Colombia used to be my blind spot. I remember telling my friend Mauricio at NYU Stern that his homeland seemed like a dangerous country. Colombia conjures images of cocaine smugglers, armed militias fighting US-sponsored army in the misty jungles, and rocket-propelled grenade armed terrorists on the rooftops in Bogota. The movie, “Clear and Present Danger” (1994), did not help matters. Medellin and Cali became synonymous with cocaine capitals.
Nearly 15 years later, Colombia has become a hot tourist destination. The NY Times and Travel and Leisure have both recently featured articles highlighting this overlooked gem in South America. Apparently, that’s what 5 percent GDP growth since 2002 can do to a country. Former President Alvaro Uribe turned around the country by expanding the security forces to push back the Marxist guerrilla group the FARC, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and promoting free trade.
Perception seems shaped by proximity and perspective. If I described a country that has been in a state of war for ten years, has nationalized its banking sector and manufacturing companies, and has a national debt 65% of its annual GDP, you may think I was describing some African country. But, I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m describing the United States. Living here I am not nearly as alarmed as I could be because I understand the causes of these issues.
Shirley also seems confident that Taiwan is and will be a safe place; it will be free from war for the forseeable future. Never mind there’s a much larger country 111 miles away – about the distance between San Diego and Los Angeles – that occasionally lobs missiles above Taiwan. The dispute does not need to be rehashed but the perception from afar is much different from someone who has lived there for most of their life. Politically conscious Americans know that every time there is an issue in the region, America’s seventh fleet is sent as a show of force to cool everyone’s heads. Frontline, a well-respected news source in the US, has a page called Dangerous Straits explaining why the situation in the region is precarious.
I believe I recently discovered another blind spot: Africa.
Africa is usually portrayed as a country weighed down a host of calamities: poverty, civil and cross-border war, AIDS, famine. This perception is perpetuated by news reports that seem drawn to conflict and human tragedy. Of course, Africa is really composed of 54* countries delineated by the former colonial powers in an area as large as China, the US, India, Argentina and Western Europe combined. Sure, some countries continue to have repressive regimes or long-lasting wars, but several countries have experienced peace and rising economic prosperity.
An antidote to all the negative press that Africa receives is Africa The Good News. This website is an excellent resource that highlights many of the economic and political developments occurring across the continent yet does not shy away from the problems on the continent.
In the next several weeks, I will attempt to dispel some misperceptions and point out activity occurring on the continent.