To celebrate or denigrate?

Poor Colombia deserves a happy birthday, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

October 29, 2009

I am in Colombia, fighting fever with coffee as I gaze at the Andes, in rapture probably induced by sickness. Intensely black clouds lift suddenly across the face of the mountains, as if plucked by gods, letting sunlight dapple the dense forest on the slopes. The thrill I always feel at the power and richness of the Colombian landscape almost makes me forget that I am shivering, sweating and wretched. But my next lecture is imminent. I have no time for ecstasy.

Colombia, like much of Spanish-speaking America, is getting ready to celebrate 200 years of independence from Spain. The Government and media have a lot riding on the events that start now, climax in 2010, and continue until at least 2019, 200 years after the rebels' definitive victory. This is a potentially great country, with vast territories, incomparable ecological diversity, many unsurpassable tourist Edens, a relatively educated and mercifully young population, outstanding institutions of higher education and a democratic tradition - though you would never guess it from the European and North American press - in no way inferior to those of most European countries.

Colombians, however, find it hard to project a positive image. A sense of historic failure and future frustrations obsesses them: the dissolution of "Great Colombia" in the 19th century, with the secession of what are now Ecuador and Venezuela; the loss of Panama to Uncle Sam's act of "rape" in 1903; the violence between conservative and liberal contenders for power towards and around the mid 20th century; the country's more recent reputation for narco-terrorism; and as if all this were not enough, the current source of shame: the soccer team's failure to qualify for the World Cup. The country's artists, film-makers and novelists - who seem almost uniformly cynical - heap up negative images of social conflict, political egotism and moral inertia. Colombians console themselves by exaggerating pointless achievements. They will tell you that their country is the world's biggest exporter of human bones and the second-biggest supplier of spare parts to General Motors. The real grandeur gets overlooked.

Apart from the soccer fiasco, the big stories in the media reflect Colombia's mood: how could rogue army units get away with inflating casualty figures in the "war against terror" by strewing battlefields with murder victims? Will the President wangle a third term of disputed constitutionality? How will two famous actresses, rivals in glamour and love, work out their campaign of mutual insults now that their lawyers are invoking the Colombian constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights? Colombia needs a happy 200th birthday party to escape from disillusionment, trivia and destructive self-criticism.

But I have a bad feeling. Centenaries inspire scholarship and scholarship is rarely good for communal self-esteem: it explodes myths, exposes iniquities, confirms disenchantment and corrodes heroes' feet of clay. Colombians have no shared story to defend against this potential subversion. The country is so vast that particularisms rend it and almost every major city has its own version of the advent of independence, privileging its own role. Historians give every region plenty of research with which to build redoubts.

In the absence of a common story, Colombians do have a common hero. Simon Bolivar is hailed as founder by half a dozen republics, but Colombia has a special affection for "the Liberator", who fought his most dashing campaign on its soil, won his greatest victory here, forced the disparate parts of the country into unity, anticipated my rhapsodies over its landscapes, and ruled it as a legendary early president. It is hard to go far without encountering monuments to Bolivar and places named in his honour.

Centenaries, however, can wreck reputations. Think of Columbus in 1992: accused, unconvincingly, of genocide, and excoriated by the politically correct of the world. Or recall Francis Drake in 1988. The former English hero re-emerged as a pirate, an unreliable companion in arms and a bit of a spiv. Revisionism topples almost every idol when his or her big anniversary comes around, and I am sorry to tell my Colombian friends that Bolivar is extremely vulnerable. He was a brilliant publicist, but mawkish romanticism disfigures his writings. He was a clever politician, but his dearest projects ended in failure. He had a high moral vision, but he grabbed the chance to be a dictator, terrorised supposed enemies and bloodily broke the laws of war. He had a great heart, which envy and prejudice sometimes shrivelled. He was an ingenious commander, but in the end tropical disease beat the Spaniards. Insects, not insurgents, were the most effective warriors for independence.

President Hugo Chavez, of neighbouring Venezuela - perhaps the most hated man in Colombia today - has already made Bolivar ridiculous with zany hero-worship and prodigality in promoting the Liberator's cult. He calls his own gimcrack ideology "Bolivarianism". Colombia's cynical opinion-makers probably won't take long to start dragging Chavez's hero down. Colombia, I fear, as I swallow my aspirin and head for my lecture, may end its great bicentennial celebration with nothing left to celebrate.

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