Globe, Latin America

English writer Tom Feiling: “We are ignorant of Colombia”

A new book by an English writer and film-maker describes how his early experience of the country led to a desire to overcome its distorted image in the UK press. He wants to show readers the social and historical context of violence, and the political changes required for lasting peace.


Graham Douglas



Tom Feiling first went to Colombia in search of sunshine, looking for a change from making TV documentaries. After making Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia, which won many film awards he became campaigns director of the TUC’s Justice for Colombia project.

This was followed by his first book The Candy Machine: How Cocaine took over the world (Penguin 2009).

His writing is political travelogue, as he says, a guided tour with stops for lunch and reading the news, in the tradition of Peter Robb’s books on Sicily and Brazil.

Colombia has made a deep impression, and here he talks to The Prisma about his new book “Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the new Colombia“, (Allen Lane 2012), and about his concerns for the current peace process.

He recognizes the positive aspects of Colombia, in its warm social life despite political violence, and sees a great future if it develops its own models of development, free of US neo-liberal interference.

Do you see yourself as a travel writer or a political writer?

I worked for 6 years in TV documentary and through that I got a sense of what the media is interested in. My book is essentially political, but I needed to find new ways to engage people with a subject where the battle-lines between Left and Right were drawn a long time ago. So I try to lead the reader in through human interest, to communicate what a fabulous place Colombia is, and then start picking apart its politics and history.

What took you to Colombia the first time?

I wanted to learn Spanish, and go somewhere hot and cheap, so in 1999 I went to Venezuela. I travelled around with a dictionary and a copy of Cosmopolitan… Women’s magazines are a good way to learn a language; they’ve got an informal, chatty style. Then I met some backpackers going to Colombia, and spent a month on the north coast, in Cartagena, and the Tayrona national park.

You could see there were possibilities for more than just a tourist trip?

I came back to London, did an A-level Spanish course, saved some money and went back. I travelled around the country, and started teaching English in Bogota. After six months, I hit on the idea of making a film about hip-hop in Colombia. I thought it would be a good way to challenge expectations, talking to Colombians, both poor and educated, through this musical form that you don’t expect to find there. And through that, to find out how they thought about the peace talks, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries etc. So it was a political project packaged in a viewer-friendly format.

Did you feel conflicted admiring Colombian culture, and not liking Western consumerist culture?

It was refreshing to find that Colombians don’t worry unnecessarily. They worry about real problems, whereas in Britain people have lost perspective over the last 20 years. There is a widespread sense that communities are growing weaker and that people are more isolated. We have more virtual relationships, are increasingly estranged from power and don’t participate in decision-making.

But in Colombia people help one another stay afloat. Colombia might be a less democratic country, but people value their neighbours and their families more than we do. And they love music and a good party.

It’s interesting that governments are looking at so-called ‘Happiness Ratings’. There’s definitely a case for saying that Colombia is a happier country. I’m not saying that Britain would be better if we visited our grannies and went to church more often, but it seems to work for Colombians.

Politics, drugs, land

You say that Colombia is run by an educated elite in Bogota that doesn’t have any conception of what it’s like to be caught in the conflict between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. What is the way to a lasting peace?

Through building a more open and democratic political life. Over the last ten years, Anglo-American perceptions of Colombia have focused on the war on terror, the FARC and the drug traffickers. But you have to look at the context. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Poverty, marginalization, political violence and street violence are the real stories. The political life of Colombia is still largely determined by the old colonial structure, whereby a small, thoroughly westernized elite is completely divorced from a large part of the people it governs.

But when you look at the way that Britain achieved democracy, you see that it took us several hundred years. While I don’t think it’s for us to tell Colombians how to achieve it, the long-term solution lies in ending chronic poverty and human rights abuses and building strong, democratic institutions.

The Economist might prescribe neo-liberal reforms – a flexible labour market, lower tariffs, more privatisation – but that’s skirting the bigger issues. Colombia needs some levelling. It needs to address centuries-old neglect, as they’re doing in Brazil and Venezuela.

