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He was already a veteran of two civil wars, a war-hero grown sick of fighting who arranged to be abroad for all of Colombia’s Thousand Days War (1899-1902). In 1901 he told the Pan American conference in Mexico:
In times past it was the Cross or the Koran, the sword or the book that accomplished the conquests of civilization; today it is the powerful locomotive, flying over the shining rail, breathing like a volcano, that awakens people to progress, well-being and liberty. …Those who do not conform to that progress, it crushes beneath its wheels.
The speaker was General Rafael Reyes, a moderate conservative impatient with the religious—secular divide that so animated the country’s two competing parties. His youth had been spent searching for routes through the Amazon to Brazil in a quest that saw one brother eaten by cannibals and another killed by the fever. When the Thousand Days War ended leaving 100,000 dead and Panama lost, a weary nation saw him elected president with Liberal support in 1904.
Reyes proceeded rapidly with a nation-building agenda: he centralized governance, involved both Liberals and Conservatives in his government, invested in infrastructure and encouraged foreign investment. His political model would continue, with minor changes, until the Wall Street Crash, through a period that saw Colombian railways grow from 565 km in 1904 to 2,434 km in 1929. Following the development of transport links, the country became the world’s second largest exporter of coffee and a significant producer of bananas and petrol.
The rhetoric that Reyes evoked in Mexico has been echoed by current Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who has promised that promotion of the “locomotive of energy and mining” will modernize the country. Outside of political imagery, the rail network Reyes developed has largely fallen apart: passenger services have been abandoned for decades, and roads and air are used to transport most commodities. But in literature one can still discover journeys that shine light on a society which remains locked in conflict with itself.
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who died in April this year, structured his memoirs around a train journey he took on the 20th of February 1950, a journey he would later describe as the most important of his life. It was a Sunday and Márquez had been travelling all night into the early morning simply to reach the train; first he had taken a boat to cross the network of waterways outside the northern town of Barranquilla, and then he rode in a horse-drawn carriage towards the rail station of the town of Ciénaga. The given reason for the expedition was to accompany his mother to sell the family house in his birthplace of Aracataca, but in reality the journey had another aim; both were to end, fortuitously, in failure.
The expedition also became a tour through memories. The sea glimpsed through the left window of the carriage sparked a recollection of a day when Márquez was three or four years old, holding the hand of his grandfather, a liberal veteran of the Thousand Days War, Colonel Nicolás Márquez. They had stood together on the jetsam-strewn shore, looking out at the waves.
“It’s the ocean,” his grandfather had said.
This first encounter with the sea had not been a happy one. Beyond a “sordid mass of water,” he claimed to have seen a “vast extension of green water belching foam, where an entire world of drowned chickens lay floating.” Disenchanted, he asked his grandfather what was on the other shore.
“There is no shore on the other side.”
Márquez would later write:
“Today, after seeing so many oceans front and back, I still think that was one of his great responses.”
The carriage continued towards the station past the red-light district on the other side of the tracks, “with its little painted houses and rusty roofs and old parrots from Paramaribo that sat on rings hanging from the eaves and called out to clients in Portuguese.” They passed the old watering site for the locomotives, with its “immense iron dome where migratory birds and lost seagulls took shelter to sleep.” Then, at a square close to the station, his mother pointed and said:
“Look, that’s where the world ended!”
In 1928, pressured by the United Fruit Company and an American warship waiting offshore, the Colombian Army massacred striking banana workers assembled in Ciénaga. Márquez later wrote “I knew the event as if I had lived it, having heard it recounted and repeated a thousand times by my grandfather from the time I had a memory: the soldier reading the decree by which the striking labourers were declared a gang of lawbreakers; the three thousand men, women, and children motionless under the savage sun” The number of dead is still unclear but many on both sides say it was over a thousand, and it shocked a country which had grown unaccustomed to massacres.
Following the killings a young Liberal had asked on the floor of Congress why the Colombian Army was shooting banana workers instead of protecting the country from the American warship. His name was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and by 1948 he had finally become leader of a Liberal Party whose dominant families still distrusted his radical agenda. Gaitán promised to overturn the “oligarchy” represented by both parties, and declared that “the people are superior to their rulers.” Polls suggested he would win forthcoming elections against the incumbent Conservatives, but he was murdered on 9 April 1948, prompting an outbreak of mass violence that forced Márquez to leave Bogota for the north.
Márquez briefly continued the legal studies he had abandoned in the capital, attending the University of Cartagena, but by the time he embarked on the journey to his birthplace he had absconded and was earning a pittance as a journalist in the now-censored press of Barranquilla. Gaitán’s death had sparked dispossession and violence across the countryside that continues to the present day, and the efforts of some to stem the violence failed then, as they have ever since.
