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“Mom! I Have a Dream is playing on the radio in this restaurant!”
“Wow… you’re right. I can’t believe you noticed!”
“Ben, Whit noticed I Have a Dream playing during the chorus of this song. He was paying attention to our talk last night!
A lot of people were concerned for our safety when we decided to move to Medellin. I knew that Pablo Escobar was a drug lord from Medellin, but I never watched TV shows about him or bothered to do much research into that era so I didn’t understand their concerns. At first it bothered me. We’ve been in a lot of unfamiliar, potentially dangerous locations, but we’re smart travelers who are stay vigilant about our surroundings. We would never put our son (or ourselves) in danger, and have enjoyed the help and overwhelming support of locals and strangers in nearly every place we’ve been (except for the men who grabbed Whit’s privates in Panama and Vietnam. But that’s another story.) Being afraid for us based on historical events felt like our judgement was being undermined and well-meaning friends and family weren’t giving this culture a chance.
Now that I’m here I realize they had a right to be concerned. I’ve met many people who were personally affected by the thousands of car bombs Escobar’s camp inflicted on the country, seen buildings rebuilt from the destruction, visited museum exhibits of people and villages ransacked by drug cartels, and heard stories about the years it’s taken to separate from the cocaine trade.
The 80’s-90’s really were a terrible time for Colombia, and especially Medellin.
But I was right, too. That time is over, and people are working incredibly hard to overcome that history.
What we’ve found in Medellin is that people were so universally affected by Escobar’s drug cartel that they all pulled together after his death to take their city back. It’s now a gorgeous city with great infrastructure, modern amenities, and less crime than most US cities. Petty crime does still exist, of course, but I’ve heard plenty of stories of locals coming together to thwart criminals. The pride they take in their region and keeping it wonderful is inspiring.
In recent weeks, however, Colombia has joined many other South American countries trying to take their country back from a corrupt government. Venezuela faces one of the largest refugee crises in history as their government takes them from riches to rags, the president of Bolivia has fled to Mexico leaving a dangerous power vaccuum in the country, and, protests have broken out in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia.
Even though we live here, we don’t completely understand how or why all of this is happening. Have you heard about it?
We asked a Colombian friend of ours to meet us for dinner one night to talk about what is going on in Colombia. Whit has been sent home from school early three times and kept home once because of “manifestations” (protests), but it’s hard for us to follow local news to decide how serious the protests are and if we should consider leaving the area.
Jorge was incredibly patient with us and explained that the Hong Kong protests have inspired citizens of developing countries to take a stand against those in power. Once injustices are defined locals take the best action they can in speaking out against them- protesting. A radical group has even been formed by people from Venezuela, Chile, and Spain to participate in local protests and incite the protesters to violence in an effort to escalate their agenda.
Colombia is the latest country to rise up against their leaders, for four main reasons:
- The government did not give promised funds to Universities
- An indigenous village was unnecessarily bombed by the government. Children were killed, and the government covered up the attack claiming they were guerrillas.
- Pensions are being lowered and the retirement age is rising
- The new Secretary of Defense (after the one responsible for the unnecessary bombing was released) was the political partner of Pablo Escobar and considered corrupt.
People are asking for reform and apologies on these four points, and have planned protests until a specific date if their demands are not met. For the most part these protests are peaceful, but people have been killed and property has been destroyed, especially when members of the radical group are present.
How does it feel to be an expat during this time of political upheaval?
Well, it can be a little scary. On the surface we know that we’re safe in Medellin (and in Colombia in general), but the threat that things could go dangerously violent still exist. We try to stay up-to-date on what’s going on, but since we don’t understand the local news there’s a fear that we won’t have the information we need to get out before it’s “too late.” We’re left to think the best of the people around us and assume we’re safe, while staying smart and vigilant.
On the other hand I am actually grateful to be here during the protesting. It’s a powerful opportunity to teach Whit about the danger of mistreating others.
As I’ve often said, one reason we wanted to travel while Whit was young was to teach him to respect and value people of all circumstances early. We’ve exposed him to people different from us as often as possible, and I can proudly say he doesn’t seem affected by the amount of money people have, what they eat, how their house looks, what color they are, what language they speak, or any other factors. We aren’t perfect parents and he’s not a perfect child, but I do think we’re handling this one thing right.
The day before the largest planned protest (when Whit’s school was closed) we had a great discussion as a family about the power of protesting over dinner. We told Whit that protesting was one way people without power can communicate their displeasure to those in power, and used the American Civil Rights movement as an example. We watched videos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and talked about how unfair it is to treat people differently based on factors they can’t control.
He seemed to understand the concept of protesting for rights but did not understand the need. He called the reasons people are mistreated and governments act poorly “silly”, which, I admit, made me proud.
That night we evolved from talking about the South American protests to American ones, to watching videos of famous speeches and Beatles songs calling for revolution, to Just Dance competitions and flash mob videos on YouTube. It was awesome.
But we got out point across, and we were all glued to local news in the next few days to learn about what was going on in our new country.
While protests in Cali and Bogota have resulted in some destruction and loss of life, we’ve felt safe in Medellin. I’m happy to announce that the radicals were denied entrance here, keeping our local protests relatively peaceful and calm. A few locals did try to vandalize buildings, but videos show groups of people cleaning up graffiti as soon as any was sprayed. Some people gave waters and food to the ESMAD police, and others reminded their neighbors not to hurt the city as it belongs to them.
I asked Jorge if the local pride was a result of Pablo Escobar. People in Medellin are so much more proud to be Paisas from the Antioquia region than transplants from other parts of the country seem to be, and I’ve long wondered if it’s because they banded together to protect each other and their city after Escobar’s destruction. They’d had something precious taken away, and they were beyond grateful to get it back- never to be taken for granted again. Jorge agreed.
What’s ironic about the protests is that we’re simultaneously celebrating the Christmas season of peace and love. Medellin is famous around South America for it’s overwhelming Christmas traditions, which began weeks ago. Every shopping center is covered in Christmas lights, larger shopping malls have central winter displays of ice skating rinks and North Pole photo areas, Christmas trees are on each street corner, and music is playing.
A week ago pots and pans were being banged on with wooden spoons around the city as a sign of protest, and a few days later the city was aglow with fireworks at midnight to ring in the Christmas month.
To take things a step further we American expats have added Thanksgiving into the mix. Whit helped me prepare our Thanksgiving meal last Wednesday (which turned out to be an absolutely delicious meal with friends with some of my best home made items, but ended up with Whit having lice. Read about the funny nightmare here) because he was sent home early from school yet again. People were literally taking to the streets in anger as we were counting our blessings!
We can’t help but consider how this will affect our future in South America. The original plan was to stay on the continent until mid-April, but we have an escape plan in place in case things go awry quickly. We’ve already altered our plans to avoid Ecuador and Bolivia and go straight to Peru and onward to Argentina after Colombia, but I can’t help but hold out hope that the protests will die down by early 2020 so we can return to west coast and see those places before we leave for Europe.
We’ll keep you posted.