How can it be achieved, given the entrenched influence of the paramilitaries and their political friends?

People have asked me “where’s the new Colombia in your book?” It’s in the promise of the peace talks. The new president Juan Manuel Santos is talking about land reform, and returning stolen land to its rightful owners.

But he faces obstacles. The old regional elites are accustomed to a repressive relationship with their poor neighbours. Santos realises that if he is going to take back the land that has been stolen by paramilitaries and drug-traffickers over the last 20 years, he’s going to have to send in the army. The army has never really confronted the far-right in Colombia. For that to work, Santos needs both the army and public opinion on his side. And as long as the army is tied down in fighting the guerrillas, they haven’t got the manpower to do it.

However much the media blames the FARC for the fighting, their call for just land distribution is incontestable. A big part of the peace talks are aimed at getting the guerrillas to lay down their weapons and put their weight behind what Santos is trying to do – which is to take on some very powerful groups.

Who profits from cocaine?

You said that the FARC have been corrupted by the cocaine business operating in their territory, but Colombians have told me that this only applies to about 6 of their 24 frentes.

The FARC predate the cocaine business. They aren’t the same thing. But in the areas where the coca business is strong, the FARC have to have a relationship with it. In some instances, the FARC just tax the coca growers. In other areas they tax the cocaine traffickers as well, and some frentes are actively involved in coercing people to grow coca, running cocaine laboratories, and smuggling the finished powder. But the most profitable part of the business – smuggling over foreign borders – is mostly in the hands of former paramilitaries.

Will the peace negotiators have to renegotiate the cocaine business, because there is so much money flowing through both militarized sides in the conflict?

That’s the very difficult situation the government finds itself in. Cocaine is one of the main drivers of the conflict, but it is non-negotiable, at least until the US government changes its mind about the ‘war on drugs.’ Until it does, the second best thing, which the Colombians have done to some extent, is push the business into another country, making the cocaine business a Venezuelan or Bolivian problem.

To Santos’s credit, he is talking about legalisation, the first time that a sitting president in Latin America has done so. Legalisation makes sense for Colombia. Without that illegal money flowing into the country, the armed groups would lose much of their income. Their weakness would make it much easier to enforce the rule of law.

Colombia’s image: the future unique

Is racial conflict important in Colombia?

President Juan Manuel Santos

On a street level you don’t see much racism in Colombia. And there are no political parties run on ethnic or even religious lines. But to an outsider it is obvious how very dominant white culture is. Black Colombians told me that they can get jobs in supermarkets – but not on the tills, because the customers don’t want to be served by someone with a black face. It’s about national self-image. Even if most Colombians tell you that theirs is a mixed nation, the elite likes to project the idea that Colombia is essentially a European outpost.

Colombia should be developing its own uniqueness, and not mimicking European models. It isn’t appreciated outside Colombia, but Colombia’s multiculturalism is a real strength.

You mentioned in the book that UK news coverage of Colombia was often negative in terms of gangsters and drugs.

We are ignorant of Colombia. We demonize it as the epitome of malevolence, strife-riven criminal culture and that scares off comfortably-off Europeans and North Americans. I want people to be less prejudiced and to recognize the positive things. In terms of natural resources and food production, Colombia has enormous potential. It is one of the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa), which the UN is counting on to deliver increased world food production. But it’s a question of how the prosperity is managed.

Would you say that education for everyone, not just the rich, is a key to that?

Japan and South Korea changed from poor backward countries in a generation. They transformed themselves through a lot of state intervention to protect native industries, set up free and comprehensive education systems and created the conditions for capitalism to generate social benefits.

Yet in Colombia there is more privatization of education at the moment. Neoliberal economists in Washington and Bogotá think that if everyone behaves like North Americans then their countries will become more like the US. But you have to look at Latin-American problems in Latin-American terms. You have to have an educated workforce and a healthy domestic market, instead of ignorance and poverty. The root causes have to be tackled, and that can only be done through wholesale state intervention.

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