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Surprised by Cycles: How History Repeats Itself

An endless line of huge trucks and buses is baking in the Peruvian sun. Our fearless taxi driver Fernando is sneaking through to be quicker, if not blocked by angry camioneros. We´re in the middle of the desert between Ica and Nazca, El Niño has crushed parts of the Panamerican highway just the night before.

Over the past few days, the heavy rains and rivers emerging from their banks, caused by the natural phenomenon of El Niño, have worsened. With thousands of people forced to leave their houses, and a country-wide shortage of water, Peru is experiencing the gravest El Niño (or huaico, as it is called here) since 1957.

‘The current government of president Kuczynski doesn´t have the capacity to invest in the roads’, Fernando says, as he sees my eyes straying unbelievably over the chunks of asphalt that have been pushed away by the brown and muddy water. But toll taxation should be sufficient to solve this capacity problem, right? He grins: ‘no, that’s not worth it’.

Infrastructure is still an issue in Peru. According to the World Economic Forum, Peru occupies the 89th position of 140 countries when it comes to the quality of infrastructure. Although its economy grew by an average of 5.6% in 2009-2013, growth stuck in the past two years as world prices for metals and minerals went down. Almost 60% of the country’s total exports is formed by minerals such as copper, gold and petroleum, supplemented with all kinds of agricultural products. Despite its relatively fast growth over the past decades, economists agree that without diversification of the economy, such a level cannot be sustained.

Even Rosa Elena, a limeña in her fifties whom I met at the airport last week, underwrites this. She works for Uguil, one of Peru´s biggest mining equipment companies. Ironic as it may be, with a determined voice she keeps repeating that the mining sector in Peru cannot sustain the economy: ‘long-term investments in infrastructure and education is what we need’.

So, are these ideas new and fresh? Unfortunately not. The current debate seems to be an exact copy of the one started by the dependency-economists of the 1960s, of which my professors have spoken a million times: ´periphery´ countries need to become less dependent on low-skilled, primary sectors, as to become less dependent on ‘center’ countries and develop. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The heavy El Niño rains and the damage done to villages and industries in many parts of Peru, form a painful illustration of this incapacity in long-term thinking. ‘Unfortunately we haven’t learned our lesson’, says local expert in El Niño, Lizardo Lizarraga, in newspaper The Guardian. ‘People keep settling where there were once the riverbeds and gorges’. Already in 1579, demands in northern Peru (a region which now has been hit the hardest) were made by local Spanish authorities to improve defensive systems against the heavy rainfall. Yet apparently, the Peruvian state is still not sufficiently prepared.

As I am hearing all this, I’m struck by the idea that both with respect to El Niño and the economy, history seems to repeat itself: the same things are being said every few years.

Nazca is in sight: cabbie Fernando has managed to brave the road. Yet let’s hope Peru’s road to development will not remain stuck in historical cycles.

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Corrupted Confidence: Some Experiences

20170622_140143Last week I bribed a policeman. It was on a sunny afternoon, at a picturesque Caribbean beach, me and a Belgian co-traveller chilling, away from the crowds. Suddenly, two young men of the Policía Nacional start searching our bags, looking for drugs. In my friend´s bag, they find some marijuana. Shit. The bad cop of the two explains what is going to happen with my friend now. Possessing marijuana is illegal in Colombia according to law number blabla of the year blabla; my friend will be brought to the police station, where he will be fined; then, he will be kicked out of the country. Oops, this is quite heavy! Then the other cop – who hasn´t said a word thus far – starts to mumble there are alternatives… If we leave 250.000 pesos (=€75) in the cave behind us, we´re good. My friend and me look at each other, grab our wallets and do as they say. The supposed bad cop then walks through the cave, takes the money and disappears, though not before having warned us: ´It can be dangerous on this desolate beach, you´d better go back to where the crowds are!´ My friend starts grabbing his stuff, including the marijuana the police officers have returned to him.

Through years of reading newspapers and writing essays, I´ve always viewed corruption as an ever-present, yet distant phenomenon. It is corruption that destroys institutions and countries. Essentially, it kills the confidence that people need to have towards each other in order to cooperate, to work together. But for me, ´corruption´ remained something vague.

And now, on this heavenly white beach, those two policemen smashed its concrete reality in my face. BAM! This is corruption!

And it made me think.

Of course, this was a small and unimportant case. Travelling from Medellín to Bucaramanga, from Cartagena to Cali, people told me dozens of tall tales in which policemen discovered illegal stuff and accepted the money you´d give them. In fact, according to the experts, my friend and I even paid ´way too much´. (Pff, so even in this case we had to negotiate!?).

But, as Somebody said 2,000 years ago: if you are dishonest in little things, how can you be honest with greater responsibilities?

Most Colombians don´t trust the police. ´¨More than with thiefs, be careful with the police¨, my dad warns me when I go out´, 20-year old Caleño Briant tells me. Is this not somewhat exaggerated? Well, maybe not: research of the Economic World Forum shows that in 2016-2017, on a scale of 1 (´the police can´t be trusted at all´) and 7 (´the police can always be trusted´), Colombians give their National Police a disappointing 3.4. Which isn´t necessarily common for Latin America, with Chileans grading their police a 6. And, according to the Gallup Poll of 2016, the police is disapproved (rather than approved) by 59% of the Colombian population. The attorney general is not performing much better, with a 57% disapproval rate. Okay then, that´s not so much confidence.

