Category Archives: Rants and More

Iran: Complicated Relations

My time in Iran happened to include the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy — the event that started the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.  There were anti-American signs all over Tehran.  My new Iranian-American friend mentioned that there’d be a government-organized event commemorating the anniversary.  Always willing to get my camera into the middle of unusual spectacles, I said: “Can I go see it?” “Sure, we can go,” he said.   I asked what it would look like. “Just a bunch of signs and chanting.” “Oh. What will they be chanting?,” I said.  His response: “Uh… like ‘Death to America’ and stuff like that.  But they don’t mean it! They’ll be very nice to you!”  Having spent the previous two weeks in Iran, this actually made perfect sense to me.  I tried to go, but by the time we got over to Taleqani Street there was barely a trace of it.  Instead, I got a very weird tour of the former U.S. Embassy.

 

A sign at the exit of the Taleqani subway station, on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy. The facility is still controlled by the same group that took it over in 1979.

 

The site of the rally. This was all that was left when we arrived. Notice the U.S. flag painted on the street and labeled “Down With The USA.” (I think that may be a permanent fixture.) The middle banner says “We will Crush American Hegemony”, with a picture of the US sailors they held captive briefly in 2016.

 

The next day’s newspaper, showing Taleqani street an hour or so before I’d arrived.

 

You’ll see plenty of friendly faces in the pictures I took in Iran. The hundreds of people I met were almost all enthusiastically welcoming. When they asked where I was from (“What country?” they’d say) and heard “America” I could see their eyes widen a little in surprise. Then they smiled — excited to see an American visiting their country.  As often as not, the older ones would offer tea; the younger ones would ask me to join them in a “selfy” (photo).   Even from those who knew very little English, I’d almost always hear “Welcome” and “Thank you.” The Iranians I met were warm, kind and friendly people who were especially welcoming of American visitors.

 

Meanwhile, the government of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” is led by a powerful Supreme Leader (successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini) who repeatedly announces that America is Iran’s biggest enemy. While I was in Tehran, there were billboards up all around town (erected by the government) denouncing America, and the government staged its annual “Death to America” rally on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy takeover. The headline of the next day’s paper read, “Outburst of Hatred Toward U.S.” 

 

Their government often defines its very identity in anti-American terms. The Republic was born of a 1979 revolution against a controversial Shah ( king) whom they viewed as a U.S. puppet. The biggest event in its subsequent history is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and they blame the U.S. for that, too.  This was on page one of the state-run Tehran Times while I was there:   “’Death to America’ is the spirit of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and its body can go no far [sic] without this slogan. Of course, America is the symbol of all satanic deeds, not letting the inhabitants of the planet earth progress and experience a free life.”  

It’s worth noting that in all the anti-American propaganda put up by the Iranian government, I don’t recall any of it being about religion (except for metaphorical references to the U.S. as the devil).  Their complaint is not that they think we’re infidels — it’s that they think we’re imperialists.  (Never mind that since the 6th Century B.C., the Persians have been some of the planet’s most prolific Empire-builders whenever they were able).  Without delving too deeply in the connection between religion and terrorism, I should also point out that Iranians are almost all Shi’a Muslims.  On the other hand, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein are (were) all Sunnis, who often don’t get along with Shias much better than they do with other religions (or infidels).  Americans’ concerns about Islamic terrorism often fail to separate these groups.

America isn’t nearly as obsessed with Iran as the Iranian government is with America, but we do list it – along with just Sudan and Syria – on our formal short-list of nations who consistently sponsor terrorism.   The same month I was in Iran, President Trump declined to make a major certification in the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, and the U.S. Congress had a near-unanimous bipartisan vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.  Iranian people believe that most Americans think they are all terrorists. It’s an obvious exaggeration, but of course the Iranians are partly right about Americans’ perceptions. The worried reactions I’d heard from American friends about my Iranian trip bear this out. 

 

Iranians make a clear distinction between governments and people. They consistently volunteered that they “love” American people but they don’t like American government. (The latter is not a new “Trump” thing: the same sentiment has prevailed since the revolution.) And they seem to assume that we can or should love Iranian people, even as we might sensibly be wary of their antagonistic government. If it seems tough to reconcile, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Most adult Iranians have lived through the transition from an unpopular monarch (the last Shah) to a revolutionary government in which an unelected Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority. There’s never been much reason or expectation that the sentiments of the Iranian people are well-represented by their government, so the mental separation of a country’s people from that country’s government’s acts and policies probably comes rather easily to Iranians.

