Monday, July 15, 2013


You don't have to spend much time in Colombia to notice that there is a sizeable middle class. More so than anywhere else I've been in Latin America, except for perhaps Argentina and Chile. On the one hand this means that things are generally more expensive than in other countries, but on the other hand there is a nascent internal tourism culture with a reasonable number of camp sites to be found throughout the country (Colombians aren't so much into hiking and camping, but prefer to drive to the camp site and unpack from the comfort of the car boot). Colombians also seem to take pride in being the most Spanish and Western of the Hispanophone countries of the Americas. Following a series of discussions with my wonderful hosts in Bogota (Tristan and Jenny, who are my brother's friends), I started wondering more closely about what it actually means to be Western. It's a term I use quite often in this blog (with a capital so as to differentiate it from a purely geographical adjective) and feel instinctively that I know what it means, but do I really? or is there a consensus about what it truly is.

The royal Spanish coat of arms of Castilla-Leon hangs proudly on Tunja's town hall. Such a flagrant symbol of Spanish colonialism would be hard to find anywhere else in Latin America.

For many people, especially those who do not live in the West, the definition of Western centres around the obvious physical manifestations of what life is like in the West. These images, more often than not, come from media such as TV and film, and revolve around material wealth and prosperity. That's the easiest line of which to draw the boundary of West and not-West: what do I have? what do they have? the difference is what makes somebody, or a life, Western. It is this difference that many developing countries are striving to bridge: work hard enough, earn enough money, accumulate enough quality material possessions (and the word quality is all-important - go to China today and you will see that it is not just consumption that is valued, but the consumption of foreign, Western, high-end brands; anything as long as it isn't Made in China) and you will become Western. I'm not writing this to bash materialism per se and to advocate a return to some utopian, cave-dwelling society; I appreciate hot showers, broadband wi-fi and central heating too much. But this simplistic have and have-not definition fails to understand the reality of Western life and society and the traits that make it strong. And although I don't have a ready definition for it (and if you were to ask me tomorrow I would probably give a slightly different one) I feel it has something to do with a series of unwritten social contracts, both between the state and its citizens, and amongst the citizens themselves. A strength and fairness of the rule of law; a "buying in" to the system and consequent willingness to give up a little something for the common good, especially from those who are most able to afford it (most prominently in the form of taxation); and a general awareness and respect for others and the laws of the land. Of course none of these aspects reaches its full potential, but it is what is aimed for, and is essential, for our heavily interdependent societies to function properly without too much wastage or disharmony. And it is precisely the breakdown (whether real or perceived) of these social contracts that has caused the recent unrest and demonstrations in the West, from the Occupy movement to the revelations that large multinationals are weaselling their way out of paying their "fair share" of taxes.

"Public spaces are yours, take care of them! The cleanliness and care of this square is everyone's responsibility." A typical example of a public notice exhorting more civic behaviour (this one was in Quito).

In developing countries that may look, superficially, to be reaching the levels of affluence of the traditional Western countries I feel that many of these social compacts just aren't at all present. Here in Colombia nobody trusts the government with their money and they believe all civil servants who are in a position to, take bribes; in China the people know that laws are there to profit the rich and penalise the poor; in the Ukraine healthcare is entirely dependent on paying off the doctors. These are all anecdotes and complaints I have heard first hand and display the extent to which there is a disconnect and distrust that permeates the very core of these societies that often seem, on their surface, not to be that dissimilar to those of the West. Many governments have recently been trying to instill these communitarian social values through ubiquitous poster campaigns exhorting people to behave in more responsible ways, from paying utility bills on time, not dropping litter, not shouting or spitting, giving up seats on public transport to the infirm and elderly, separating rubbish, denouncing corruption, demanding receipts with purchases (businesses then have to declare the sales and pay taxes on them), respecting traffic rules, and many more. Whether these public campaigns will have an impact and lead to more profoundly Western societies is hard to tell, as not only do such behavioural changes on a societal level take a long time to take effect, but also they will never truly occur if ordinary people continue to believe that the rules and sacrifices are not being followed by the elites. (That is not to say that no people display such behaviour, many do, it is just that the numbers have not reached a critical mass to become the norm.)

One way in which Colombia is very Western, however, is in the fashion sensibilities of the countryside, especially in the interior north of Bogota. Here though, the Western in question refers to Wild Western, as in cowboys, Clint Eastwood, and A Few Dollars More. In these rural regions wide-brimmed hats, jeans, ponchos and wellies are de rigeur and the only acceptable attire for any reputable caballero (or gentleman, though it translates literally as horseman). Strutting through the small colonial towns, with their whitewashed houses, cobbled streets and uniformly painted shutters whilst leading a saddled horse it might be easy to imagine nothing has changed in centuries, that is until you are rudely brought back to the present by a wayward taxi driver bearing down on you from behind. Whether the clothing Western and affluence Western will be joined by a societal Western we will have to wait and see.

Typical country fashion in small-town Colombia (obviously the guy in the middle was from out of town).

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