A few days later after the ´little things-incident´, I get confronted with the greater responsibilities in Cali. As I´m admiring the century’s old Temple of San Francisco, my eyes slide to a collection of posters hanging on the Temple´s brown bricks. ¨What would you do for a child?¨and ¨The community is outraged¨are phrases that can be read above the portraits of some young Colombian boys.20170622_141956.jpg

A middle aged man, dressed in a kaki jacket and with a thick pile of paper in his hand, nods at one of the boys: ´That´s my 16-year old son, he got assassinated by two policemen 5 years ago, here in Cali´, señor Hector Martinez says calmly. ´He was just walking through his own neighborhood when he got shot.´ According to the police, there was a shootout going on between two gangs, where his son apparently belonged to: the policemen had to defend themselves and shot him. ´Both of this is false´, says señor Martinez. ´My son didn´t belong to any gang and nobody in the neighborhood has seen or heard a confrontation going on.´

The case was investigated. But señor Martinez barely heard anything of the progress being made, and finally, after 4 years and 7 months, the case was closed: his son got killed in a shootout, no blame to the police. But señor Martinez was not satisfied with it and started his own investigation: ´A lot of evidence has been omitted. For example,´ as he shows me one of the documents in his hands, ´there were two police cameras pointed at the place of the supposed shootout. But none of the video recordings have been used in the investigation. Why not?´

For more than four years, señor Martinez has been demonstrating in front of the church. Under his jacket, he wears a bulletproof vest. The police has already tried to shoot him once. ´Have you seen similar demonstrations in other cities here in Colombia?´ he asks me. No, I haven´t. ´That´s not because it´s not happening. Impunity and corruption of policemen are omnipresent, but people don´t dare to come out with it.´ With all evidence and questions gathered, he has made a petition to present to the attorney general, demanding to reopen the investigation.

But I´m afraid that el general no tiene quien le escriba.*

You can say I´m quite a trusting person. I like to have confidence in people, including the police officers. And usually, in Holland, my trust in our government institutions in general and my confidence in the police specifically, is not betrayed. But in Colombia and too many other countries, this trust is almost non-existent. Corruption may start with small bribery cases, but can eventually culminate into matters of life and death.

I realized that if we, society, don´t eradicate cases of dishonesty and corruption on the relatively small level, ranging from our own behavior to that of our institutions, the disease will slowly but certainly infect institutions on higher levels, ending up in an ill and scared society.

 

 

So Joost, the next time a police officer tells you ´there are alternatives´, will you say: ´I´m sorry mister civil servant, but I won´t participate in your dirty corruption! Just take me to prison, please..´.

No, I´m afraid I won´t say that.

 

And that´s what makes corruption so bloody dangerous.

 

*El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes The Colonel). A short novel written by Colombian literary hero Gabriel García Márquez in 1961. Bureaucracy, victims, and a rooster. Read it.

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From the Cup to the Bean: Colombian Coffee!

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When more people are getting married as the price of coffee peaks, you can say that coffee is a pretty dominant factor in your country. According to Eduardo Galeano in his classic Open Veins of Latin America (1971), this used to be the case in Colombia. I have arrived in the Eje Cafetero, one of the immense coffee regions in this country. Although its dependency might have lowered a bit over the past decades, in Colombia, still almost 1 million hectares of land is dedicated to coffee production (1/4 of the size of NL), making up for an annual export of 11 million bags of 60 kg. Here, our daily cup of coffee is born.

 

Unfortunately, doña Marie-Elena, one of the 550.000 coffee campesinas in Colombia, is already married. So no chance to verify Galeano´s statement here. I´m spending a few days at her finca, helping her in the garden in return for traditional dishes and a bed. A nice occasion to dig deeper into this area!

Family Business

Yesterday I opened newspaper El Tiempo, where the Minister complained that Colombia´s land is very unequally distributed: 1% of the owners possess 50% of the total land mass. In the coffee business however, matters seem to be better organized. Cycling through the hilly fields of Quindío, in every new turn the painted nameplate of yet another farm proudly shows me its existence. And this is true for the whole country: 95% of the coffee grower families own land dedicated to coffee cultivation that is smaller than 5 hectares.

People are proud of their coffee. The region has embraced tourism, showing us gringos the countless yellow and red berries scattered over the green hills. But also the ´normal´ growers speak with love about the bean, which was only introduced in Colombia by the Dutch in the early 18th century. It´s interesting how in such a relatively short period of time, this ´foreign´ product has managed to be fully adopted by the Colombians, both economically and culturally.

Desconnection

Walking through the supermarket, I often feel ashamed for having no idea where my food comes from. This definitely counts for coffee. Working my tail off in at the coffee finca, I try to recover at least a little bit of a connection with the beloved beans. Twice a year, the red and yellow berries (which actually taste sweet!) of the Arabica coffee tree are ready to be picked. Like most of her neighbors, doña Marie-Elena then dries the beans in rather simple, plastic ´greenhouses´.

