Released in 2009, a 116 page document offers information designed to help US diplomats and service members integrate into Colombia society, yet it still retains certain outdated stereotypes.
The Colombian cultural field guide offers information on prominent ethnic groups in Colombian society, social norms and cultural traits which could assist a foreigner living in Colombia. The government released the document in 2009, and it continues to be given to US military and diplomatic staff before they are sent to the country.
Before delving into the history and structure of the Colombian military and government bodies, the guide first offers 46 pages of information about Colombia’s people and customs. It represents Colombia as a generally conservative and male-dominated society based in Catholic traditions and family values.
Useful tips from the article for US citizens in Colombia:
- Try to speak Spanish. Colombians will appreciate the effort.
- Accept and eat all food offered. Failure to do so will cause offense.
- Be tactful when discussing current affairs and politics. Locals will not respond well if they feel they are being criticized by someone from the U.S
- Don’t use slang terms to describe people of different races.
- Don’t be offended if Colombians use slang terms like gringo (derogatory term for white person).
- Colombians enjoy fresh fruit and good whiskey, and it is appropriate to bring one of these gifts to a dinner party.
- Do not signal for people with one finger pointed upwards, use a sweep of the hand. The American OK symbol is considered vulgar and offensive.
- Catcalls, whistling and jeering by individuals or groups of men directed at women is common. While Colombian women accept this attention from Colombian men, they may not tolerate such actions from non-Colombians.
While the document offers useful regional tips about greeting men and women differently, offering gifts and appropriate topics of conversation, it is also full of questionable racial language such as “white elite” and “Mestizos” (those of mixed race) and paints the extremely diverse Colombian society into very black and white socio-economic and racial groups.
“Inheriting power from their colonial ancestors, the white elite has structured Colombian society to fit its needs, creating a society designed to reaffirm colonial structure and grant the elite sole access to political, social and economic power. Colombia’s white elite continues to view the indigenous and black populations, and to a lesser degree the nation’s mestizo [mixed race] population, as inferior. Whites define themselves as civilized, cultured, urbane and decent; they believe the other groups lack these qualities.”
The US — who have more than 800 soldiers and 400 military advisers within the country — continue to work closely with the Colombian government, and will therefore aim to promote a clean-cut image of the US serviceman to maintain this friendly relationship.
Recent scandal arose in 2012 at the Summit of the Americas, when it emerged that several US secret service agents on Obama’s security team were cavorting and drinking heavily with prostitutes in a Cartagena hotel, leading to the dismissal of some of those involved.