Suburban Macondo

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Poor in Cartagena

At first you don’t notice the difference. They lie there, under a doorway or on a flattened cardboard box or, on one occasion, in a garden near Cartagena’s pirate-proof outer wall, and they look like bums. They wear tattered clothes. They roll over in waking sleep. They cover their faces with their arms and stir occasionally, doing what they can to avoid the afternoon heat. You think that’s maybe the best way to avoid the ugliness of it all, the difficulty of pleading for money, the pain and embarrassment of struggling to fill a shrinking stomach.

Then you realize these bums are kids, 10, 12, 14 years old. You realize the child who approached you the other night, asking for a few pesos for a potato or two, is curled up against a church door, sleeping at noon. Later that night you’ll see him again near the clock tower, fishing through garbage cans and eating someone else’s trash out of aluminum foil, while you sip your Colombian lager. And you start to realize that poverty here has no more devastating face that that of a child, tired, indifferent, hopeless, alone.


In Mérida there isn’t a lot of visible abject poverty. There are beggars, sure; most of them congregate on the Avenida 4 side of Plaza Bolívar, asking for money in the shadow of the cathedral. Many have physical deformities or are in some way infirm. They sit among the mimes and the popcorn vendors, quietly, sometimes silently, requesting your help.

The working poor, however, are in full force in Mérida, and indeed in all of Venezuela. Buhoneros, or street vendors, fill certain alleys and sidewalks downtown, all selling the same pairs of knockoff Nike socks or Colombian underwear. They are a relatively new part of urban Venezuela, and they are often mentioned by the opposition as examples of the country’s decline under Chávez’s presidency. But they merely make congested, dirty streets slightly more congested and dirty.

There aren’t a lot of kids begging in the city. There are little kids—8-year-olds, 10-year-olds—trying to sell incense, but they know the score and aren’t too persistent. After all, no one wants incense. Why they’re out selling, not what they’re selling, is the important question; where are their parents, and what are they doing?

In Venezuela, it’s the ranchos, or huge slums on the outskirts of most cities, that are the most eye-catching and appalling examples of poverty. In Caracas, the ranchos work their way up the surrounding hills, giving the appearance, from the posh districts in the distance, of a giant red-brick tidal wave, poised to spill over the city at any minute. From up close the ranchos are far more particulate, chaotic: They build up and off of each other in all directions, connected by a twisting, hanging array of staircases and pathways, the traces of which end abruptly at the most unlikely of intervals. At least a million people live there, but you don’t know them. You don’t see them. They might pass before you during the day outside of their hillside maze but you don’t ever go there, even near there. They’ll take everything, down to your socks, your life. That’s what our friends tell us.

Here in Venezuela, the poor have a new status, one thrust upon them by Chávez when he took office in 1998. He relies on their votes, they on his social programs. Never before had the poor been so empowered by a politician in this country. There are literacy campaigns in the ranchos, Cuban doctors in the ranchos, a bit of organization and hope in the ranchos. There is fear outside of these barrios of what would happen if they were to assert themselves, if Chávez gave them the OK to take over the cities, the countryside. And there is a fear that if Chávez is killed, or less likely, voted from office, the ranchos will explode and a country with oil in its lifeblood instantaneously will burn from the inside of its fears out.


In Colombia there is no Chávez, and there is no oil money to support broad-reaching social programs. There is an American-backed government. There is international aid. There are also the FARC’s guerillas, the apparently brutal paramilitaries, and the gringo planes spraying coca fields and campesinos with pesticides to end, once and for all, a foreign country’s War on Drugs. All of this has led to an incredible amount of internal refugees, or rural Colombians fleeing to the country’s cities; in fact, Colombia is behind only Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in overall numbers of internal refugees.

I don’t know but suppose that many of the displaced end up in Bogotá. I have no idea how many end up along the coast, in a city like Cartagena. But the fact that there is that much civil unrest—including a never-ending war—elsewhere seems to imply that no one place could be immune to the problem, and that general poverty could be heightened by the other problems festering in the general Colombian consciousness.

In Cartagena, though, the main draw for beggars and the working poor are obviously the tourists. They are everywhere, and from everywhere—Asia, Europe, the United States, Latin America, other places in Colombia. There are pitches for them all. Some are in Colombia for the coke and pot, and around all of the backpacker hostels in Getsemaní (a dingy, uneasy place where no one, including J.C., would go to pray in the face of impending death) lurk shoeless, battered men sitting on stoops whispering, “Coca. Ganja.” Some are in Colombia for the handicrafts, and for them there are artisans on every corner, in every plaza, many selling the same string of beads as the guy next to him. Others are there to spend their money on international cuisine and thousand-dollar purses, and the homeless go straight for the direct appeal with these people, providing a contrast often too stark to overlook. Still others are there for the local culture, for the feel of Colombia, much like we were. These are the people on whom the kids rely, first talking to us or making a joke to feel us out, then asking us for a little bit of change for some food. That it’s a cat-and-mouse game is sad; that these kids have to pretend to be interested in us and our lives and essentially play the role of the benevolent poor kid—instead of just telling us they’re hungry and homeless—was one of the most difficult aspects for me to grasp.

It’s hard, too, to think about these kids’ collective future. Where will they be in five years? What can be done to help them? I understand fully that Brooke and I can’t fix the problems of a poor Colombian child by giving him or her a 500-peso coin. I also know that not giving the child those 500 pesos isn’t going to deter him or her from begging, and that a couple of thin days won’t make him or her see the light of hard work and try to will follow in Ragged Dick’s footsteps on the strength of his or her pluckiness. After all, there is no American Dream in Colombia.

Might those 500 pesos help the child eat that night, though? Of course. Of course. And that’s why I have this hollow feeling looking back at the remaining piles of pesos from our vacation, 500s and 200s and 100s and 50s all hurriedly thrown in a backpack at some point along the way. Why did we hoard them so in Cartagena? Here in Venezuela, they are worthless keepsakes. You might even get one along the way, a memento from our trip. Remember: 500 pesos for a potato, 100 a mango.


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