 

We could probably learn a lesson or two from the Iranian people on this front, though it might also be easy to learn the wrong ones.  It would be an obvious mistake to confuse the Iranian government’s belligerence with the mindset of Iranian people, or to presume that the Iranian people are a bunch of terrorists who would attack or abduct Americans given half a chance. They’re not. They’re mostly nice and decent people, just like most Americans are. It’s natural to want to demonize the citizens of your country’s political foes.  (In time of real war, it’s probably both necessary and inevitable.)  But of course it’s mostly a psychological fiction: most likely, they’re just ordinary, decent folks. In this vein, I can remember Sting singing to us in in the Cold War 1980s about his hope that “the Russians love their children, too.”

 

At the same time, though, governments necessarily do what governments have to do — whether the citizens of their political adversaries are generally nice people or not. This may include saber-rattling, sanctioning, or worse. For example, our appropriate responses to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un can’t be much affected by whether the typical North Korean citizen is a nice guy or not. Similarly, the sincere warmth of Iranian people is probably of little relevance to our government policies toward Iran.

 

Iranians may be unrealistic in their desire to wholly separate friendliness for benevolent individuals from wariness of belligerent governments.  Who can blame America for being wary of the acts of a country that stages “Death to America” rallies? Given that Iran’s leaders openly call for bringing about America’s demise, it’s little wonder that we’d impose sanctions or immigration restrictions aimed at reducing Iran’s ability to do so — even though our policies will surely affect lots of friendly and blameless individuals. Given the billboards and the state-run newspaper propaganda and the rallies, there’s little reason to believe that the Iranian government has any desire to improve its relations with the United States.  That’s too bad, because I suspect our government would be as pleased as I am to have friends in the region.  

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Signs mocking President Obama have recently been replaced by signs mocking President Trump.

Several of the signs repeated the mantra that the US Embassy was a “Den of Espionage”

There was a famous quote from the late Ayatollah Khomeini that said something like “The US can’t do shit” or “The US can’t do a damn thing” against Iran.  On this series of billboards, that line is applied to the modern U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

This sign is about the U.S.’s accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner in 1988 in the midst of military clashes in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians insist that it was intentional. This is a 2017 sign complaining and propagandizing about a 1988 event.  Note that the plane is Iran Air Flight #655, while the U.S. missile is labeled 666.  

 

The defaced Seal of the United States of America. This was the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy, which is still controlled by the group that took it over in 1979. It now includes a very odd “museum.”

This guy showed us around the former Embassy. His entire pitch was to justify the 1979 hostage-taking by convincing visitors that the place was a CIA spy headquarters rather than a proper embassy.  Most of what they showed were the embassy’s efforts to prevent being spied UPON, like encryption technology, paper-shredders, and an electronic-surveilance-proof room.

Part of their argument that the Embassy was a “Den of Spies” was this area, labeled the “Forgery Room.” It’s the part of the Embassy where they routinely made and issued U.S. passports (as all our embassies do). The Iranians insist that the Americans were making fraudulent, forged passports for spies to use. Besides those manual typewriters, their key evidence included a shelf full of “chemicals” they’d found on the premises, which they insisted were the kinds of potions you’d use to manufacture those fake foreign passports.  Look closely: 2 gallons of automotive anti-freeze, some floor wax, 3 bottles of carpet shampoo, lighter fluid (it was the 1970s!), Krylon cleaner and lube, and a couple of cans of Glade air freshener.  

 

Iran: Chadors and Other Bazaar Sights

(Forgive me:  I can’t resist the appeal of the bizarre/bazaar pun.)

Merchandise on display at women’s clothing stores gives a hint of what’s under all those long black chadors.

They do have a few shopping malls and supermarkets in Iran, but mostly people buy their “stuff” in bazaars and small shops. Different sections tend to specialize in certain types of goods – one area will have vegetables or fish, another spices or hardware, and others focus on textiles or clothing. If you want to see and interact with real people in Iran, you’ll probably head for the local bazaar.

But the bazaars aren’t just retail shops; behind the scenes is wholesaling, warehousing, and even some of the manufacturing or cooking. The Grand Bazaar in Tehran is said to be the hub for a huge percentage of commerce in the whole country.

 

 

A young merchant in a Tehran bazaar, right, selling cooked beets to chador-clad female customers.  

