The Blacksmith

January 3rd, 2013 CARTAGENA- The authority of a large metal gate guards an entrance where there are men with carts gathering and waiting. The gate is a pair of cathedral-sized doors made with 3-inch perfect circles. Suddenly a man appears from the darkness. I see him through the gate. He carries a brick. I ask him about the iron. He tells me I should meet Tico on Calle de Lumbra. Tico knows iron.
Javier, an eager servant to a woodworker, tells me to follow him. He promises to help me find Tico. We walk in silence. A heap of shoes wait on a rickety desk outside of a barbershop. On one street, in front of a blue facade, a man chisels off the rust on a set of bicycle spokes. The wheel he scrapes has no tire. The man wears no shirt. His feet wear no shoes. And his skin, like cursing and swearing through the night, sobs sweat from an oily black back. Then we turn down an alley. Children. Suspicious eyes. Men gambling. “Habla!” one says to Javier. Javier ignores any temptation to talk.

We turn again. Then stop. A man comes to the threshold. His mustache covers his expression. He stands in front of the doorway as if to say that it is impossible to pass. Stubborn as a mule. Finally, the blacksmith.

The blacksmith wears spectacles. His hair is salt and pepper, but mostly salt. And his mustache is salt and pepper too, but more pepper than salt. Tico leads us into his workshop. Behind him a younger woman sits and carves flesh with a large metal blade. From a pile of tangled rusty memories, of steel chairs and metal gadgets, Tico wrestles out a long steel rod. He towers over a piece of rail road track – his anvil – and with a hammer in hand he begins to crush the tip of the long metal rod over the iron track. Each slam is perfect. In a matter of seconds, the metal fits a calculated scroll. Without saying a word, Tico holds it out for me to observe.

Tico makes gates, locks and cages that protect precious things from thieves. In each example he points out his scrolls. Each one obeys an exact Fibonacci sequence.  Like his ironwork, the blacksmith is quiet but strong. Silent but sure. And proud. There is something very proud about the way Tico moves through these streets. He is their protector, after all.

For thicker steel, you need heat, says Tico. Serious heat. When we get to the forge, the doorway is guarded. A squad of men with hard faces stand around the doorway. In the doorway two men grapple with a lantern, twisting it and slugging it with a hammer. The men say something hostile toward Tico. He ignores them. Finally the distraction of the lantern falls and one of the men asks Tico what he wants. He answers. What he says is enough for the men. Suddenly we plunge into the workshop. It is cavernous and cluttered. Tico leads us to the back, where a tall man slinks around an open pit of coals and fire. His mouth twists nervously. Three metal rods are snoozing in his fire. He pulls them out of the coals, waking up their hot tips. His hammer goes into action. There is a paced immediacy to his swing. When he finishes, he holds the rod up. Tico takes it. It is red hot on the tip. Four sides are visible. They come to a point.
“La punta de la lanza,” says Tico. “The point of the lance.”
The humble shops that line the streets open their doors for service when they want to here. Small children sleep pasted to ancient tiled floors, inhaling dust, dreaming against honking taxis and wailing vendors. You can see them lying in wooden-framed bed, tucked in safely under the vigilant gaze of an old body that rocks back and forth in a chair. You can see them doze at every hour of the day beyond gates that cover the windows. Time has no authority here. But its people do have an authority. He is a quiet one. He lives through the iron that protects the people of these streets. Tico says little. Then again, sometimes authority doesn’t have to.

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Vultures

January 2, 2013 Getsemaní, Cartagena – Two dogs loll and swagger around us. Sad dogs. Dogs whose ribs show through their tired skin. Behind us meat smokes on a rickety charcoal fire that sits on the sidewalk. Chicken, yucca, potatoes, pork and slabs of raw meat, whose dignity fell prey to flies and ignorance a long time ago, sit and melt on the sidewalk chef’s modest altar on Calle de la Media Luna. Three men sit in the street lawn chairs. The chef hacks away at the meat with a dull blade. His three men watch the hacking. If they are praying for anything right now, they stay away from putting their faith into plain words. A bottle touches one man’s lips. He sips.