As Márquez travelled with his mother in the horse-drawn carriage he described to her his first encounter with the sea. She replied that the drowned chickens floating on the waves had been a childhood hallucination, and the story offered Márquez a brief respite from his mother’s sustained efforts at persuading him to return to his legal studies to gain an academic degree, an achievement that had eluded and preoccupied his father.
At the station the train was delayed. When it arrived they entered a carriage that was once part of the “finest railroad in Colombia,” built under Reyes’ premiership in partnership with the same United Fruit Company of Massachusetts. Now the upholstery was torn and the springs creaked as the train slowly pulled out of Ciénaga. They were the only passengers and Marquez took refuge in Faulkner’s Light in August as the train picked up speed to cross the saltmarshes outside town.
His memories of Aracataca were of a town flanked by the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada, yet so sun-baked that as a child he had “dreamed of shaping balls of the perpetual snow and playing war on the parched, burning streets. For the heat was so implausible, in particular at siesta time, that the adults complained of it as if it were a daily surprise.”
The train slowed as it entered the “hermetic realm of the banana region” where at intervals among the symmetrical rows of trees there remained towns established by the United Fruit Company. They passed the only banana plantation to have a nameplate, Macondo, which would become the town established by José Arcadio Buendía in Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the spot where the story’s hero dreamed of a town of mirrors as he slept by a river.
Its opening line describes José Arcadio’s second son and Liberal leader, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, facing the firing squad while remembering “that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Later we see seven generations of the Buendía family confront the changing realities of the town, to which a new railroad brings the banana company that transforms the region but then provokes a strike ending in a massacre of workers, whose bodies are transported along the railroad in their thousands to be dumped into the sea.
Aracataca, like Macondo, was built beside a river of transparent water that ran over “a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs.” The train approached the town past land his grandfather had bought on the promise that there was gold in it, past the house of the Adventist preachers with its sign in English reading “The sun shines for all” — the only English that Márquez ever learnt, past the yard of the little Montessori school in which Márquez had learned to read.
“The station!” exclaimed his mother. “How the world has changed if nobody’s waiting for the train.”
They were the only ones to alight, and as they were left alone on the platform the town appeared still grief-stricken by the departure of the banana company. The house in which Márquez had been raised would prove so dilapidated it was unsellable; indeed the tenants who had seemed interested in purchasing it said the building only remained standing because of what they had spent to maintain it. But Marquez would leave with new subjects for his writing in the stories that the household had selflessly given him in his infancy, when he had been raised with his grandfather as the only other male in a household of women.
Márquez had already had poems and short stories published in the press of Bogota, including in El Tiempo, the newspaper owned by former president Eduardo Santos, great-uncle to current president Juan Manuel Santos. But it was in Aracataca that he realised he already possessed the materials to unlock the creativity that would breathe life through his most famous works. The women of the house had told the pale, story-telling, insomniac infant Márquez “their secrets, their sorrows, their rancours, as if I did not understand, not realising I knew everything because I tied up the loose ends that they themselves left dangling.”
One day a group of young men with crosses of ash on their foreheads had arrived at the house to give their respects to the colonel; they were his sons fathered throughout the province during the Thousand Days War, and were warmly welcomed into the family by the colonel’s wife. The house and its rewoven legends would spawn not only the town of Macondo, but also the writing career of Márquez itself, another journey composed of mirrors through which to see Colombia, so similar to the town that José Arcadio Buendía dreamed of in the wilderness.
Forty years after Márquez rode the run-down carriages along the line on that momentous journey, the age of the locomotive that Rafael Reyes heralded had come to an end; passenger rail services in Colombia had been abandoned for over a decade. Colombia had witnessed new levels of violence from guerrillas and drug trafficking cartels: The FARC, formed out of survivors from dispersed rural communes in the mid ‘60s, sought the violent seizure of power, while the Medellin Cartel of Pablo Escobar conducted terrorism against any politicians and journalists they were unable to buy.
Three leading candidates were murdered in the 1990 presidential elections and the efforts of the left, including some guerrillas, to challenge the traditional dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives through the Unión Patriotica party were met with sustained violence, killing thousands and effectively eradicating the party.
A year after the election a ship named Melquíades (after the wandering Gypsy in One Hundred Years of Solitude who brings telescopes, ice, and magic carpets to Macondo) was sailing around Latin America with the support of the French Government, loaded with circus performers from Royal de Lux and musicians from the then wildly popular punk-reggae band Mano Negra. The band’s singer Manu Chao noted the lack of any rail service in Colombia and resolved to return to reactivate a form of transport “so crucial to a country’s social and geographic fabric.”
