Culture of Colombia
The Culture of Colombia is to a large extent centered around traditional values and the family unit as the core of life. You still see women cooking, taking care of the home and the baby, while the man goes to work but things are changing here just as in other parts of the world.
A very positive element of the culture of Colombia is that people are very warm, open and friendly, particularly if you're foreign. Dealing with people, if it's not for business, is a pleasure. Here, people have time to enjoy themselves and although industrious, prioritize friends and family.
However, I do personally know that if you're doing business here or if money changes hands, you need to be extremely careful because deals can be fuzzy and invariably, they will try to rip you off. There's not so much a win-win mentality as a, I win, you lose, zero sum game at play. Don't be naive...
Art, Crafts and Literature
Much of what is known about the culture of Colombia abroad is that of the prodigious painter, Fernando Botero and Nobel prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Colombia is rich in hand crafted objects and weaving. Different regions and towns often specialize in a specific craft. There is also a deep history of gold ornamentation inherited from the indigenous tribes before the Spanish arrived. I strongly urge anyone visiting Bogota to see the Gold Museum to get a sense of this history and how advanced it was.
Catholic values, although having lost much of its influence, still seeps into many aspects of life and expressions. It's a soft form of religion where expressions such as “Si Dios quiere” (If it be God's will) or “Dios te paga” (God will pay you) are prevalent, although fairly meaningless. Regardless, just about every town in the country has a central square with a church and some people still attend mass.
Under Uribe, the economy of Colombia has experienced relatively high growth over the last 6 years. 4.7% in 2005, 6.9% in 2006, 8.2% in 2007 before slowing during the global recession to 2.7% in 2008, 0.8% in 2009 before accelerating again to 4.5% in 2010.
The country does however, have one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world rated as the fourth “worst”.
Colombia is set to experience continued growth if political stability is maintained but continued corruption, inequality and low minimum wages divide the country into have and have nots – the difference being vast. With money you can have an extremely high standard of living here but on the flip side of the coin, the poor majority are only barely making do. I think this classist structure has existed for over half a millennium ever since the Colonialist invasion that brought with it the serfdom/ landowner “culture” and in many ways, has not changed since then.
Regionalism and Demographics
I would argue that inherent in the culture of Colombia is a particularly regionalist mentality both within the country and also with regards to its place in the world. This is partly due to a restrictive travel situation for the majority of the population who cannot attain visas to visit the U.S., Spain etc., due to strict demands on proof of income, work and ties to the homeland in addition to a horrendous bureaucracy which makes the process uncertain and expensive. It is also due to the physical geography that is mountainous and frequently, consisting of thick rain forest or jungle with numerous rivers to cross.
Colombia is a fairly urbanized with the concentration of people living in cities, many of which have been displaced through losing their farmland or threat from guerrilla activity. The majority of the population live at high altitude, between 1-3000 meters and therefore, the highest concentration is to the West along the Andean mountain chain and in particular, to the North West in Bogota, Medellin and Cali.
Beurocracy and Corruption
The bureaucracy is ridiculous and makes no sense and yet, it somehow seems to define a significant aspect of the culture of Colombia. It's inherited from the Spanish and actually worse if that's possible. You need to notarise just about every scrap of paper you sign and to open a bank account, rent an apartment or do a deal of some kind. Why is this? Corruption I believe. They're worried about it and also, recognize it. Therefore, just about everyone will avoid paying tax. Why? Survival and a deeply ingrained distrust for their authority figures. It makes some sense when you think about it – why bother paying tax if the mayor will steal most of it and it never shows up back in the system?
It's a huge problem. Some of it comes from a survival instinct and I think this is the explanation for why so many people here, keep it in the family. They're stuck with them and therefore need to trust each other.
Corruption seems so widespread that I think the problem branches to all aspects of financial life. Somehow, you need to be pragmatic and negotiate it. If you're just visiting as a tourist, chances are you won't notice a thing.
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