I felt bad for not knowing where my coffee comes from. Yet as turns out, doña Marie-Elena is even less aware of where her coffee beans are going to: ´For me, the customer is the FNC (Colombian Coffee Growers Federation). During the harvest seasons, every few weeks their truck comes by to pick up my beans´. What happens next, she has no clue.

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Going international

So what does happen next? Having collected the bags, the Coffee Growers Federation ships the green beans to the large roasting companies. At least, the high-quality beans. Doña Marie-Elena shows me the crappy beans: dark flakes, usually affected by parasite and disease, which can be found in the Colombian supermarkets.

The white high-quality beans are then roasted to obtain their familiar brown color. Most of the roasting however happens in the consumer countries, by companies from the consumer countries (for example by our very own Douwe Egberts, which daily spreads that delicious smell of Colombian beans through the streets of Utrecht).

So why not roast it domestically? Doña Marie-Elena sighs that for this, ´one needs a certification, which is really expensive to obtain´. Furthermore, international competition of the big roasting companies makes it difficult for Colombians to enter the market. And that after 150 years of coffee cultivation! It seems that by only exporting green, unroasted beans, Colombia is still missing quite some revenues… which again makes me think of Galeano in Open Veins, who stated that ´coffee benefits much more those who consume it than those who produce it´. Mm…

So there you go: a pretty mixed collection of impressions. Whether the whole coffee structure in Colombia is a good or a bad thing, I don´t know yet. However, having always lived at the end of the production chain, it feels good to have experienced some of the daily practices at its very start. A chain which in the end is made up of people. One thing is certain: for me, a cup of coffee (and marriage..) will not be the same anymore.

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The Inca Image

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Mighty. Ingenious. In harmony with nature. Those are just a few features that come to our minds when the word ‘Inca’ is mentioned. I´ve arrived in Cuzco, the ´navel of the world´, according to the ancient Incan empire.

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly got used to the positive connotations the ‘Inca-image’ apparently carries with it in Peru. The general name for this indigenous civilization, whose empire stretched from Ecuador to Chile until it was defeated by the Spanish conquistadores in 1533, first comes in sight in commerce. Almost not ignorable are the numerous companies that have associated their names with these people. A new car? Go to Inka Motors. Thirsty? Try Inca Kola. Thirsty for money, then Credinka is the place to go! Or how about Inkafarma?

This last one, Inkafarma, shows us how long this Incabranding has been going on already. In 1898, a Bolivian store called The Inca Pharmacy started to use the Inca-image for its advertisements.  Apparently, notions of ´civilization´ and ´modernity´ could be perfectly expressed by this name.1234

The Inca-adoration can however be traced back even further: our own 17th century Voltaire, praised the ¨idyllic¨ Incas ¨as symbolic of the ideas of the Enlightenment¨, contrary to the other ¨stupid¨ indigenous Americans. Nonetheless, some of the glorious seeds seem to have been planted by the semi-Indian, semi European writer Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The past few days I´ve been reading parts of his work Royal Comentaries of the Incas, published in 1609, and ´romanticism´ and ´heroism´ seem the best words to describe his account of the pre-colonial Incan empire, when reading about the ¨great Tupac¨ kings or that ¨there were no poor people¨.

Back to 2017. How do people feel about Inca’s nowadays? Talking with Peruvians in cities like Arequipa, Puno and Cuzco, most utter only praising words about these indigenous people, with a nostalgic smile on their lips. As if they used to live with them themselves. Such as Diego, a young cuzqueño in his late twenties: ¨I’m Peruvian, but I have Incan blood¨, he says. He is now learning Quechua, to better understand the spiritual wisdoms of his ancestors, which, according to many like Diego, were superior to most of the Western values nowadays. ¨Over the past few decades, more excavations and discoveries of Inca buildings have been done¨, he says. ¨This has made people more proud.¨

Well, I must certainly underline that – statements such as ¨there was no hunger¨ or ¨they Incas were one with nature¨ have been often made to me so far. A few days later, bookseller Jorge, in whose tiny bookstore I just bought the classic Las venas abiertas de América Latina, illustrates this: ¨If a child doesn´t know about his mother, how can he really love her? We Peruvians are learning more about our Inca ancestors, this brings us closer to them.¨

In the rare case the Peruvian wouldn´t come closer to the Inca, then the Inca will certainly make sure he comes closer to them: In 2011, Cuzco´s main square was treated to a huge sculpture of an Inca king, his hands mightily raised in the air. Bookseller Jorge however is not happy with it: ¨He is too skinny, not so powerful. O, and he looks like a tennisplayer serving a ball.¨

Skinny or not, in the end we know very little about this civilization, whose empire only lasted a century. A civilization that cannot talk back. Close enough to be remembered, far enough to be kneaded. It seems that to their heart´s content, people can borrow this Inca-image to project their own desires of how humanity ought to be. They seem to draw inspiration out of it.

Considering all this, my dominant feeling is one of surprise. Especially because of the fact I might be doing exactly the same, the only difference being the type of ´image´I borrow…