Ordinarily we aren't nervous travellers, but my wife and I were relieved last month when Colombia's President Andres Pastrana said he would hold face-to-face talks with the left-wing guerrilla leader known as Sureshot. By happy coincidence the summit was scheduled for Valentine's week, during the final leg of our two-year quest to adopt a baby girl from Latin America. The last thing we needed was a flare-up in Colombia's 37-year civil war, so we felt like sending Mr. Pastrana and Mr. Sureshot a valentine.
Only two weeks before, the lovely woman who runs the Casa de Maria adoption centre in Medellin had cheerfully urged us not to be scared off by the latest bit of terror in Colombia's second city: the car bombing on Jan. 10 of an upscale shopping center that killed one person and injured 50 others. Just rival criminal gangs, she reassured us, nothing political.
Of course we weren't frightened, I said with all the aplomb I could muster. Our first trip to Medellin in December had been wonderful and we couldn't wait to return to the nice hotel, not far from El Tresoro, the blown-up mall. I was tempted to joke about a delay in our earlier journey -- the one we were told was caused by the kidnapping of two judges by left-wing agents and a resulting protest strike by the local judiciary -- but our good samaritan beat me to the punch: "If we wanted things calm, we'd live in Switzerland," she remarked. "But that would be boring."
Boring it is not in Colombia, a breathtakingly beautiful country possessed of so much wealth, sophistication and human warmth that it's possible to overlook its terrible poverty and violence. Even so, I now have some idea why most Colombians would like things to be a little less exciting. Between the drug-gang militias, right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing revolutionaries (who "tax" the drug producers), government human-rights abusers and U.S.-funded defoliators of farmers' fields (in the name of fighting the drug war), the poorest Colombians, of which there are many, can hardly catch a break.
Our new daughter comes from the lower classes, an economic refugee by any definition. Her impoverished mother and four siblings live in a village not far from Medellin -- beyond guerrilla checkpoints where it isn't safe to drive -- and I suppose they've been luckier than some. For one thing, they're still alive -- in December the Colombian press was full of stories about civilians being killed in the right-left crossfire. For another, they still have a village to live in. According to Action Against Hunger, an estimated 1.5 million people have fled their villages because of the civil war and "live in appalling conditions."
If it's true that only 40 per cent of the country is controlled by the government, we were fortunate to be in Medellin, where the heavily armed "Tourist Police" keep watch over gringos in hotels. We heard small-arms fire every night, but no one seemed to know where it came from, nor were they very concerned.
People get used to the status quo and if Colombia has the second-highest murder rate in the world, well, you can get used to that, too. Atop the steps to the plaza in front of the Medellin government complex a metal barricade has been erected to prevent car bombings (although this hardly differs from the United States). I was warned against photographing employees filing into the courthouse -- they might get the idea they were targets -- and I had to check my camera in the lobby before proceeding upstairs. Adoptive parent or not, I might have been this year's Timothy McVeigh.
If all this seems absurd, it's lost on the U.S. government. Like so many of their arrogant predecessors, Bill Clinton and now, apparently, George W. Bush, view Colombia as an "asset" to be protected or augmented, not a country with people and a complicated history.
Mr. Clinton evidently thought a modest $1.3-billion (U.S.) investment in military equipment and training might fix Colombia. But so far the anti-coca herbicide campaign looks like Vietnam (as in "destroying the village to save it"; when beans grow next to coca, both are obliterated) more than it looks like post-Cold War "nation-building." Colombia is blessed with an abundance of fertile land, and the notion of bombing plants that are so easily replaced has an insane quality worthy of the weirdest Pentagon "counterinsurgency" theories of the 1950s and 1960s. The surreal nature of Mr. Clinton's "Plan Colombia" was only heightened when the outgoing president commuted the prison sentence of Carlos Vignali, a major league cocaine salesman whose father, Horacio, gave $160,000 to various Democratic politicians.
President Bush seems more inclined to acknowledge the crucial role of American consumers in the narcotics trade; he even dared to say so out loud to Mexico's President Vicente Fox. But there has been no indication that he plans to leave Colombia to the drug cartels, Sureshot, and his right-wing counterpart, Carlos Castano, and President Pastrana.
I've never fully understood the American impulse to "reform" other countries by bombing or starving them (Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kosovo/Serbia), massacring their natives (the Philippines) or simply invading and overthrowing their governments (Cuba, Grenada and Panama). When not behaving self-righteously, ours can be a generous and intelligent nation -- witness the Marshall Plan -- yet we rarely choose the generous or intelligent option.
No better symbol points up this national contradiction than the hideous five-year-old U.S. embassy in Bogota, known by locals as "the bunker." I saw the old abandoned U.S. embassy in Saigon before it was torn down, and the two buildings share a bomb-proof ugliness that seems designed to demoralize, not uplift. Yet, from behind the bullet-proof glass on the ground floor, I heard the old-fashioned flat-accented courtesy I associate with the best of the American spirit: "Mr. MacArthur, here's the visa for that beautiful baby. We're sorry you had to wait so long; there were so many Peruvian refugee cases today."
I wondered: With all our money, can't we figure out a way to help more Colombian babies and their mothers, instead of destroying their crops and arming their government for another round of useless killing?
The answer came back negative upon our return to New York. We had unthinkingly sent ahead a can of white powdered Nestle's baby formula, in case our new daughter didn't like the new premixed brand we planned to use. When we opened the package we found American foreign policy spilled all over the plastic bag -- the foil seal had been broken by U.S. customs in a vain search for cocaine.
They don't celebrate Valentine's Day in Colombia, by the way. As regards Colombia, we really don't either.
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive