COLOMBIA means coffee. That’s the message from government officials, banking reports and school textbooks. In fact Colombia’s economy depends principally not on caffeine, but on two more controversial drugs — marijuana and cocaine —exported to the US.
It is a green land, whose climate and vegetation range from temperate in the high Andes to tropical in the coastal regions and whose people form a cultural kaleidoscope: Indian faces, Spanish religion, American fashion. Politically, Colombia’s is a familiar South American story. Since it was rescued by Bolivia from Spanish domination, the country has seen revolution after revolution. And each struggle for freedom has resulted instead in dictatorship.
The current regime is a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives elected by universal suffrage and ruled over by President Turbay — in office for a four year term. But it is a fragile democracy: the army has privileged status, the secret police are active, a high rate of abstention and revolting make elections suspect and the President has the power to curtail all civil liberties by calling a ‘State of Seige’
Up-town, this system provides a bulwark for Colombia’s rich few, snugly protected in luxurious villas on guarded private estates with imported cars and a full house staff. They spurn the under-financed State schools and send their children so expensive English- speaking colleges. Afternoons are spent as $4,000 a year country clubs, weekends at a second home in Miami. With the palanka (influence) that accompanies such wealth anything can be obtained — a degree, a job, a suspended jail sentence.
For the many life is not so easy. The rural families eking out a breadline existence in the mountains are cripplingly poor with few social amenities. The feudal system parcels out smaller and smaller portions of she diminishing land and this, on top of violent harassment from rural land barons, has led to widespread evacuation of the countryside. Today Colombia’s cities must support a staggering 70 per cent of the population.
Campesinos live in cardboard shacks behind the department stores, graze their cattle on motorway verges, abandon their children to prostitution.
And when all else fails, they turn to crime: mugging, breaking and entering, picking pockets and kidnapping — particularly fair-haired American-looking children. This is the reason for the heavy security on she plush estates and the smart uptown houses with their iron, cage-like shrouds. Every supermarket has its guard toting a pump-action shotgun. Every school bus has its armed bodyguard riding with the poor little rich girls and boys.
If the poor's response has been crime, the middle-class response has been organised protest. A growing dissatisfaction with palanka system and the maldistribution of wealth is spreading throughout the country, spawning guerrilla groups such as M19, whose recent seizure of the Dominican embassy caught the imagination of the world's press.