Latin American Notes

An Essay in Hopelessness

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

An aim of this laudable patch of the internet is to give people in the United States some faint idea of the lands to their south. It is hard slogging. I can think of few ideas more tenaciously and lovingly held, more treasured and more satisfying to the North American mind than that Latin American countries are primitive hellholes like Detroit. Inspiring the slightest doubt of this seems virtually impossible. It would be easier to persuade Pat Robertson that Allah is the one true god.

Nonetheless, to this quixotic end I append a couple of communications from an Indian friend (Indian as in India) who lives in California with his Colombian wife. (Is that globalization or what?) These epistles are self-explanatory.

Hi Fred,

Hope all is well. We just returned from a 3 week trip to Medellin (visiting the in-laws). I thought you’d be interested in a few random observations:

1. Everything works. The roads are fine. The tap water is completely potable. The electricity doesn’t get cut off (as it does in, say, India). The airport, although small, runs just like any other airport in the world. The wi-fi was just as fast as mine here in the States (and just as available, too – in cafes, restaurants, the plaza of a small town).

2. In-laws recently bought a condo – the HOA functions just like any American HOA. The (heated) pool was cleaned every morning, the grounds kept in good condition. The purchase agreement was not too different from a real-estate contract here, although, Colombia not being a very litigious society, it lacked a lot of the baroque and unnecessary disclosures that we find here (radon gas, stray golf balls and suchlike).

3. The malls looked like the malls we have here in Los Angeles. I’m not sure who buys all that stuff, with prices being (in dollar terms) about equal and Colombian wages being far below American wages.

4. Had dinner with a friend of the family. He has an interest in economics. We talked about the Fed’s QE policy and the effects of the taper, Bancolombia’s historical return on equity and non-performing loan ratios, Colombia’s current account deficit, etc.

5. Conversed a few times with one of my wife’s cousins, a young kid in his early 20s. He knows everything (and I mean everything) about history: Ottoman Empire, every civil war in Colombia’s history, Kashmir, Battle of the Bulge, Reagan’s landslide in 1984, you name it.

6. Last trip (about 1 1/2 years ago), we went to a finca in a small town about an hour west of Medellin. Had to go through a tunnel through the Andes ( says it’s about 4.6 km long, although it felt longer. Perfectly well lit, perfectly ventilated.

7. I had my teeth cleaned. The dentist was perfectly competent and knew exactly what he was doing. Cost: $20 (would have cost 5-6 times that here).

Now, I know the country has more than its fair share of problems (security is a huge concern). But seriously, a lot people need to get over the idea that it’s all burros and chickens running around on dirt roads.


Hi Fred,

Feel free to use the email in a column.

Since I mentioned the good stuff, I thought I’d mention the bad also.

1. The air pollution is bad. I came back with my throat, nose and eyes irritated. I don’t know why they can’t regulate emissions (catalytic converters not exactly being super advanced technology). The diesel that’s sold in Colombia apparently has high levels of sulfur ( – this wouldn’t be that hard for the refineries to fix, but they don’t.

2. Security (especially street crime) is an issue. People get held up at ATMs all the time. The justice system will capture criminals and then give them risibly light sentences. I don’t get it.

3. The infrastructure is good in Medellin and Bogota, but (from what I’ve heard) it gets shabby in some of the poorer parts of the country.

4. Rigidity in the way things are done: if you ask a waiter in a nice restaurant, for example, if the chef can modify a dish on the menu, the response is almost always the same. “That’s the way it’s made, we can’t change it.” I don’t understand why not.

It reminds me in many ways of a slightly less developed Mexico. When things need to work, they work just fine. But a lot of other things that could easily be made to work without much technology or capital just don’t.

This seems to be a very common theme in Latin America. The surgeons know exactly what they are doing, the engineering is good quality (bridges, roads, dams, tunnels, skyscrapers, etc.), the conversations I have had with educated people are just as intelligent as any in the US. Yet they can’t fix basic stuff like air pollution, almost no one reads books for fun and the orthography, at times, is abysmal.


The writer, I note, speaks excellent Spanish and is familiar with Mexico, for example having visited Violeta and me. The description of Colombia he gives with minor alterations fits Mexico. I don’t know Colombia. I have spent time in Lima, in Argentina in Buenos Aires, Bariloche in the far south, and in Salto near the Bolivian border, in Chile in Santiago, Valparaiso, and way south. All are modern, civilized, sophisticated in the big cities, and pleasant. I despair of ever getting this across to the American faithful of the Chicken-and-Burro Church. (“Honest, Mr. Robertson, Allah really is, really and truly…no, I mean it…”)

Mexicans, like Colombians, assuredly do not often read for pleasure. (Neither, apparently do Americans. I’ve seen surveys in the US purporting to show that half of American households have never bought a book, and the US Department of Education says that functional illiteracy in the US is at fourteen percent.) Yet the bookstores in Guadalajara are as good as any I have seen in America, but with less self-help and The Wisdom of Oprah. At Plaza del Sol, I could show you a large section lined with texs of cardiology, systems engineering, network maintenance, biochemistry ,engineering mathematics and, at the beginning of semesters, stacks of elementary calculus texts.

But there is no conquering willful ignorance. There seems to be in many Americans a desperate desire to maintain a sense of superiority to somebody, anybody, in a world in which that superiority evaporates in the face of rising nations elsewhere.

“I swear it, Mr. Robertson. Look, read this…

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