Jaime Manrique's fast-paced novel focuses on the corruption and power struggle brought to a head by the marijuana and cocaine traffic from Colombia to the United States.
Santiago Villalba inherits extensive tropical lands along the Caribbean coast of Colombia that once grew bananas but are now being cultivated for "Santa Marta gold"--marijuana. These bonanza holdings are consolidated and expanded through a political marriage arranged for Santiago. He proves to be the weak link of the clique; his sympathy grows for the poor and exploited masses.
He also has been forgotten, in another fashion, by his authoritarian father. The neglected, illegitimate son takes his revenge in the beginning of the novel: he murders and rapes his father, then attempts a similar act on his father-in-law. These two isolated cases of patricide and necrophilia are not convincing in the development of Santiago's character and seem to exploit a macabre topic. At best, they are a grotesque symbol of decadence in one sector of Colombian society. Santiago's obsession with his father's cadaver is the vengeful counterpart to his guilty conscience about the countless corpses left in the wake of political repression and rampant violence incited by the Colombian gold.
With the film camera in mind, Manrique shifts scenes and spins surprising imagery. It is revealing that the author received his country's award for poetry in 1976 and published a volume of film criticism in 1979. He puts both talents to work in "Colombian Gold." I am reminded of Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" and some of Luis Bunuel's film scripts. Manrique is indebted to other Latin American novelists who have depicted the corruption of power at the highest levels--including Miguel Angel Asturias ("El Senor Presidente") and Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("The Autumn of the Patriarch").
Some of the secondary characters of "Colombian Gold" are too readily recognizable as social and political types. As the chief of the secret police, Caridad Bello belies her angelical name. Policarpa Samper, the revolutionary woman of aristocratic origin, sacrifices herself, machine gun in hand, for the cause of F-69, an underground guerrilla movement founded in February 1969. Gonzalo Santos, author of a satire titled "One Hundred Years of Ineptitude," is imprisoned by the government because of his socialist tendencies yet escapes execution thanks to the good will of Santiago Villalba. Gonzalo Santos seems vaguely reminiscent of Garcia Marquez, who has expressed sympathy for the Colombian revolutionary movement known as M-19 (after the founding date, April 19, 1970).
The power struggle over the marijuana and cocaine business, as explained in "Colombian Gold," is polarized into two major factions. On the one side, a president of Colombia is allied with the army, big landowners, and a U.S. ambassador who presses for a campaign against the marijuana harvest while providing military aid. On the other side, the Goajiro Indians, who live along the fertile coast, are exporting marijuana and cocaine to the United States via Castro's Cuba and have signed a pact with the revolutionaries. A guerrilla war between castes and classes is in the making. The Colombian government selectively destroys the marijuana harvest of the Goajiros yet leaves that of its upper-class allies untouched.
How much fact is behind this fictional account? I certainly do not have the answer. An afternoon of research did provide some startling information. Tad Szulc, in his article "Colombian Gold" in The New Republic (Sept. 15, 1979), stated that "Colombian and American officials take it for granted that some of the most respectable citizens, families and institutions in Colombia are involved in the drug traffic in some way." In this business of billions of dollars per year, bribing is prevalent.
Nathan Adams, in an article in Reader's Digest (July 1982), cites the case of a Colombian who received special treatment from officials of Castro's Cuba concerning his export of marijuana and cocaine in return for carrying arms to the M-19 insurgents. In March 1981, according to Adams, Colombian authorities seized a cache of M-19 weapons, arrested guerrillas, and implicated the Cuban Embassy in the affair. That same month, according to The New York Times (March 27, 1981), Gabriel Garcia Marquez was going to be questioned in Bogota on a captured cache of arms owned by the M-19 guerrillas. Diplomatic protection for his exit from the country was provided by the Mexican Embassy.
The reader can speculate about the line separating fact from fiction in "Colombian Gold." Jaime Manrique, the outcast son of an old Colombian family, calls his novel "my revenge." It was written in Madrid and New York, at a safe distance.