 

Fruits and vegatables at a Tehran bazaar.

 

Most bazaar merchants are men, even in shops where most customers are women.

 

 

Many bazaars are historical sites. If you can see past the bright lights, the brightly colored fabrics and the vegetables, you sometimes see, you can see the old facades and ceilings that are hundreds of years old. Often, just around a quieter corner you’ll see a rug warehouse or an ancient “caravanserai,” where camel caravans once paused for he night or arrived with goods to sell at the bazaar.

 

Mother and baby at sidewalk fabric shop in Shiraz.

 

One consistently striking feature of the bazaars is the women’s clothing on display. Modern tight jeans, lavish colorful and sequined gowns, stilettos, racy lingerie – all being browsed (and presumably purchased) by ladies who only go out in public wearing head-to-toe black chadors. There’s a lot going on behind closed doors (and under those robes and scarves) that doesn’t meet the outsider’s eye.

 

A stylish young woman in Shiraz, showing off an unusual Iranian status symbol: the nose-job bandage.

It’s the law in Iran that when women go out in public, they have to wear at least a headscarf and something that’s not form-fitting that covers them down to the thighs or so.   Since women can only show their faces and bangs, they sometimes go to way too much trouble to optimize the parts that show. Nose-jobs are very common, and women with fresh ones wear the bandages in public as a status symbol.   Many women wear LOTS of makeup, too, or coif their exposed bangs to the point of absurdity.   And those black chadors may look generic, but stroll through the bazaar and you’ll see hundreds of different styles and types of black fabrics on display with patterns and sequins.

I asked several people: If they put the head-scarf law up to a public vote, how would it come out?   Most guessed that it’d be close to 50/50 or 60/40 overall, with women somewhat more likely to vote anti-scarf than men. It was interesting that they thought it was this close. And the reality was that in most areas, the women were going well beyond what any law actually required – wearing the full head-to-toe, mostly-black chadors rather than simple scarves and thigh-length coverups. Whether that’s their real preference or the product of family or cultural pressure is hard to know.

I also asked: What happens if you violate the rule? Apparently the police take you in and give you a ticket, and require you to sign something pledging not to do it again. So I asked: What happens if you do it again? Nobody seemed to know.

If it makes you ladies feel any better, there are restrictions on men, too. We can’t wear shorts. With some exceptions for organized team sports, shorts in public are not an option for men or women, even if you’re going for a jog (which hardly anyone seemed to do, maybe for this reason). Remember, Iran is mostly a desert and summer temperatures reach well over 100 every day, so a no-shorts rule is a pretty big deal.  Whatever you think of Iran’s clothing rules, it would not be accurate to presume they’re all about oppressing women.

Decades ago, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Shah (king) wanted Iran to be (or seem) more mainstream and Western. He actually prohibited the chador head covering. That prohibition was even more unpopular than the current chador mandate.  People wanted the scarves, and the Shah’s efforts to “modernize” are said to be some part of what fueled support for the Islamic Revolution – which ousted him and put a Muslim Ayatollah in charge of the country’s dress codes. It’s too bad nobody thought to choose a middle path where everyone could do whatever they want with their headgear!   (Admittedly, though, our own country has a tough time choosing libertarian middle paths these days, too.)

One last, goofy thought: In America, we also have rules about which body parts must remain covered and which are okay to reveal in public. There are cultures elsewhere on earth that have different and more-revealing rules (exposing women’s breasts, for example). Those people probably think our rules are horribly restrictive, oppressive and silly – just what we tend to think about Iran’s. Our defense of our own dress-code choices would probably sound a little like Iran’s defense of theirs.

 

This guy’s very typical bazaar store is about 8 feet wide.

 

 

 

Superheroes Run #4 for Child Advocates of Houston

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

“MRE Consulting presents the Child Advocates Superheroes Run, Powered by Direct Energy!”

(As always, I need to make very clear that the kids in these pictures are NOT the kids who are the beneficiaries of Child Advocates’ programs. These are some of the our young race participants who came out to support other kids not quite so lucky.)

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

The start line of the 1K portion of Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

The 4th Child Advocates Superheroes Run is in the record books. I’m proud to say it was bigger and better than ever! We had nearly 1,000 “runners” (using the term loosely in many cases) and raised over $120,000 for Child Advocates.

