A recent propaganda campaign in the Washington, D.C. is blinding and misleading the American leadership at a crucial crossroads for U.S.-Colombia relations.
About a week ago, after a pleasant late-summer breakfast in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood, I noticed a large yellow heart sculpture outside the nearby Metro Station. In a city dotted with unexpected public art, this glowing heart caught my attention because it was lined with statistics showcasing Colombia’s ethnic diversity.
In recent days, 47 such hearts have popped up in strategic locations around the U.S. capital. They showcase the country’s beauty, modernity, and, of course, its most popular tourist destinations. The exhibit, funded in part by the Colombian government, is meant to improve Colombia’s image among the residents of what is arguably the world’s most powerful city.
Naturally, the have been more than a few complaints about the initiative. Many groups, including the satirical ColombiaVisit.org, have alleged that the exhibit is actually a propaganda campaign intended to influence U.S. Congressmen and facilitate the signing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. They are obviously onto something: the seven largest hearts are at Union Station, an important transport hub located just a block from congressional office buildings and the U.S. capitol. Nevertheless, protest groups are misguided in their complaints. It is by no means uncommon for governments to attempt to change their countries’ image to alter political outcomes.
Nevertheless, there is something strange about this campaign. At first glance, it seems strange that the government’s method of choice in easing concerns about human rights abuses, union leader murders, environmental standards and democracy are pictures of afro-Colombians, hotels in Cartagena and Bogota’s business district.
Indeed, the bizarre premise of the exhibit is that a country with skyscrapers, gourmet restaurants and natural beauty cannot possibly be mired in violence and political repression. This simplistic mindset is common not only among Colombia’s political leaders, but also much of its citizenry.
Colombians, naturally frustrated by their country’s portrayal in foreign movies and newspapers, tend to see the country’s image in purely black-and-white terms. The country’s “good qualities” – including aguardiente, Shakira, beautiful women, and emeralds – are thought to be mutually exclusive with its “bad qualities” – most notably the FARC, but also other security and political challenges. To give a particularly absurd example, when I attended an anti-kidnapping march in Buenos Aires, I repeatedly heard exclamations like “Viva la arepa!” as if Colombian cuisine were the answer to the country’s hostage crisis.
But what exactly is so harmful about these simplistic expressions of nationalism?
When it comes to delicate and urgent political problems, this brand of nationalism tends to steer the country and its leaders away from solutions. Colombians, especially the current administration, tend to treat those who raise awareness abroad about the country’s challenges as defeatist enemies of Colombia tainting the country’s image. In other words, they are silencing the few voices spreading the truth about the country’s urgent needs, in effect rejecting the type of international support that could be crucial to sustainable solutions.
What good do we do to the country by informing America’s leading politicians of the highest-rated restaurants in Bogota? To be honest, very few congressmen are potential visitors. On the other hand, nearly all of them will have an important say in major policy decisions. Unfortunately, the current strategy of blinding policymakers with glowing hearts does little to alleviate their already crippling ignorance with regards to Colombia.
Indeed, it seems that there are only two competing views of Colombia in the U.S.: Hollywood’s portrayal of a hopelessly impoverished jungle warzone and the yellow heart’s equally inaccurate illusion of a peaceful, problem-free tourist haven. Somewhere in the midst of this battle of mirages is the quiet voice of financially struggling human rights organizations working to inform congressmen about Colombia’s challenges. The fact that any American politician can speak competently about Colombia is nothing short of a miracle.
Precisely because we are proud of our beautiful country, we should make sure that the men in Washington shaping its future are well-informed about its most pressing issues. If we don’t, who will?