One of the most difficult things to contend with here is that many Colombians will fight tooth and nail and become extremely defensive when someone addresses the problems that are so visible in their country. Poverty, corruption, poor roads, they see it as an attack, no matter who brings it up. Taking a brief look at the comments section under newspaper articles or blogs about issues in Colombia is enough for you to get a feel of this reaction, not to mention the offensive comments I have received. There is often a lot of 'so you think Colombia is the only country with this problem?', 'if you don't like it here, go home' or them telling me how terrible Europe is and how perfect Colombia is. Clearly not very productive or conducive to change. But it is important to be aware of this mentality as it can be very difficult to manage even when you can have the best intentions.
Of course, there may be an element of hostility towards a foreigner's observations which may seem judgmental, but I know some Colombians who are also met with the same abject horror and denial when they bring up what should be a normal topic of conversation. In addition, the global elite benefit from such a mentality as multi-nationals and governments take advantage of countries like Colombia where the powerful essentially give away natural resources and cheap labour. So it should be in every Colombian's interest to be honest about social and political issues in order to reclaim their country from the hands on the powerful few.
Colombia is a country of contrasts like all other countries and its human rights and violence record demands for people to speak out. You can still love where you come from and acknowledge it isn't perfect. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say that you love your country more by not letting future generations be satisfied with less than they deserve.
Although the popular slogan for Colombia is 'the only risk is wanting to stay' (see my post of safety for why this is not true), I would say that a bigger risk is this mentality of denial and boundless pride which leads to a covering up of problems that affect millions of people. It means anyone who wants to make improvements gets shut up before they've even finished their sentence and it creates this romanticised language portraying perfection. Countless people that I have met have repeated that in Cali and/or Colombia, "we live in paradise". I am not saying they shouldn't love their country or city, but it exemplifies the language that allows for very little objective observation or room for improvement. I don't believe anywhere is paradise and people should be allowed to voice their concerns and put pressure on policymakers to grant them more rights, whether it is in Colombia, the USA or Norway.
There is clearly an agenda in government to push this vision of Colombia and just during my time here, I have seen many public campaigns stating how perfect Colombia is. The most disturbing was part of the 'De Cali se habla bien' campaign which depicted Caleños with quotation marks saying things like 'Cali, the best city on the planet' (this is a direct quote). Many of these only showed the white, privileged few in luxurious surroundings, and those that did show mixed race or black Caleños, still printed incredibly positive messages that do not reflect the reality of people's lives here. I feel resources would be better spent actually investing in infrastructure, basic rights and reversing corruption, than in campaigns such as these which do not allow people to recognise that they deserve better.
The graffiti art I took a picture of (above), although exaggerating, expresses this sentiment: 'fucked, but happy' (‘jodido pero contento’). Many people here are suffering, whether rich or poor, due to social, economic or environmental problems, but they find ways to convince others and themselves that they are completely happy. As a result, the status quo is never successfully been challenged and people’s expectations of a good society are maintained low. For example, when I have had conversations about the fact that I believe that all humans deserve quality state-funded healthcare and education and that is how it is back in Europe, I have been met with laughter and some Colombians have said that the European governments must be stupid for giving it away like that or that there must be some sort of catch. People expect very little and are very happy when they get something small. This is both the thing I love and hate the most here. It is inspiring to see people pick out the good in difficult situations, but it is such a barrier to change if the rest is ignored.
There are many distractions here to ensure that people overlook their lack of safety and opportunities that should be granted to them by the state. Potential complaints are often drowned out by loud music or avoided by dancing, football, alcohol or drugs (as the graffiti depicts). Distractions are a natural response to a life of hardship and people trying to make the best of a situation or a society in which those who have spoken out in the past have been unsuccessful at best, or physically silenced at worst. But I worry that people are letting these distractions be imposed or maintained by those who benefit from having a population that, on the whole, believe the lie that they do not have the right to more.
As I mentioned in my post about poverty, and as I found in my dissertation work with poor people, there is a phenomenon here with denial and a preference to show that you are better off than you actually are. Denial is often a coping mechanism when faced with problems that people do not know how to fix. However, this creates a stagnation of ideas and progress which plays perfectly into the hands of the elites who benefit from such a system and can afford to pay extortionate amounts for healthcare, education and the illusion of safety. It certainly is a sort of paradise for the rich, but even they would live better if more rights were demanded for all.
In my view, Colombians can either accept mediocrity, let the powerful elites continue to rule the country and propagate the idea that they live in paradise, or they can understand the reality, which may not be pleasant, but leads to standards being raised. The government also has a huge responsibility to improve the educational system in order to promote this sort of thinking and make people agents of change. I know it may seem impossible to overcome the issues here so it is easier to deny or romanticise, but people deserve more and the first step should be raising awareness and educating children who are the future leaders of the country.
I am not asking for people to be negative, and there is such a charm to colombians’ outlook on life, I am asking for a space for honest conversation, the lack of which is a real problem. I know people who have had to remove blogs on a similar topic due to the abuse and threats they received. The fact that even I had to pad out my blog with monotonous drivel about what to do and eat in order to dilute the impact of socioeconomic and political commentary is another example of this, but I hope that one day critical thought will be permitted more publicly.
If you are interested in this sort of topic, I invite you to read my very first blog post about Colombia having been announced as the third best country in the world, and how social conditioning and pride play a part in skewing such studies.