Cartagena Photo-Op

In 2001 Andres Pastrana, the President of Columbia, wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he decried the message that movies such as Clear and Present Danger, Proof of Life, and Blow gave of Colombia. He maintained that the situation in this South American country is not as simple as Hollywood presents it. In the movies the boy gets the girl, good triumphs over evil, and the cowboy rides off into the sunset. The drug wars that have torn Colombian society are real. Pastrana himself barely escaped with his life after capture by the henchmen of the notorious drugs warlord, Pablo Escabar. There is no happy ending.

Cartagena, the former capital of Colombia, is not a stranger to strife. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1533 to manage the controlled attack on the natives of this mountainous land, the Chibas Indians. This Pre-Columbian society had become expert as goldsmiths and so attracted the interest of the ever avaricious Spanish. Emeralds and gold flowed into Cartagena from the mountains for shipment to Spain.

In 1586 Sir Francis Drake, that British adventurer, showed up at Cartagena and in return for 10 million pesos agreed to sail away and not burn down the town. Hey, a guy’s got to make a living. So serious was the fear of attack on this motherlode of gold and gems that King Felipe II built a stone wall around the city starting in 1686 at a cost of 59 million ounces of gold. Crooked narrow streets were also part of the defensive plan. When the English attacked again in 1741 with a force of 24,000 men in 186 ships, the Spanish investment in defense proved a wise one. The British Army led by Admiral Vernon and accompanied by a half brother of George Washington could not break the defenses.

Cartagena’s greatest military victory did not however come over a fleet of ships menacing in the bay but from the internal enemy when in 1821 Simon Bolivar led his successful attack against the Spanish and once and for all liberated Colombia. On a political level, that is true, but I’m afraid on a human, day-to-day level, Colombia and Cartagena are still at war.

Although coffee, platinum and timber as well as oil provide financial freedom to this country, in the mosaic of life here, drugs and the violence that follows that horrid enterprise continue to dislocate every piece of that potentially beautiful picture. Kidnapping has become commonplace in the drug-fueled conflict that permeates every aspect of politics.

As a visitor there, I enjoyed the beauty of the old town of Cartagena with its backdrop of Miami-style buildings bunched together by the bay. On our visit to the Marine Museum and the proud fort, San Felipe de Barajas, I asked a policeman in the shopping precinct for directions to an American-style hotel just two blocks away. His reply, “Don’t walk there without a police escort. It is really too dangerous.” There had been several tourist kidnappings just that week as the war between the government and the various drug cartels and political factions once again burst into flame. That sort of political violence of course, just as in Northern Ireland, breeds an underclass that takes advantage of those lawless situations.

That conflict did not appear to deter this woman in my painting dressed as Carmen Miranda complete with fruit in her basket. She was not selling fruit in the marketplace. She was obviously aware of the potency of Hollywood. Tourists must have pictures, and for a price, she would be happy to create a Kodak moment.