Orientalist Fantasies in Colombia

The staff at the local bohemian waterhole know everyone. The moment you walk in the door they start a tab in your name. Nobody pays until the end of the night, when staff start reeling off purchases. One day, a friend of mine caught sight of the tab list, usually tucked behind the bar. Sure enough, the names of all the regulars were down with their drinks marked off — except him. Instead, he was simply down as “el Gringo”.

Turns out everyone at the bar referred to him as the Gringo, despite being British. It was amusing but not at all odd in South America. As an Australian, anyone who doesn’t know me by name tends to refer to me as “Gringo”. The term is rarely intended as an offence — it’s just the go-to pronoun for anyone who looks Western. Sometimes it’s a little irritating, but for the most part I’m used to it. It’s just a harmless joke; at least, most of the time.

Once when I was next door in Colombia, however, I felt a hint of concern when I saw the words “Gringos fuera” (Gringos out) scrawled on a wall. I was in a region where a number of foreigners had recently been kidnapped by the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), Colombia’s second largest insurgent group. Although Colombians are some of the friendliest people in the world, in that moment I felt hated.

Could a Colombian who’s never met me really hate me? I had certainly never met anyone in the country who expressed hatred to my face. Yet Gringos have exacerbated many of Colombia’s chronic social issues and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is some animosity.

Since the 1990s, the Gringo nation has been militarily active in the country, under the pretext of the war on drugs and counter-insurgency. In the last decade, the US granted over $5.5 billion in military aid to the Colombian government and millions more was spent on US military operations. However, according to Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteer Carly Dawson, these military operations are hurting the country’s poor just as much as the insurgents.

In 2010, Dawson told Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly, “A big issue is the fumigation the US imposes on Colombia. Planes go over and fumigate the coca plantations.

“A lot of people suffer, because the planes don’t only fumigate the coca plantations, but they also fumigate a lot of food plantations, such as rice and bananas — the food people eat and sell.

“They also poison the land, the water, animals and people. People have second and third degree burns on their entire bodies because they’ve been fumigated over.

“The country’s in a pretty bad state as it is and [US-mandated fumigation is] making things worse.”

While promising to improve human rights, the US-backed regime has done little to curb violence from paramilitaries, with which the previous Uribe administration was intimately linked. According to Amnesty International’s 2012 report, “Paramilitaries, sometimes with the collusion or acquiescence of the security forces, continued to commit serious human rights violations, including killings and enforced disappearances, as well as social cleansing operations in poor urban neighbourhoods.”

In recent years, many of those responsible for paramilitary violence have been extradited to the US where they have been tried for drug crimes. Yet neither their human rights abuses nor systemic governmental complicity is ever seriously investigated.

In 2011, under intense pressure from the Gringos, the government also rammed through the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). According to a 2012 Oxfam report, this will reduce the income of 1.8 million Colombian farmers by 16% over the coming years. The effects will reportedly be even worse for Colombia’s poorest farmers, some of which could lose up to 70% of their income.

Oxfam further concluded that this is likely to push more Colombians into growing coca. It’s hard to imagine how this could possibly be helpful in countering the spread of narcotics, let alone the insurgents who profit from narco-trafficing.

While the US has propped up consecutive administrations and continues to pump cash into the military, its extensive involvement in the nation’s domestic affairs has been of little help to ordinary Colombians. Rather than be surprised by those rare instances of frustration with el Gringos, perhaps I should have been more surprised by the daily hospitality shown to me during my time in Colombia.

Those who have been roasted alive by American chemicals, hunted by the US-backed crony regime or driven into poverty by the FTA have pretty good reasons to hate the Gringo.

I don’t know what’s best for Colombia. I don’t know how to end the civil war, quell the country’s cocaine addiction, alleviate poverty or overcome its gaping social fractures. I also don’t think the Obama Administration and the US Army know how to solve these problems. And it’s blatantly clear that the current Santos Administration doesn’t know either. It’s pure fantasy to believe even the NGO’s, many of which do great work, really know what to do in the long run. In fact, to think that anyone except ordinary Colombians know how to run their country is a fantasy.

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