When I heard about the controversy surrounding (yet another) movie in which Colombia is portrayed as a land of cocaine, crime and armed insurrection, I was disheartened. It is baffling how apparent ignorance in Hollywood has led to the continued dissemination of the notion that Colombia—my country—is still an unsafe, violent place where visitors and tourists are regularly kidnapped or killed.
On August 26, 2011, Sony Pictures’ Colombiana will premiere at theaters across the United States. It may be titled Colombiana, but the movie’s official synopsis doesn’t even mention the country. According to the Internet Movie Database, the entire film was shot in Mexico, Chicago and France—producers never even set foot in South America. Even more disturbing: the movie won’t have the same name in every country. In Colombia its title will be Dulce Venganza (Sweet Revenge), and Chinese theatergoers will flock to see Black Beauty Evil.
Colombiana’s title is a brazen attempt by Hollywood producers to capitalize on the decades-old reputation of a country that has made tremendous progress in recent years. It is a purely commercial strategy grounded in fantasy, not reality. And what producers don’t realize is that perpetuating the myth that Colombia is a violence-ridden failed state can have real costs for people living there, and that negative perceptions can have serious negative real world consequences, such as an impact on tourism.
This is good reason to support organizations such as Por Colombia—a group of volunteer students and friends of Colombia in the U.S. and Canada—and initiatives like Colombia, the Other Side of the Coin—a pacifist campaign lead by Carlos Plaza, a Colombian community leader in New York. The latter is leading efforts to distribute materials on premiere night in theaters throughout New York City that shed a more positive (and realistic) light on Colombia.
When they first saw the trailer early this summer, Por Colombia launched #ColombiaisBeautiful—a grassroots social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter designed to counteract overly negative depictions of Colombia in pop culture. The campaign’s banner is a digitally altered poster of the movie: instead of a gun, the “Colombiana” on the film’s poster holds a bunch of flowers, and the tagline “Vengeance is Beautiful” is replaced by “Colombia is Beautiful.” This simple campaign has attracted thousands of followers and received coverage from national and international media outlets, including Univision and Huffington Post.
Bogotá-born Carlos Macías, the president of Por Colombia, argues that Sony Pictures is making a profit at Colombia’s expense. Colombians are not against talking about the conflict, says Macías. “If you’re going to talk about the Colombian armed conflict, go ahead, we’re the first to start the conversation,” he points out. We don’t deny that violence remains a problem, but we demand balance. We want to provide people with actual facts, while at the same time remembering to include the country’s positive side—which is all too often left out.
A few months ago a Russian student at Columbia University told me he had been everywhere in Latin America except Colombia. When asked why, he replied, “Because my dad can’t afford to pay the ransom.” Maybe it was a bad joke, but there is nonetheless some truth to it. It may have been slightly offensive, but it is good reason to stop and think.
How can we expect people not to say such things when in July, policemen José Libardo Forero, Wilson Rojas, Carlos Duarte, Jorge Romero y Jorge Trujillo completed 12 years in captivity by guerillas? When in April, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) kidnapped two more unarmed soldiers in Medellín, Antioquia? And in July five Colombians were kidnapped in Arauca and that same month a money-laundering network caught in Spain with $30 million in Colombian cocaine money?
Let’s face it: as long as these things keep happening, the rest of the world will keep making jokes about Colombian cocaine and kidnappings. It would be great if more people would keep an open mind, but that can’t be expected. So let’s focus on what we, as Colombians, can do. First, let’s avoid complaining about or denying our reality. Let’s not always answer, “We also have coffee and flowers.” (We do, but it goes beyond that.) We must be permanent promoters of our positive side by recognizing the improvements the country has achieved and delivering good, unbiased information about Colombia.
We can also cite some concrete facts. For example, security on our national road system is better today than anytime in recent history, and more Colombians and tourists are traveling by car throughout the country. From 1990 to 2009, 26,977 drug laboratories were destroyed, according to the Observatorio de Drogas of the Dirección de Antinarcóticos, and 92,772 hectares of illegal crops have been eradicated so far in 2011. In addition, there were 1,602 extradition requests from 2002 to 2010, 1,106 of which were approved. These are real improvements. Further progress is a matter of time and consistent policy.
Por Colombia and The Other Side of the Coin are great initiatives deserving of broad-based support. Let’s all join Por Colombia’s social media rally on August 26. It’s about becoming agents of “the other side of the coin”: the reality that Colombia is a fascinating country that has captured—rather than kidnapped—thousands of foreigners who have visited recently and simply fallen in love with our people.
Lina Salazar is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She works with Americas Quarterly and in the policy department at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.