The costumes get better (and more plentiful) every year. Every superhero you’ve ever heard of and lots that you probably haven’t. And for reasons I can’t fully explain at a “Superheroes” event, there were cows and alligators and goldfish and beauty queens, too! That big orange Child Advocates arch was new this year. (It was donated, so the cost doesn’t come out of CAI operating or sponsor funds.)
Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

I’m proud to have been the Chairman of the event since its inception four years ago.  As I’ve said before, that means mostly that my generous friends get their arms twisted to donate.  A huge, special thanks to all the friends who let that happen.  I don’t actually get to run in the race, but this year I wore a GPS tracking watch, which told me I’d run/jog/walked 7.5 just running around and organizing all the activities!

Each year (2013, 2014, 2015), I’ve made a short pitch in this blog to explain why I think CAI is an especially worthwhile charity. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before:

    • CAI helps kids in our own hometown who are in desperate situations through no conceivable fault of their own.
    • CAI’s one-time intervention seeks to permanently and efficiently solve problems and affect the kids’ entire lives, without creating dependency or requiring permanent or ongoing assistance.
    • CAI’s cause is financially undersupported, largely because few potential large donors have close personal experience with, or risks of, this kind of extreme child neglect or abuse. There’s nothing wrong with donating to your own alma mater or church, or to charities addressing diseases that affect you or your family, but that can leave a huge gap for charities like Child Advocates. I think this is true philanthropy.

If you or anyone you know is willing to volunteer, donate, or become an advocate, let me know at jeff@jeffcotner.com.

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Shane Merz, partner in the Race’s founding and “Presenting” sponsor MRE Consulting, grabbed the megaphone and welcomed racers across the finish line.

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The first 3 pics on the second row were our fastest man, fastest woman, and fastest “kid” in the 5k.

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

 

South Dakota’s Spring Cattle Branding

NOTE to South Dakota Folks: CLICK HERE for full set of pics.

Late spring is “branding” season in South Dakota. A local rancher who caught a ride with us to one of the calf branding events called them “celebrations.” The cold winter is over and the year’s crop of calves are a couple of months old and in need of vaccines, brands, and more. The whole community works together almost daily, with all the local ranch families taking turns helping one another. It’s both hard, serious work and social event. Notice in the pictures how often people are smiling.

The fire, ropes, needles and knives look harsh to the uninitiated – and I surely wouldn’t want to be one of the calves. But the health of the cattle is a major purpose of the process. A veterinarian was on site at all times. Every one of the hundreds of calves I saw hopped up and scurried spryly back to its mom as soon as its short ordeal was done.

 

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South Dakota rancher, Tom Trask

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Emily Linn (right) takes a turn wrestling the front end of a calf during a branding on the Trask’s Spanish Five Ranch.

 

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Justin Namken, the sole non-family-member “hired hand” on the Spanish Five Ranch.

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            Here’s how the branding process works: The cattle – usually a few hundred pairs (mother and calf) at a time – have been gathered in advance into a single section of pasture. On the morning of the branding, the first hour or two is spent herding them all into a set of pens. Next, the cows are separated from the calves, generally by horsemen urging the adult cows one by one through a gate while a handful of sorters (on foot) push the calves in a different direction. Most of the attention will be on the calves, but the cows may also be sent through separate chutes to get vaccines or other treatments. Batches of 150 or so calves go into a medium sized roping pen adjacent to the branding area – which is set up at the edge of the big pasture.

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A minor glitch in the process of sorting moms from babies.

            Three or four mounted ropers go in and out of the calf pen, roping calves by their hind legs and then dragging them out one at a time. Pairs of “wrestlers” (mostly teenagers and younger men) take each calf. One grabs the roped rear legs; the other grabs the tail and shifts quickly to the head. With a swift and skillful yank, they flip the calf onto its side, hold it down legs splayed, and release the rope so the roper can go get another.

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            Now things really start to happen: people converge on the calf like a pit crew on an Indy car. Two give shots containing multiple vaccines. Others apply treatments for worms, flies and ticks. Another person walks up to crop an ear. If the calf is male, someone with a sharp knife deftly castrates it – an operation that takes about 20 seconds and produces surprisingly little blood. Preschool-aged kids follow the castrators, carrying the self-explanatory “nut buckets.” An antiseptic foam is sprayed on the incision site. Depending on the breed, the calf may be de-horned (by burning the budding nubs of horn using small irons similar to the branding irons). And of course, there’s the brand itself: just an old-fashioned piece of red-hot metal that burns the hair and scars the skin. Between calves, most of the crowd have a beer or two from the cooler – which is usually in a pickup bed next to the laden nut buckets.

