‘All that is left of a person is their name,’ Olivia Mostacilla told me during my month in Colombia, the first time I’d been back in two years. She wasn’t referring to the paramilitary massacres, which have stopped in the past few months because of the on-going ‘demobilisation’ of the paras organised by President Uribe’s government, but to the craze for plastic surgery, especially the variety known as lipo-escultura or ‘fat sculpture’.
Actually, it’s called aesthetic surgery, not plastic, and it’s ‘the fastest growing industry in Colombia’, she assured me, especially in Cali and Medellín. Even though there is a desperate need for health services, not least to deal with sexually transmitted illness among the young and poor, there is no shortage of breast implants, liposuction and hymen restoration costing upwards of US $400, in a society where the basic wage is around $160 a month. Of course, as with back-alley abortions, there are aesthetic surgeons who work for as little as $100 a treatment – as described in Gustavo Bolívar Moreno’s novel Sin tetas no hay paraíso (Without Tits, No Paradise). Dedicated to his mother, and now in its sixth edition, it has recently been adapted as a telenovela. Meanwhile, Uribe’s Bush-friendly government, enamoured of free-market economics, shreds the health service. ‘The Ministry of Health basically does not exist,’ a British journalist long resident in Colombia tells me as he pulls a long revolver from his coat before examining a young girl in the clinic for street children he helped set up in the slums of a major city. Why the gun? The police have a contract out on him for daring to denounce police killing of children on the streets.
‘Any defect can be eliminated,’ Olivia said. ‘Any defect whatsoever.’ She wasn’t referring to the limpieza five years ago in this town outside Cali, limpieza as in ‘cleaning’: cleansing a house of witchcraft or bad spirits; or the cleaning up of a town, by assassinating petty thieves, crack addicts and homicidal youth gangs.
Yet it was hard to resist making these connections between beauty and death, as Olivia and her neighbour went on to detail the dangers of aesthetic surgery. Olivia’s niece, a nurse in a clinic in Cali, had recently had her nose altered by a doctor there. Like many Afro-Colombian women she disliked her nariz chata, as it’s called. ‘A few days before he went on holiday the doctor accosted her, saying: “Oh! I have to fix your nose quickly before I leave!” But the operation went badly. Months later she went to another surgeon for a second operation. Now she breathes like a cat. You know how a cat breathes? You can hear her breathing several feet away.’
A friend of this niece had her breasts enlarged, but infection set in and she had to have a double mastectomy. Other women have had their eyes enlarged and now can’t close them. ‘Imagine!’ a neighbour chimed in. ‘Imagine trying to sleep!’ Fathers give liposuction as a present to their daughters on their 15th birthday. Both women and men return for multiple liposuctions. Diego Maradona came to Colombia to have eight stone removed. ‘People fly in from the USA, and Colombia now leads Brazil in this field,’ Olivia told me as she prepared lunch in her stifling concrete brick house at the end of the town, while I watched an advertisement for a ‘vibrating corset’ designed to eliminate fat through electronic massage. ‘People have died,’ she said. ‘From perforated intestines.’
Yet the demand is insatiable. ‘Beauty opens doors.’ The women in Congress, including the president of the Senate and the new minister of foreign affairs, are stunningly beautiful. And when the wonderfully progressive mayor of Medellín replaced the annual beauty queen contest with one for women of talent, they too were all stunning. One can only imagine what it takes to be a humble secretary, let alone the courtesan of a narco. ‘It was like . . . like heaven’s gate!’ a burly young American alone in first class was telling the male steward as I flew out of Bogotá. He could well have been a US helicopter pilot or one of the 500 military advisers in this country where the US is reported to have more than 2500 personnel.
‘We stayed in the north . . . can’t remember the name. And the girls!’
‘Like they popped out of a magazine,’ the steward responded.
‘Even if you end up with the worst, she’s amazing!’
