The Western Story of Colombia: A Failure of Global Humanist Thought

The Western Story of Colombia: A Failure of Global Humanist Thought October 17, 2018

Western Narratives Do Not Do It Justice: Casa de la Memoria, Medellín. Photo Credit: M L Clark, 2018
Outside Museo Casa de la Memoria, where the names of displaced, kidnapped, and murdered persons from Medellín were inscribed by survivors of a difficult period in local history.

On Monday I argued against binary thinking, and promised an object lesson from Western stories about Colombia.

Is there any Westerner who’s mentioned Colombia without at least once mentioning its most notorious drug lord? I’m certainly no exception. When I set about learning more about this country, his was the first name that arose in North American histories. And then, while learning Spanish to prepare for my move, yes, I watched Narcos. (And no, at the time, I couldn’t tell how “off” the actor’s accent was.)

Recently, The New York Times published a hand-wringing article lamenting the hard time Medellín is having shaking the shadow of this man’s legacy… and yet, it’s precisely the routine prominence of this person in Western media that keeps the history alive.

Why? Why can’t North America let it go?

Western Stories of Deflection and Self-Righteousness

There is a popular theory that North American cinema fixates on World War II films because WWII was the last “great” war. The last, that is, in which the U.S. could easily position itself on the side of “good”. Consider what comes after: The American Conflict in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq… All of these are mired in complicated proxy- and resource-war culpabilities. How can such stories do anything but demoralize the North American self-image, and related claims to national pride?

If we apply the same idea to Western stories of Colombia–this interest in sensational stories where other parties carry the lion’s share of culpability–then another name leaps out as explanation for why North America fixates on Medellín’s notorious drug lord:

Álvaro Uribe Vélez.


Uribe was President of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. He is currently a sitting member on the Colombian senate. And–most critically for this essay–he was a 2009 recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. This last, he received for his work against guerrillas, and for his pro-U.S. stance amid growing anti-U.S. sentiment.

As Former President George W. Bush noted in 2009, “President Uribe’s leadership has been resolute and uncompromising. Today in Colombia, homicides are down 40 percent, kidnappings are down more than 80 percent, terror attacks are down by more than 75 percent. The forces of violence are on the defensive, and the people are reclaiming their country.”

And “resolute and uncompromising” certainly covers it… because Uribe is responsible for crimes against humanity and unconscionable military policies. All in the name of showing a strong front against anti-government forces.

(But Remember: No Easy Binaries)

Unsurprisingly, though, many Colombians still admire Uribe. And why not, when he drove FARC from the cities, reduced FARC and ELN ranks, and re-secured intercity travel? These “Uribistas” include persons traumatized directly by FARC and related drug cartels. Their desire for a strongman is understandable. So too are their feelings of betrayal when the succeeding president, Juan Manuel Santos, chose to focus instead on a monumental peace deal. How, they cried out. How could guerrilla groups be permitted a role in democracy without proper penalty for their wartime actions?

We will discuss elsewhere, at length, the incredible dignity and courage that comes from trying to establish such a peace.

U.S. Complicity: A Common Western Refrain

For now, though, pay attention to the other reason Uribe won that U.S. honour. What does it mean that he supported of the U.S. amid rising anti-U.S. sentiment? Why might the U.S. not have been loved by a Colombia terrorized by FARC and other drug-purveyors? What U.S. foreign policies, however well-intentioned, might have exacerbated Colombia’s civilian costs? What domestic policies? Oh, and what spurious war did the U.S. launch at cost to reform programs all over Latin America?

Today is the 16th anniversary of Operación Orión, an aggressive, devastating military action sanctioned by Uribe months after taking office. It took place in a densely populated part of lower-class Medellín, Comuna 13, and eliminated leftist rebels but established criminal paramilitaries in their place. Approximately 100,000 civilians were trapped in the crossfire for four days. Terrorized. Detained. Injured. Killed. Disappeared.

But after, the annual murder rate did go down.

So… Uribe kept his election promises, right?

While striking such a costly line at home, though, Uribe also supported increased U.S. economic investment (or encroachment, depending on whom one asks) within Colombia. He also embraced aggressive U.S. counternarcotics policies. So why would the U.S. abandon a loyal supporter? Even if they knew his own associations with drug cartels? Or his human-rights abuses?

Changing the Western Narrative–for Colombia’s Benefit

It is a fact that Uribe sacrificed Colombians to achieve his dramatic aims. He also did not speak out against an ally exacerbating local economic disparities. Rather, he supported extreme military actions that have had destabilizing consequences. And so, today, the country is still struggling to bring him and others involved to justice.

(Even as, simultaneously, his endorsement proved a guiding force in the recent presidential election. Even as, among some, he is still admired. Such is the complex nature of politics with strongmen involved.)

…But the role that the U.S. played in all of Uribe’s actions–the role the U.S. endorsed, with its Presidential Medal!–is not a history that fits comfortably into Narcos-esque narratives. The U.S. exacerbated the local cost of the drug trade through supply-side War on Drugs policies. It also supported a known perpetrator of criminal actions. (And why not, when U.S. politicians also become complicit in civilian casualties?)

And so there is no “great” war here in Colombia.

No moment of U.S. triumph over despair elsewhere in the world.

Only a mess of competing economic priorities that saw drug trade costs juggled between Perú, Bolivia, Colombia, and other Latin American countries over the last 40 years.

So, really now, next to the complex politics of two massive, culpable nation-states… doesn’t it feel easier, isn’t it more fun, to fixate instead on a tale of personal ambition run sensationally amok?

Changing the Western Narrative–for Our Own Benefit

Now, by no means do I suggest conspiracy. Goodness, I would never assume so much competence! But with Western stories of Colombia, we see an especially sordid fixation on portraying this country and its people as dangerous, when the fault should be more diversely allocated. When dangerous people sit in U.S. offices, too.

And so I want us to imagine what we stand to gain, if we focus more on stories about systems of power. What if, instead of Medellín’s most difficult sons, we spoke of Western complicity in Colombian suffering? Or offered more admiration for its recovery efforts? What might we learn about the limits of our current discourses?

I mean, let’s face it: can you even imagine Republicans and Democrats governing with a tenth of the dignity seen between FARC senators and the rest?

It’s a big ask, and we’re going to unpack more tools and terminology to help in future entries. Today, though, I want leave you with other ways to talk Colombian politics. Ways without using the country’s most difficult name, and associated Western binaries about dangers at home and abroad.

In general, though… can we try not to invoke the hardest parts of a culture’s history just because we saw a show about it once? Can we ask tougher questions of our own contexts before presuming the worst of others?

It takes a lot of time and effort to unlearn assumptions about the supposed greatness of our cultures. Think what we stand to gain, though, in alternative approaches to improving our shared world.

How to Be Colombian-Politics Savvy without Being an Asshole

  1. Oh, you’re from Colombia? The U.S. President sure is asking a lot of President Duque, isn’t he? It must be hard keeping the peace processes rolling smoothly with so much outside pressure to use extreme force in regions still recovering from years of exploitation.
  2. Oh, you’re from Medellín? I hear the Metro there is pretty amazing. I know it was a mark of pride, starting such a big infrastructure project in such a tough decade. But it’s still well-maintained by users over 20 years later? Impressive!
  3. Oh, you’re from Bogotá? I know it’s got some municipal problems, but wow. It can’t be easy, accommodating so many Venezuelan refugees along with internally displaced Colombians. Your approach to mass migration is a lesson for us all.

Colombian readers, please feel free to add your own ideal scripts in the comments!

Everyone else? Much love from Medellín: a city of 2.4 million sons and daughters… each with stories all their own.

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