Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Culture—Collateral Damage of the Colombian Civil War

“The same mistake, one right after the other are being made in cultural policies (by the Colombian government), and the worst thing is that these mistakes generate victims who are none other than the hundreds of artists who have bravely gambled on creation, who are almost always immersed in the worst conditions and the most extreme loneliness.” -- Jorge Montoya, The Cultural Aspect.

Colombia has been immersed in civil war since the mid-60s, meaning that only those people in their mid-40s and older can even remember a time when there wasn’t an armed conflict. Imagine that the news outlets have a section in their broadcasts, papers and websites dedicated solely to the “armed conflict,” the equivalent in importance to the Washington or Education tabs on the New York Times website.

In a time of war, especially civil war, it is often hard for the government to justify funding the arts—an investment that is rarely returned in a monetary form. The Ministry of Culture surely cannot justify to the president that keeping the Conservatory--a premier concert house in Bogota, Colombia--up and running should merit federal monies before the military, social services, and a host of other “practical” causes.

To understand the poverty of Colombia, it is helpful to compare its economy to that of the richest country in the world, the United States. According to the CIA Factbook, US military spending was 4.06 percent in 2005, compared to 3.4 percent in Colombia that same year. However, in Colombia, per capita GDP in 2006 was roughly $8,600, compared to almost $44,000 in the United States in the same year (CIA Factbook). With so little to dole out, 3.4 percent of the GDP becomes a much weightier figure. In light of how poor of a country Colombia is, it is also understandable that the arts might suffer when the budget is divided, but it is devastating to think that this lack of funds might translate to a cultural loss of memory.

This was the crux of my last article. It focused on an influential and dedicated Colombian composer, Guillermo Uribe Holguin (1880-1971), and a present day Colombian classical guitar virtuoso’s attempt to resurrect his memory. Holguin wrote 13 symphonies, 3 ballets, and countless other pieces for scores of different musical instruments. He also founded the Conservatory, Colombia’s principal concert house during the 20th Century and his own personal shrine to classical music. Despite the Conservatory’s fame over almost a century, it survived on donations and briefly was forced to close on many occasions due to lack of government funding. It finally closed for good in 2002 (Luis Angel Arango Library).

Nilko Andreas Guarin, the Colombian guitarist who hopes to breath life into the dead composer’s work, alleges that political tension caused a forced disappearance of Holguin’s life’s work. Whether it was a vengeful campaign to erase Holguin’s memory, or simply a side effect of a nation unable to focus on creating beauty while recovering from war, Holguin’s life work has all but vanished. The Conservatory is no longer, and while the website of the Bank of the Republic of Colombia (which owns various museums and cultural records) contains scores from other composers, only a simple biography of Guillermo Uribe Holguin remains.


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