By 1993 his band, together with many circus performers from Royal de Lux and a support band named French Lovers, had returned to Colombia, taken charge of a hurriedly restored train from the sidings of the Ferrovias depot outside Bogota, and were rumbling through territory fought over by guerrillas and paramilitaries to mount musical and spectacular extravaganzas at abandoned stations along the line to Aracataca. “The Train of Ice and Fire” was a locomotive and 21 carriages that, according to Manu’s father and journalist Ramón Chao who documented the journey, resembled “a load of bric-a-brac put together by inexpert but passionate hands.”
The expedition rejected all offers of an escort from the Army to the alarm of the French embassy, one of whom responded resignedly, “What can we do? It’s too late. I never thought this train would actually leave.” The Fire carriage was lined with asbestos and sheet metal, designed to burn in flames through the performances, while an ice wagon contained “the biggest diamond ever seen — a five-cubic-meter six-ton block of ice, pure and translucent like crystal.”
Then came a cage-wagon home to an enormous mechanical dragon cum flame-thrower, while the ice-wagon was a grotto in which a snowstorm would be unleashed when a “child-friendly sleepy polar bear” woke up. Other carriages housed trapezes for the circus acts, or the stages for French Lovers and Mano Negra.
By the time the train arrived at Aracataca after nightfall to a crowd of 2000 and a children’s choir singing the Marseillaise in Spanish, the Train of Ice and Fire had become the talk of Colombia after a string of widely reported concerts in the tumble-down stations along the line. The carriages had derailed numerous times on a line afflicted by years of neglect, but the musicians, circus actors, and staff from Ferrovias would simply crow-bar the carriages back onto the tracks and the train would slowly continue to another town, another concert-cum-extravaganza.
Awe-struck townspeople were unable to buy tickets for the events; instead they had to write down their dreams in order to gain admittance. The children were astonished by the ice sculptures, one little girl said the ice made her “skeleton tremble,” but it was Roberto the dragon who, according to Ramón Chao, fulfilled “the role played many years ago in Aracataca by Melquíades’ ice. “The young, and the not so young, open their eyes wide, go into ecstasies, scream blue murder, and recoil with fear every time Roberto sweeps the station with his piercing eyes and blows ten metres of flame, to a deafening crash of sirens and decibels.”
The concert in Marquez’s hometown was a success but marked the beginning of the end for Mano Negra with several band members leaving for France two days later, the tour still unfinished. Away from the train the violence of Colombia continued unabated. News of the killing of Pablo Escobar reached the train as it travelled from Bosconia to Gamarra, and the effects of sustained mass displacement were clear when the group reached Dorada in the coffee growing highlands.
The train would proceed all the way back to Bogota, with Mano Negra’s remaining band members having to use synthesizers to mimic those who had abandoned the adventure. The band would never reform. The promises of politicians to use the Train of Ice and Fire to regenerate the railways were not fulfilled: Ferrovias was liquidated in 2003 and while cargo is still moved along some lines, passenger services have never been restarted. Pablo Escobar’s death saw new gang wars emerge, and the rise of AUC paramilitaries backed by the military saw massacres increase to unprecedented levels.
The dreams that gained access for their authors to the concerts have been preserved:
My dream is that there will be no need for children or teenagers to go hungry. Obviously we have to have pain in our lives, but not so much. —Franklin Muñoz, 13
Pineapple, lemon, lemonade.
If you don’t love me why do you kiss me? —Damaris, 15
One of my biggest dreams is that there’ll be peace in Colombia, and to do that we have to stop the drug traffickers. As for me, I hope that when I’m eighteen I’ll have a good job so I can help other people and be a good person. —Illegible signature
I dream of travelling in a train. —Ana Gonzalez, 12
How beautiful Colombia would be without war! Here a man loses his life and leaves a wife and children. A rifle shot ends an existence, mothers cry for their children, wives cry for their husbands. No more wars, no more bombs, no more violence. Why does everything have to end with a rose on a grave? —Rita Santos, 24
Today the imagery of the rail age has been reborn, however, in current President Juan Manuel Santos’s echoing of Rafael Reyes over a century ago: Colombia’s economy will now be driven by the “locomotive of energy and mining” whose development will propel the country forwards. This has been supported by government policy: 60% of Colombian territory is now under mining concessions or has applications pending, and 65% of Colombia’s energy is produced by hydro-power. Mining and energy have become the largest recipients of foreign direct investment, and the government claims the sector’s growth is supporting a rise in GDP.
But as with the export economy that Reyes created, some are in danger of being crushed beneath the wheels of the new priorities. Colombia now has the highest number of environmental conflicts in Latin America, and the second highest in the world, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas. Most vulnerable are those already displaced by conflict; Colombia has between 5.3 and 5.7 million internally displaced people, the highest number in the world. In the communities of the Cauca valley in Antioquia, for example, among the survivors of the numerous massacres committed in the valley by the AUC, new displacements are occurring to make way for the Ituango hydro-electric dam, forecast to produce 2400MW.
