Text Messages | A continent’s unease

Cartagena, the tourist and heritage jewel where Gabriel Garcia Marquez began writing as a journalist, is far from immune to the turmoil sweeping through South America.

South America is in turmoil. States of emergency have been declared in Santiago, the capital of Chile, and throughout Ecuador. In Peru, President Martín Vizcarra dissolved Congress at the beginning of October to end a year of resistance by right-wing parliamentarians to his anti-corruption campaign.

To be on the continent at this time is to see the bitter battle between the left and the right joined with renewed venom and force. Chile is again in the grip of a centre-right president, Sebastián Piñera, who is moreover a billionaire who felt sufficiently confident – as well as being characteristically conceited – to tell the Financial Times newspaper that his country “looks like an oasis”.

In this oasis of neoliberal reforms, however, students and youths reached breaking point when metro fares were hiked by 3%. Over the weekend of 18 to 21 October, a fare-dodging movement grew into metro stations being torched, with demonstrators and police clashing. As Monday 22 October dawned, 11 people had been killed, more than 1 550 arrested and over 10 000 military deployed on the streets, in a grim reminder of the days of the Pinochet regime.

Although the government has abandoned the fare increase, the systemic problems of the billionaire’s paradise remain: pensions are low, water has, grotesquely, been privatised and the price of electricity has soared.

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Further north in Ecuador, the results of that country’s compact with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have become painfully apparent. President Lenín Moreno agreed a $4.2 billion loan with the IMF in February 2019. The inevitable consequence of that is financial austerity imposed on the citizens of Ecuador, most notably the scrapping of a fuel subsidy that has helped ordinary Ecuadorians for four decades.

The government claims that ending the subsidy and introducing tax reforms will lead to Ecuador saving roughly $2.2 billion per year. No prizes for guessing who suggested such savings, or whom they will benefit.

Nationwide protests at the beginning of October brought bus, taxi and truck drivers together with trade unions, students and indigenous groups in major road blockades in the capital, Quito, and the second-largest city, Guayaquil.

Amid the chaos

Surveying the continent’s unease is dispiriting, the more so being in Colombia, which holds nationwide local elections on 27 October. And elections in Colombia are deadly. The country’s Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (Pares) says that 16 political candidates have been murdered in the Pacific voting region since the electoral cycle began.

The Caribbean polling area of Colombia, which includes Barranquilla and Cartagena, is fascinating. Here is how The Bogota Post newspaper outlined the coming mayoral elections there.

“When it comes to the Caribbean coast, however, heavily ingrained patterns of nepotism do not show signs of letting up … in the city of Cartagena … Although all 15 mayoral candidates intend to focus on combating corruption, race frontrunner – William Garcia – is closely associated with ex-mayor Manolo Duque, who is currently serving a prison sentence on charges of corruption.”

Cartagena is the tourist and heritage jewel of the country. Its 16th-century old city, encircled by defensive walls, draws visitors and tourist dollars. It is a safe zone in a nation that still has memories of the terror tactics of the drug lord Pablo Escobar and is still grappling with resolving the long-running stand-off with the guerilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo, FARC–EP and FARC).

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There is another indelible association with the city. It was here that Gabriel Garcia Marquez set out on his journalistic career, writing for the newspaper El Universal in 1948 and 1949. His words below, from his two greatest novels, are both eerily predictive and particularly poignant given the dementia to which he finally succumbed at the age of 87 in 2014.

Love in the Time of Cholera:

“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.”

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