August 17, 2006

Being a member of the Canada Club in Bogota

Being a member of the Canada Club in Bogota:

Chris Arsenault rubs elbows with Canada’s elite in Colombia.

There is something implicitly boring about Canada's elites.

Even in the fastest, flashiest, most beautiful places they're still lumbering, reserved and placated; that's the only conclusion one can draw from an evening at The Canada Club in Bogotá, Colombia.

To arrive at the carpeted hotel convention center which hosts the Canada Club every Friday night, we walk from old city, where every bag of garbage left outside is torn apart by people looking for something to sell or something to eat.

Stray dogs pick away at the rest before city workers sweep it into dump trucks.

In Bogota's posh Zona Rosa Convention center, we saunter past the lobby and up a flight of stairs with brass rails to a medium-sized lounge. Canadian business boys in their mid-50s, wearing golf shirts with oil company insignia tucked into waste high khakis shoot pool, as Colombian waiters in bow ties carefully replenish their drinks.

Waiters slice and pass around delicious white cake with cherry red toppings; a seafood bar with iced shrimp and squid sits in the corner.

An unspoken three drink maximum seems to be in effect and conversations are quiet and distant.

At neighbourhood bars in the city's historic district, young Colombians are just sitting down for a beer. Soon the tables and chairs will be pushed aside and every square inch of space will become a dance floor.

"You know, 60 per cent of the Canada Club's members are Colombians," said a tall affable fellow with a blond mustache, the group's president.

I nodded respectfully. It would, after all, be sensible that an organization based in Colombia would have Colombian members.

"But you know," he whispers in my ear. "Most of them are women trying to meet Canadian men," he smiles. I stare.

In the era of globalization, passports are personal power; privilege from a piece of paper connected to nothing but the randomness of birth.

And when it comes to passports, Colombia has a losing hand. "We can't go anywhere," said my friend Michelle as she negotiated the paper work for a Canadian travel visa so she could visit her boyfriend's hometown of Montreal.

When I entered this country, I just walked in.

"Welcome to Colombia," said the customs officer after taking a quick look at my Canadian passport.

One doesn't need to closely follow immigration policy to know why a Colombian passport is suspect by anxious border officials and timid wonks at the department of citizenship: drugs and violence.

But the drug trade, and the violence which often accompanies it, is based on that simplest of all capitalist principles: supply and demand.

The American (and Canadian) people demand cocaine. Colombian cartels supply it. The American government decides cocaine demand amongst Americans is problematic (violating the free market it claims to defend) and initiates a $3 billion eradication campaign called Plan Colombia contracting private militias like Dyncorp to spray toxic herbicides over vast swaths of land.

Powerful nations destabilize counties and then wonder why refugees show up at their borders; in 2004, 3,635 Colombians applied for refugee status in Canada; more than any other country.

Colombia grows some good coffee; disgusting instant Nescafe is served at many local restaurants.

Profits are shipped north but problems stay behind. Someone is getting rich here; Colombia's stock market performed better than any country in the world in 2004, according the Economist, an influential London based magazine.

And when it comes to getting rich, the boys at the Canada club are doing just fine. I just don't know if they're having much fun doing it.

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