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A “nut bucket.”

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Tom Trask owns around 20,000 acres next to the Cheyenne River east of Rapid City. He and his sons lease several thousand more, for a total of nearly 50 square miles of land. His brother Pat’s ranch is just to the north; his cousin Todd’s place is just to the south. Tom got much of his land from his dad, whose U.S. Army uniform is hung proudly in Tom’s home.

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Mark Trask (My apologies to his brother, Mick, and sister Tomilyn, for whom I failed to get good portraits).

 

If you imagine life on a rural ranch as serene or simple, you should spend a few days with the Trasks. The most striking aspect of my visit was the remarkable array of skills and knowledge required to run a huge ranch like this. They can do an emergency bovine C-section, battle weevils on their hay crop, raise bees to pollenate their alfalfa, train horses for roping, milk cows, build their own houses, weld broken tractor parts back together, recommend the perfect ammo for prairie dog eradication, and drive a pickup through a muddy field without getting stuck. It should tell you something that the one “hired hand” on Tom Trask’s cattle ranch has two college degrees: one in animal (livestock) science; the other in “range” (grazing land) science. They dig 75 million year-old fossils from the creek for extra money. They host paid deer hunts in the fall, and can butcher the venison onsite and do the taxidermy work to mount the trophy.

 

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Todd Trask

 

South Dakota winters are biting cold, the summers are scorching, and blistering spring winds don’t allow much relief in between. The work is hard and the hours are long. Around huge animals and farm machinery, the risks of accidents and injuries are a routine part of life. I overheard one conversation about which kind of tractor would be most easily operated by a young woman with a devastating farm injury that left her with very limited use of her legs. These folks are tough and resilient.

 

The county sheriff’s office is about an hour and a half away in Sturgis. As in other areas of their lives, the folks here view it as their responsibility to take care of themselves and of their own families, and they’re ready to do so. There are a lot of guns, and people know how to handle them. They say they have very little crime out here. {Note: They’re right.  South Dakota’s homicide rate ranks #44 among states; its gun ownership rate ranks #4.}

 

The folks here are hardworking, loyal, patriotic, and proud – and I think they’d consider those descriptions to be the highest of compliments. In the last few years, I’ve been on six continents and met fascinating people in exotic cultures, but the lives and lifestyles in a down-home and close-to-home place like South Dakota are every bit as interesting and in many ways probably far more relevant for other Americans to appreciate and understand. These folks will vote in the same elections and will have to live by most of the same laws as people from New York City and Washington D.C., and yet each group often has only a faint caricatured picture of one another’s worlds.

 

My dad and I were in South Dakota in late May and early June. The weather cycled between rainy, chilly, windy, and hot. We stayed in a modest small-town Best Western, and the local Subway and Dairy Queen were the best restaurants in town. Yet it was one of my favorite trips ever. Getting to know the Trasks was a real treat.

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A multigenerational “pit crew” descends on a calf (under there somewhere) as Rob Powell pulls the Spanish Five branding iron from the fire. That’s Mick Trask in the camo cap, holding down the head.

 

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Tyler Trask with an “it’ll do” roping result: this time catching just one leg.

 

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Calf roping is an equal-opportunity and co-ed endeavor. Kelly Anders seemed to be one of the best ropers in the county.

 

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Mick’s daughter, Annie.

 

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Lunch

 

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That’s my dad below (green hat) with Todd Trask.  He met Todd and Tom 20+ years ago when they were all hanging out together in the mountains of southern Colorado.  That’s me (orange vest) with my calf-wrestling buddy/instructor Matthew, who works up at Pat Trask’s ranch. (I didn’t catch the name of the photo-bomber).  Matthew taught me how NOT to get kicked in the face by a calf as you restrain its rear legs. It’s harder than you might think. Actually — restraining a 150-pound calf while it’s being castrated is probably exactly as difficult and awkward as it sounds.

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CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOUTH DAKOTA 2016 BRANDING WEEK IMAGES 

 

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The big sign in the “middle” of Elm Springs, South Dakota gives directions to all the community’s homes. (For example, 3E 1N means you drive three miles to the east, then 1 mile north).

Colombia 2015: Libertad y Orden

Let’s start with the first thing that comes to every American’s mind when you mention the South American nation of Colombia.

