Luke's South American Diary
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June 1998

4 June 1998

The first round of the Colombian presidential elections, held at the end of May with all the expectations of a bloodbath, passed off surprisingly quietly, with the two main candidates (Liberal and Conservative, as usual) splitting the votes equally, but with the token woman also making a stronger than expected show. We now have to go through the whole thing all over again in three weeks time for a final result. Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the paramilitares, who continue massacring suspected guerillas in their own little world, apparently completely untouched by elections, etc.

Some interesting (in a morbid sort of way) statistics appeared in the paper recently: There were 1,693 kidnappings in Colombia in 1997 (Mexico was second in the table with 997), of which 260 were still in captivity. 46% were carried out by guerilla movements, 39% by unknown assailants, and 25% by "common delinquents" (the paramilitares do not bother kidnapping - they just kill people). The only consolation was that, in the list of targets, foreigners are way down the bottom, after politicians, children, businessmen, public functionaries, ranchers and engineers. Separately, an Observer world report had Colombia as the sixth-worst violator of human rights (according to their own complex formula) after Algeria, North Korea, Myanmar, Indonesia and Libya (and therefore worse than such known offenders as Iraq and China).

Some more depressing statistics appeared to set the scene for the new President-to-be:

28 June 1998 Back to top

We recently made another trip to Cartagena, this time with no pretensions whatsoever at exploration.
Photo: Fruit-seller, Cartagena, Colombia. Jun 98.
Fruit-seller, Cartagena, Colombia. Jun 98.
We either sat on the beach or sat by the pool or ate or drank, and often several of these at the same time. We really worked hard at relaxing, something which seems to come naturally to many people, and I do believe we succeeded (I even got to watch some of the World Cup). The down side of all this is that we all returned home with sunburn, including Elena - the first time we had let Elena get to the stage of peeling, for which we felt suitably abashed.

Elena also returned home with a cold, either from the change of climate or from one of the hundreds of other kids in the hotel (school holidays), which hit her hard, and which she passed on to me, and I in turn passed on to Julie. It was the first real cold we had had since the viruses we contracted when we first arrived in Colombia, so we were not really in a position to complain.

The run-up to the presidential elections, somewhat overshadowed by World Cup Fever, was not particularly edifying: there was little in the way of proper debate, neither Serpa nor Pastrana seemed to have much in the way of policies and even less as regards the funding of these policies. Serpa spent most of his time trying to distance himself from the Samper regime (which was difficult as he had been a minister!), and Pastrana expended a lot of energy in persuading the populace that he was really a man of the people and would not sell the country out to foreign interests. Support for either candidate seemed to be a matter of flying a flag on one's car and honking one's horn incessantly. In a so-called voto finish, (once again marked by little of the expected trouble), Pastrana won by a nose, ending many years of Liberal rule in the country. Even more frenzied flag-flying and horn-honking ensued, only eclipsed by the aftermath of Colombia’s victory over Tunisia in the World Cup the next day (the latter complete with flour bombs for added nuisance value).

The build-up to the England-Colombia game, which Colombia had to win to qualify, was presented as a deeply significant test of national pride. The day of the match was effectively a national holiday, and the ley seca (alcohol ban) operated as it had for all of Colombia’s World Cup games, although the press showed just how easy it actually was to obtain alcohol. One store bravely advertised 30% discounts on all stock during the game, which rather tickled me. The country braved itself for scenes of unprecedented chaos and debauchery after the game. Unfortunately, Colombia played even worse than in their previous games, and lost 2-0. We went out that evening through streets more deserted than during the Christmas and Easter holidays, and the next day’s news was given over to an embarrassing orgy of rancour, vitriol and self-immolation.

Gradually, day by stressful day, we have been once again getting top-side of Elena's toilet habits. But what a painful process! Her school year finished in mid-June, and we quickly enrolled her in a kind of summer school at another local pre-escolar, on the grounds that no-one had the energy to look after her full-time for two months. She accepted the change without so much as a second glance, or a puzzled question - she is nothing if not adaptable.

We are used to her using words and phrases beyond her tender years - people tend to be quite taken aback when she finishes phone conversations with "Well, I'll just pass you back to Daddy now", and assume that phrases like "You're messing up my life!" are mere parrot repetitions of my complaints (in actual fact, I don't think I have ever said that to her) - but even I was gob-smacked recently when she earnestly inquired where and how she was born, and would not be fobbed off with anything less than the convincing-sounding truth. I had not expected to be faced with such thorny problems for a year or two more at the very least...

The month has passed us by without us having achieved very much, or so it seems. June has three consecutive puentes, or long weekends, (there are two more in July and two more in August!), usually a good time to stay at home, but hangovers from our respective colds left us with little energy to do much with them. A notable evening out was to celebrate the appointment of the new Colombian Ambassador to Canada, which included a glittering array of Ambassadors, ex-Ambassadors, Government Ministers and company Presidents - and us! I sometimes forget that Julie is the Representative here of a very large and prestigious organisation, and that as part of her job she habitually meets such luminaries. It is still sometimes difficult to believe that we are the same little Julie and Luke from up North!

Meantime I have been spending a significant amount of time designing and constructing a web-page for the Canadian-Colombian Chamber of Commerce(since replaced - March 2002) - about time I did some serious work! - including translations between English, Spanish and French, which made life interesting. Not that I am suddenly a Web expert, but I at least have more experience than many others, and I do have the time to spend after all.

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