, rather than the victims of the FARC. Do you feel one side of the story is too often told?
TF: Yes, I do. You have to see how the international war on terror has skewed our understanding of Colombia. Without wanting to belittle the human rights abuses the FARC have committed, the vast majority of the abuses have been the responsibility of the paramilitaries, often working in concert with the army. But because Colombia is a key US ally in a region that is increasingly hostile to US influence, much of the Anglo-American press has gone along with the Colombian government’s version of events, which insists that the FARC are the villains of the piece. I think the reality of the conflict is more complicated, and less gratifying for American hawks, than that.
CP: I sensed you were stronger in your condemnation of the paramilitaries than of the FARC. Is this fair, and if so, why did you adopt this position?
TF: One of the tragedies of Colombia is that all sides have adopted increasingly vile means to pursue apparently noble aims. The British historian Eric Hobsbaum, describing Berlin in the 1930s, said it was a city in which “cliches walked on two legs, while men had theirs blown off.” I thought that was a pretty good description of what’s been happening in Colombia.
I don’t think that the crimes of illegal groups and the crimes of the state are equally bad – crimes committed by politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers are infinitely worse than those committed by guerrillas, because they are supposed to be law-abiding! That’s why the false positives scandal was so important, because it showed that in the name of fighting terrorism, the army was committing acts of terror that far exceeded anything the guerrillas have ever done.
CP: Thanks for sharing those fine words from the great Hobsbaum who sadly died this month. Tom your answers will leave the readers with plenty to ponder. We will publish the second half of the interview shortly.
Short Walks from Bogotá is published by Penguin Books. It is a must read.