The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2001; Page C01

Where Troubles Are No Joke

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

BOGOTA--In Colombia, a land beset with chronic terrorism, kidnappings, bombings, drug cartels, smuggling and chaos, it takes something of special importance to
dominate the news. This is how things are, now.

Like David Letterman wisecracking about Andrea Noceti's talent performance in the Miss Universe contest: "Miss Colombia -- and this was hard to beat --
swallowed 50 balloons full of heroin."

Outrage! Uproar! Demonstrators! Official protests! Six days later, Letterman was draping himself in a Miss Colombia sash and apologizing on the air to Noceti.

The incident played out on the front pages of Colombia's leading newspapers with the intensity of an armed invasion -- and without a hint of irony. It easily disturbed
more people than the kidnapping of 190 farmers last week by a paramilitary group. In terms of column inches, the Noceti-Letterman clash surpassed the huge car
bomb that exploded Thursday in the nightclub district of Medellin, killing eight people and wounding more than 130.

Colombia is a country that can laugh at itself but doesn't like being laughed at by others.

Yes, the country is responsible for producing 90 percent of the world's cocaine and an increasing share of its heroin. Yes, its civilian population, particularly the poor,
is being terrorized by bands of leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary armies that roam the countryside. More people are kidnapped in Colombia than almost any
other country. And roughly 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict.

But why does everybody dwell on the negative? This is the constant lament from Bogota, where, despite Colombia's own delicate feelings, radio stations have no
problem devoting long satiric segments to mocking the U.S. ambassador's Spanish accent and various other gringo idiosyncrasies and stereotypes.

The joke likely would have riled Colombia's elite -- the country's poor tend to view the world with a more developed if darker sense of irony -- no matter when it
arrived. But, most likely unbeknown to Letterman, the crack followed several international insults that have deepened Colombia's pariah mentality.

Earlier this year, Spain, a dear old friend, decided to begin requiring visas from Colombian visitors. Such Colombian luminaries as Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia
Marquez and Fernando Botero, perhaps the most prominent living Latin American painter, fired off angry letters to Spain vowing never to visit again.

Then the United States delivered a one-two punch: It required Colombians to get visas even if only stopping in the country en route to another, and the State
Department advised Americans not to visit. Much anger ensued, particularly among the segment of Colombians who can afford Miami shopping trips.

To make matters worse, Colombia's international smash television saga "Betty la Fea" ("Betty the Ugly") recently ended in a glow of good humor and mirth as the title
character married her heart's handsome desire. Now what?

The Colombian national soccer team is struggling for the final qualifying slot in next year's World Cup, and a recent spate of urban terrorism is threatening Colombia's
standing as host of this year's Copa America soccer tournament. Soccer, like beauty, is important here.

No one likes to be stereotyped, especially when the stereotype is the swashbuckling drug kingpin in a country that considers itself a faithful preserver of the Spanish
language and culture.

Colombia is full of driven, talented people who not only endure but succeed amid unbelievably trying circumstances. Think of it in these terms: The number of leftist
guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries who have devastated the country and its image would not fill Camden Yards. Yet they have come to define the nation.

Even within Colombia's borders the culture of suspicion and mistrust has hardened over decades to complicate daily life in a thousand small ways. Cash registers
rarely contain enough money to make even the smallest change, a symptom of mistrustful managers. Nor do cab drivers carry more than several dollars -- nearly
every ride ends with a frantic search for change among the kiosks and coffee shops nearby.

A wire transfer from the United States takes up to three weeks to arrive thanks to a thicket of regulations meant to reduce the laundering of drug money. Ordering
taxi service requires an exchange of numeric codes -- one for the driver to ensure that the passenger is who he says, one for the passenger to ensure that the taxi is
not working for a kidnapping network that intercepted the call.

Tales of drug smuggling fill the newspapers, including the story of Andres Lafaurie Restrepo. The 19-year-old was caught at Miami International Airport last
November carrying a sizable load of heroin in his baggy pants. What makes him different from other smugglers is that he is the son of Maria Ines Restrepo, head of
the government's vaunted crop substitution program meant to encourage farmers to give up poppy and coca crops for legal ones.

Restrepo remains in her job. Her son gave helpful testimony against the heroin smuggling ring he was working for, but will remain in a U.S. prison for several years.

So with all the bad news, Colombia tends to salute its heroes beyond all sense of proportion. A few weeks ago Formula One race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya
dominated the front pages of Bogota's two leading newspapers, covered in champagne as he celebrated an apparent victory over German arch-rival Michael
Schumacher. On closer look, though, Montoya hadn't won the race but finished second.

Of course the Letterman episode has made Noceti a far larger celebrity than she otherwise would have been. She failed to be one of the Miss Universe pageant's 10
finalists -- even though Colombian newspapers had assured readers she would -- but has since received more attention than the winner.

The whole matter could be chalked up to the public relations genius of Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombia's ambassador to the United States. Moreno almost
single-handedly secured a massive $1.3 billion U.S. aid package through tireless congressional lobbying, and he was quick to stand up to Letterman. He sent CBS a
letter expressing outrage, and rallied New York's large Colombian diaspora for a picket line protest outside the Ed Sullivan Theater.

"Well done, Luis Alberto, you taught David Letterman a lesson," reads a cartoon in the weekly magazine Semana. Noceti made the most of the opportunity as well.
Before the show, she reportedly spent six hours with image consultants BSMG Worldwide, fielding every question Letterman might throw at her.

But already the nationalism of last week has turned cynical, Colombia's more natural tone.

"In this country, apparently without remedy, there is a lack of reaction to the daily massacres, the multitude of kidnappings, the car bombs, the billions in state
company thefts," wrote Lucy Nieto, a columnist for the influential daily El Tiempo. "But commentaries and protests pour forth for third-degree subjects . . . like the
perverse allusion about Miss Colombia from a gringo comedian."

                                               © 2001