The town of Ituango sits on a ridge above the river valley, its population swollen by refugees from on-going conflicts in the area where the army and the Urabeños narco-trafficking gang each seek to secure control of the area from the FARC. In a set of unfurnished rooms behind a front door buckled by a bomb planted to attack the jail opposite, four children pass their time in games, chasing a white rabbit around the sad house. Two are children of bargemen who have received death threats for opposing the dam. The other two are the son and daughter of Nelson Giraldo, who led those resisting the dam project. After around 50 local people had fled to the University of Antioquia campus in Medellin citing threats made against them, Giraldo had returned to Ituango, reportedly to see if the families could return to the area. His decapitated and bullet-ridden body was later found by the river.
Edwin Villegas lives by panning the river for gold. He has taken Nelson’s place as the regional leader against the project.
“We who live from the river will lose our livelihood, and for what?” He asks. “For the rich to get richer.”
Walking along the dusty road through the Cauca gorge he claimed that the energy the dam would produce is not needed locally, but is instead earmarked for future gold mining operations.
“Never once has there been a fair consultation with all of the people affected by the dam. And they call this development.”
Rios Vivos (Living Rivers), the organization once led in the town by Nelson Giraldo, now represents other threatened river communities throughout Colombia. Its spokesperson is Isa Zuleta, whose family first moved to Ituango to escape a wave of massacres that hit the region’s hinterland in the ‘nineties. She has been forced to live in hiding following death threats.
“There is no legal avenue open to us; we are those displaced by development, and under the law the government does not displace people,” she says.
Last month the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights heard submissions related to the Ituango dam and other development projects in Colombia, that claimed forced dispossession and threats have become intrinsic to the construction of such megaprojects.
Rios Vivos participates in a process known as the “Minga,” a movement started by indigenous alliances against the government and the export-led development model that can trace its antecedents back to Rafael Reyes. While some of the government’s critics question the amount of royalties gained to the public purse from the mining and energy sectors, participants in the Minga prefer to stress the primary importance of the rights and wellbeing of peoples and their territories, guided by a conception of Mother Earth which flourishes in indigenous Colombia.
The “mingueros” say that their movement aims to ‘walk’the word (“caminar la palabra”) of resistance. In contrast to talk of the locomotive age, their expression emphasises the slowness of a movement determined to “weave” a new society in a country torn apart by war. Sometimes they walk in processions that have reached the cities of Cali and Bogota from the indigenous communities of the south, the coffee growing farms of the once-profitable Western Cordillera, or from the Afro-Colombian towns of the violence wracked Pacific coast. Sometimes they have demonstrated against concessions for mines that pollute local water sources, or against the Quimbo and Sogamosa dam projects.
The government has claimed that the guerrillas are supporting the Minga, despite frequent FARC attacks on the indigenous activists involved. Rural workers striking because their produce is no longer competitive in a currency inflated by mining and energy exports have also been declared subversive by the authorities.
Such dynamics have a long history in Colombia. A year before the “world ended” in Ciénaga, the Minister of War, Ignacio Rengifo, had warned that “the impetuous and devastating wave of corrosive and revolutionary ideas from Soviet Russia…has come to beat Colombian beaches threatening destruction and ruin, and watering the fatal seed of communism.”
Following the violence that followed Gaitán’s death and which forced Márquez to leave Bogota, such language became more widespread, and by the time the Train of Ice and Fire trundled towards Aracataca the vocabulary had become engrained in the political lexicon of the state. The expedition instigated by Mano Negra had sought to challenge such conceptions by rejecting the protection of all sides, and also, in the words of Manu Chao, by mounting “a show reconciling the two hereditary enemies, fire and ice.”
The concerts gave back to Aracataca a take on the marvellous Colombia evoked by Macondo, the returning of a gift from the transforming journey Márquez had undertaken 43 years before. Thanks to that journey the world has learned not only of Melquíades, but also of the strong Úrsula Iguarán, the earth-eating girl Rebeca, and the artistic war leader Aurelio Buendía.
Márquez’s grandfather emerges from the military defeat of his youth as a figure from another age and time, with values out of place in the emerging Colombia. Despite being a known spendthrift he had always travelled in the third class carriages of the poor, which were no more than converted banana wagons, and when asked why he would answer “Because there’s no fourth!”
He spent his later years making little golden fish to sell around the town, which did almost nothing to stem the financial decline of the family. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Aureliano Buendía has tired of the battle between Liberal and Conservative ideologies he has come to see as sterile squabbles between the elite. Buendía also makes little golden fish, but each evening melts them down and begins anew, an image said to represent the endlessly repeating present he has come to inhabit. It could also serve as a metaphor for the history of Colombia, a country almost always at war, yet forever racing ahead without time for delay in the belief that it is forging itself as a nation.
Robin Llewellyn is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights and environmental issues.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.