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In the shadow of Colombia’s Catedral Primada, two Policia Nacional patrol Plaza de Bolivar, between the Colombian Congress and Supreme Court buildings in Bogota.

When I told people I was planning to spend a week or two driving around Colombia, virtually everyone expressed concern about my safety (and sanity). A beautiful tropical country, bisected by the northern Andes and boasting both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Colombia seems to be better known for drug cartels, guerilla warfare, and kidnappings. Colombia’s bad reputation was well deserved in the 1990s, but a “Colombian Miracle” has transformed it into a great destination – even if you don’t drink coffee.

Fifteen years ago, Colombia was embroiled in a four-way civil war: the players included communist guerilla groups like the “FARC;” right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to oppose the guerillas but took on a terrorist-like life of their own; powerful regional drug cartels (especially Cali and Medellin); and the struggling and outnumbered Colombian military itself. Drug trafficking and violence were the norm. Guerilla and paramilitary groups financed themselves with drugs and kidnapping, while the drug cartels amassed military-like troops and weapons to protect their turf. Colombia was the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, and huge sections of the country’s roads and territory were out of the government’s control. Millions of Colombians were displaced from their homes. In 1999, the situation was so bad the Colombian government formally ceded vast territories to one of the guerilla groups.

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National Police on a motorcycle, zipping down a side street in Cartegena, Colombia.

But Colombia is in the midst of what some have called the Colombia Miracle, and what almost anyone would call an amazing turnaround. Starting in 1999 and accelerating with the 2002 election of a new get-tough president (Uribe), the Colombian government expanded its police and military forces. The U.S.A. provided money, personnel, weapons, and intelligence assistance. Colombia targeted the drug trade and the guerilla and paramilitary forces, assassinated and captured key leaders, and even had successful “peace talks” with some guerilla and paramilitary groups.

It’s working. The drug cartels have mostly fractured or disappeared. Most of the paramilitary groups have disbanded and disarmed, and the communist guerilla groups are greatly diminished and confined to areas near the Ecuador and Venezuelan borders. Even the guerilla FARC has very recently (just this month) reached a peace agreement with Colombia and claimed that it will stop military training and focus on peaceful means. Drug production is down significantly. In the cities, the police are everywhere and are highly visible (literally so, often in fluorescent yellow-green uniforms), and much of life is back to normal.

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Riot police in Cartegena, Colombia. With these guys around, the risk of an actual riot seemed very low.

Meanwhile – and not coincidentally – the Colombian economy has boomed. Poverty and unemployment levels have plunged; GDP and incomes have soared. Colombia’s highways – though often small and very curvy through the mountains – are in amazingly good shape, thanks to a massive road-construction effort. A mixed blessing of that booming economy is that they’re packed with cargo trucks.

There may be lots of lessons – pro and con – in the Colombia story. The successful strategy had great emphasis on obtaining military and police control, modest efforts at negotiation, and little focus on direct assistance to the 6 million displaced refugee-like Colombians. But the plunge in poverty rates and violence, and rise in incomes may have helped more than direct assistance ever could. The government is reported to have used – unapologetically – some tactics that might make many Americans squeamish (though none worse than their foes were regularly employing). The United States’ financial and military involvement in Colombia’s recovery has been perhaps our most extensive and most successful nation-building exercise in recent history. It’s worth noting, though, that the still-problematic leftist FARC organization was in some ways Colombia’s version of Cuba’s Castro regime (with whom the U.S. is now thawing relations). It’s a complicated world.

The U.S. State Department still has an ominous-sounding travel advisory about Columbia, and did not seem to sanction my chosen itinerary.  But I had a great trip through Colombia – even taking a rental car (with a fellow American buddy) through long sections of remote countryside (from Bogota to Pereira to Medellin and on some tiny side roads through the mountains) that were dangerous FARC and cartel territory not very long ago.  The national tourism board uses a clever slogan that gives a nod to Colombia’s awkward history: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

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“Libertad y Orden” on the Colombia Coat of Arms. That’s an Andean condor (not an eagle) up on top.

“Libertad y Orden” is Colombia’s official motto; it means “Freedom and Order” (that’s “order” as in “law and order,” presumably). A few years back, Colombians surrounded by a siege of civil and guerilla war had little of either. But in a country now seemingly blanketed with an intimidating but hopefully-benevolent police presence, there is surely much more “order,” and – judging from the bustling streets and highways and from the faces of the people we encountered – there’s apparently much more “libertad,” too.

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