 
Gustavo sits next to me, chicken grease taking his hands prisoner. He wears a clean white collared-shirt and plaid shorts. The curb underneath him, however, is black from the street and the smoke and the dirt. Ripping through our chicken, Cartagena unwinds around us. You can hear the two dogs’ soft panting now. That oppressed sound, crushed by the noise of stronger machines, fades into the sadness of the cracked pavement on which they snooze. Some old men shuffle by. The chef with the knife finally has nothing to do, so he stands.

Then a young tall guy suddenly crosses the street and starts to walk directly toward us. A young girl walks next to him. He sets his eyes on mine. He holds a tough stare. His arm reaches out. His palm is open, as if ready to shake mine. But instead of a friendly greeting, his hand seems more like an intruder, and I am suddenly vulnerable here, planted on the curb, covered in gobs of chicken fat. Sweating.

The hand swoops down and touches my chest just above my breast pocket, which holds my cellphone. I say something involuntarily. Probably something loud and threatening, but I don’t register the words. A memory that forgets is precious in an instance like this one. The man and his girl are walking again. This time they are on the other side of the me. I pat my hands over my chest. The cellphone is still in my pocket. But that hand and the arm and the stare and their quiet machinations felt more like a vulture than a man. The sad dogs are happy to wait until we are done with our chicken. They lick the bones, but only after we have decided to feed them. Something closer to civil. Not like vultures.

Foreign investment could hurt Colombia peso, economy: Analysts

January 14th, MEDELLÍN (Colombia Reports) – Analysts worry over the consequences of a strengthening peso after Colombia recorded a jump in Foreign Direct Investment in 2012.

Colombia, the third largest economy in Latin America, reportedly received $16.7 billion in foreign direct investment in 2012, far exceeding the Ministry of Commerce’s goal of $10.8 billion. This marked a 25% increase from 2011.

Roughly 59% of capital inflows, however, poured in to Colombia’s booming energy and mining sectors, provoking concern amongst some analysts over the severity of a potential “Dutch disease,” which occurs when currency appreciation, in response to a steep rise in commodity demand, erodes the price competitiveness of other export products.

David Reese, an emerging markets economist and Colombia analyst with Capital Economics in London told the Financial Times that “on the one hand, it is good that Colombia is being seen as a favorable destination for FDI. It shows how far the economy has come in building investor confidence.”

But Reese expressed concern over the negative consequences that come with a sharp increase in foreign investment inflows.

“We’ve seen industry struggle for a long time now,” said Reese. “We have seen consumer spending slow and we have reached the point of low growth and rate cuts.”

The Colombian economy experienced an extreme slowdown in the third quarter of 2012 when GDP grew just 2.1% — a five percent drop from the same period in 2011.

As Reese explained, pressure on the peso warps sectors other than energy and mining.

Economist Ed Dolan explained that the behavior of the peso has in turn produced a loss of competition for Colombia’s manufacturing and agriculture sectors.

The peso’s gain in 2012 prompted the Central Bank to shore up its dollar-buying policy in order to cool down the peso and prevent a more dangerous onset of Dutch disease. Jose Dario Uribe, Manager of the Central Bank, told local media that in 2013 the bank plans to buy at least $4.6 billion in US currency.

Land reform, decreased inequality minimum demands for peace: FARC

January 15th, 2013 MEDELLÍN (Colombia Reports) – Colombia’s largest rebel group, FARC, on Monday set agrarian reform and a decrease in inequality as their minimum demands for reaching a peace agreement with the government.

In an interview sent to Colombia Reports, the guerrilla’s lead negotiator “Ivan Marquez” — whose real name is Luciano Marin — laid out their principal demands in negotiations.

“The minimums? Comprehensive rural reform and the reversal of the Gini coefficient,” said Marquez. The Gini coefficient is the main statistical measure of a country’s inequality. According to the World Bank, Colombia currently has the seventh worst in the world, comparable with Haiti and Angola.

