Cartagena, Colombia — These be pirate waters, the fabled Spanish Main, where freeboaters and buccaneers preyed like wolves on the Spanish Empire.
In the 1600’s, Spain’s imperial expansion and European wars were dependent on silver and gold looted from Peru. Spanish treasure fleets transported tons of silver from Peru on a two-month voyage north to Panama. Mule trains carried the treasure across the isthmus to the fever-infested hellhole of Portobello. There, another fleet of galleons waited to take the silver first east along the coast of Latin America to the port of Cartagena, then to Cadiz, Spain.
Where there was treasure, there were pirates. The Spanish Main became the main hunting ground for British, French and Jamaican buccaneers, the most famous of whom was Capt. Henry Morgan.
Many of these cutthroats bore “letters of marquee” from the British and French crowns, authorizing them as legal pirates to “singe the beard of the king of Spain.” The British and French crews usually took a cut of 10—20% from their pirates.
These Caribbean freeboaters were murderous, filthy, cruel, men, scum of the gutter. They bore no resemblance to Hollywood’s cute pirates.
Those who think history does not matter should consider that the five-masted vessel on which I voyage has been unable to use its sails because of fierce headwinds. In 1665, a British privateer, Edward Mansfield, led a pirate fleet on this very course, bent on sacking Cartagena. His ships met the same strong winds that buffet us, thwarting his raid.
He might have failed even had the winds held fair, for Cartagena was a powerful fortress, which it remains today, a treasure of 17th century military engineering and a jewel of colonial architecture.
The Colombian government is desperately trying to develop tourist business, but it’s a task as hard as sailing into the wind. A government tourist brochure cheerily proclaims, “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.”
Not quite. Last week, six tourists were kidnapped on the Pacific coast and the usual violence continued across this nation of 44.5 million, Latin America’s fourth largest country.
Travel to Colombia, long a world leader in kidnapping, drug dealing and gunplay, is not for the faint of heart. What a tragedy; Colombia is a magnificent nation, with vast resources of coffee, gold, silver, oil, emeralds, and coal, with a charming, friendly people and some of the world’s most beautiful women (a title shared with neighboring Venezuela).
Colombia has been racked by violence since the 19th century. From 1900—1953, two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, massacred one another with mindless abandon. Entire villages were slaughtered in the communal madness. At least 400,000 Colombians died in what they call, “La Violencia.”
At the heart of this orgy of violence lay bitter rivalry between big landowners of Spanish descent, known as “latafundistas,” and with Colombians of mixed or pure Indian or black blood.
Interestingly, I found a similar historic phenomena when covering the 1980’s war in Nicaragua. Behind all the slogans about “Marxismo” and freedom, the struggle between leftist Sandinistas and rightist Contras was really an extension of a longtime feud between two powerful families of land barons that began in the late 1800’s.
In the 1970’s, Marxist rebel groups began waging guerilla war against the government in Bogotá. Today, the largest of these groups, the FARC, has turned into a combination of ideological extremists, bandit army, and a major force in dealing cocaine and heroin. Hidden in the vast Amazonian forests of southern Colombia, the FARC continues to terrorize the nation, staging frequent attacks and kidnappings. FARC currently holds over 700 hostages, including two Americans who were working for the Pentagon.
Opposing FARC is the more or less democratic government of Alvaro Uribe, a hard-line right-winger who is very close to the Bush Administration and a major US ally. Uribe’s father was killed by FARC in a botched kidnapping.
The army and police are unable to defeat FARC’s guerillas, who have increasingly turned to refining and transporting cocaine. Large landowners created their own private army of right-wing death squads, the AUC, with secret backing from the military and police. They have committed almost as many atrocities as FARC.
This week, Venezuela’s mercurial leader, Col. Hugo Chavez, enraged Uribe by declaring FARC “a legitimate” movement. FARC receives limited financial and moral support from European and Latin American leftists who wrongly see it as a liberation army fighting social evil and landowners. Cocaine, kidnapping and extortion supply steady income to FARC.
No one knows what to do about long-suffering Colombia. Washington backs and finances Uribe, but rightly fears getting sucked into a jungle war in Colombia. Meanwhile, Colombians continue to suffer and live in terror. Every attempt to end the war through negotiations has broken down, but there is clearly no other way to end this frightful conflict.
The US, Canada and the EU should make solving Colombia’s festering civil war a major diplomatic priority. Nicaragua and El Salvador’s civil wars offer sensible models for resolution. Both bitter, murderous conflicts were finally resolved by power sharing that has stood up remarkably well. There is a big difference, though, between these wars and Colombia: drugs.
Furious at being unable to sack Cartagena, Capt. Mansfield reportedly lay a dreaded pirate curse on Colombia. Alas, it worked.