Vol. 28 No. 21 · 2 November 2006
If Michael Taussig chooses to see Colombia in terms of plastic surgery and liposuction that is his choice, but I find his Diary supercilious (LRB, 5 October). Some of what he says is simply not true. ‘The Ministry of Health basically does not exist,’ Taussig writes. It is inadequate, as in all poor countries, but it does exist. My cleaning lady last year had heart surgery through the public health service. No doubt she was lucky, but the coverage is not so contemptible.
‘Virtually no legal opposition is possible in Colombia, only the armed opposition of the guerrilla,’ he writes. The last presidential election in May 2006 returned Álvaro Uribe with a majority of more than 60 per cent, but the left opposition candidate of the Polo Democrático Alternativo came second with 22 per cent, one of the left’s highest scores ever. The mayor of Bogotá, the second elected post in the country, and the governor of Valle, the department Taussig is mostly writing about, are from the opposition. The mayor of Medellín, whose popularity rating is even higher than Uribe’s, is an independent, elected on a civic ticket. Much of the press is critical of Uribe. The peace agreement with the paras is the subject of intense controversy.
Uribe has extradited to the US an unprecedented number of narcos, and some of these undoubtedly had paramilitary connections. Part of the deal for paras who accept the government’s terms is that they do not get extradited, which, for the time being, accounts for the non-extradition of paras. The outcome of this tortuous process will not be wholly satisfactory, just as is the case with the deal our own government has done in Northern Ireland, but I do not think it will result in the para-dominated country that Taussig pictures. (Of course, the simplest way of avoiding the appearance of naivety is to be consistently pessimistic.)
Taussig leaves out too much. The national murder rate has fallen to a degree that no one would have thought possible four years ago, and is now the lowest for twenty years. Kidnapping is down. The guerrillas, even less popular than the politicians, have lost numbers, territory and resources. The roads are safer, the growth rate and investment are up. These are banal observations, not perhaps the makings of an artful Diary, but they matter a lot to most Colombians.
And does Taussig have to compare Andrés Pastrana to a tailor’s dummy? What does he look like himself?
Bogotá and Oxford
Vol. 28 No. 22 · 16 November 2006
While I am certainly relieved to hear that Malcolm Deas’s housekeeper was cared for by the Colombian public health system, I can’t help but wonder if her good fortune in this regard might have owed something to Deas’s connections with the president, whose neo-liberal policies have brought an already weak system to breaking point (Letters, 2 November).
As for plastic surgery, I think of it as a metaphor. Just as plastic surgery is meant to beautify a person, so the appearance – but only the appearance – of the nation is being manipulated. The result is that you never know where the truth lies, as with the current demobilisation of right-wing paramilitaries, a theatricalised manoeuvre likely to strengthen what is already a terrifying narco-paramilitary power structure operating throughout the country and its Congress. Why is it that Colombia has the world’s highest or close to the highest assassination rates of journalists, union leaders and human rights workers? Why is it that more than 95 per cent of their killers remain at large? Why is it that so little is being done to apprehend them?
I hope Deas’s guarded optimism regarding the prospects of peace (with justice) in Colombia is not misplaced.
Columbia University, New York
Vol. 28 No. 24 · 14 December 2006
Michael Taussig can stop wondering about one small matter: my cleaning-lady’s operation had nothing to do with my connections with President Uribe (Letters, 16 November). As for his other – rhetorical? – questions, he well knows that Colombia suffers from guerrillas and paramilitaries, fed by the drug trade, and that the violence, corruption and threat to legitimate authority worsened in the last two decades of the last century. Those curious about the consequences of this for the system of justice should read Mauricio Rubio’s Crimen e impunidad. It is indeed often difficult to know where the truth lies in Colombia, but the efforts of many Colombians to reduce violence are certainly not merely cosmetic.
A note on your title for this correspondence, ‘Vote Uribe!’ I trust your next piece on Venezuela will be headed ‘Vote Chávez!’ Perhaps we can also look forward soon to something on Cuba – ‘Vote Raúl!’?
St Antony’s College, Oxford