“There’s a common diagnosis on the situation of misery that, like a weed, invaded the Colombian countryside. The Gini coefficient of 0.89 is a mirror that reflects the terrible inequality that is prevalent in this sector. The government doesn’t even have the strength or the arguments to challenge those sad figures of injustice,” explained Marquez.

Though the Colombia government has claimed that its economic model is not up for debate in the peace talks, Marquez insists that omitting it from the talks is “not consistent with the spirit of the General Agreement of Havana.”

“It is impossible for the deepening of neoliberal policy, promoted by [President Juan Manuel] Santos, and the delivery of territory to the multinational extractive industry to escape the discussion about land access and use, and food sovereignty,” said the rebel negotiator.

“Dignified life in the cities depends on rural stability, and vice versa. It should strengthen the symbiotic relationship so that Colombia moves forward. We must democratize national life, beginning with the democratization of land ownership,” Marquez claimed.

Just prior to the restart of negotiations on Monday, the Colombian government and FARC studied more than 500 proposals from citizens, gathered during a forum hosted by the U.N., along with input from university professors, experts, and peace commissions regarding the contentious matter of land reform.

Marquez said that all input from the committees would be given serious consideration by the FARC delegation, declaring that “they contain the hope of solving the problem that many rural people have longed for…this is the key to peace.”

In the interview, the rebel leader showed a willingness to reach a peace agreement before November, the deadline imposed by President Santos, but said he refused to prematurely sign a deal.

“Although we’re in no electoral hurry, we hope to be able to have an integrated agrarian reform before November,” Marquez said.

Both the government and rebels have labeled land reform as crucial for the signing of any treaty that would put an official end to almost 50 years of fighting — the longest-running civil conflict on the continent.

During his Christmas address, Santos spoke of the importance of reaching social justice, signaling a willingness to confront the same issues Marquez speaks of in future rounds of talks. In a speech towards the end of December, the Colombian presidentspoke of “a true peace; a peace that is not just the end of violence but also progress towards a greater social justice.” The FARC, ever since peace talks began, have stressed the necessity for peace “with social justice.”

Nevertheless, according to Marquez peace is not yet within reach.

“We are taking the first steps [that] we all know are complex. We need navigation equipment. To reach our destiny of peace we need GPS and compass, statistics, figures and land registries. But in Colombia this support does not exist or is insufficient. We need to know what is going to be redistributed, returned and formalized. It can’t just be wastelands.”

The sergeant in his labyrinth: José Guarnizo’s story

January 8th, 2013 MEDELLÍN (Colombia Reports) – The Odyssean story of Sergeant Jose Guarnizo, a former hostage now condemned for participation in a massacre, has shed light on the extraordinary complexity of Colombia’s half-century armed conflict.

Guarnizo fell into the hands of the country’s largest guerrilla group, FARC, in July 1997 in the northern Antioquia department. Along with a handful of high-ranking officials, the sergeant was taken captive, and remained a hostage for six years until May 2003 when he was rescued by security forces. The rescue, however, did not run smoothly, and ended in the deaths of other hostages, including former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverry and the then-governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria.

Then, two years after his release, Guarnizo was convicted for his role in a 1992 massacre of seven farmers in the central Meta Department. The courts sentenced him to over 33 years in prison.

But three years later, in 2008, a local court in the Meta Department acquitted him on the grounds that it was impossible for Guarnizo to have been in the town during the time of the murders.

Liberation was fleeting for the sergeant — just before courts entered recess in December 2011, the sentence was reinstated.

“They have not issued the arrest warrant, but they left me with a sentence of 34 years for the process that I had won in the first instance,” Guarnizo told the Associated Press.

Much like the Sergeant’s story, Colombia’s half century of armed conflict between leftist guerillas, illegal paramilitary groups and the Colombian state is like a labyrinth.

Where it will end is hard to see.