By Guillermo Martinez
It was a lifetime ago.
In February 1956 Esquire magazine published a story that described Havana as “The Sexiest City in the World.” The headline alone made many Cubans in the island irate. The story about a love of sex, beautiful women and prostitution re-enforced the belief that Havana exuded sex — and vice.
Helen Lawrenson, the author, wrote that “the intrinsic, basic quality of Havana is a deadly magic which permeates the very air which flows through the city inescapable and inseparable, and which can only be defined, in the last analysis, as Sex.” She added: “Cubans . . . accept it as the dominant factor of their lives.”
It was the type of writing that made Esquire famous for decades. It was also one of the many factors that helped create the myth that Cuba was a morally bankrupt country in desperate need of a revolution. And Castro fed on this, preaching that he would end prostitution and corruption on the island.
Now another Latin American nation needs to fight an image battle against a similar tainting following the scandalous behavior of U.S. Secret Service agents and members of the armed forces. That nation is Colombia, and the image its government and people must address is equally pernicious.
For many years the South American nation had been defined by violence, drug cartels, and a fledgling narco-terrorist state. The government, the army, the justice system; all were corrupt. That made many hesitate before traveling to the Andean country, let alone investing in it.
Things improved under former president Alvaro Uribe and his relentless persecution of drug dealers, terrorists and corrupt politicians. The guerrilla forces were persecuted constantly and dealt one defeat after another. The current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has continued those efforts.
Simultaneously, Colombia’s government spent millions telling the world of the country’s re-birth. That Colombia had stemmed the violence; widened its peace and grew its economy. That is not a myth.
That is the vision the country projected before the scandal in Cartagena. It is also the truth.
Unfortunately, another magazine, this time The Economist, has hit Colombia where it hurts the most — in belying this image that Colombia had built carefully at a cost of millions of dollars over the past decade.
The sex scandal, the magazine wrote, is “not the kind of press they (Colombians) were after.” And now Colombia and Cartagena have been stung by the hundreds of stories throughout the world about a colonial Caribbean city where prostitution is rampant.
Despite a denial by mayor Campo Elías Terán, the magazine clearly spells out that “almost any taxi driver (in Cartagena) will offer to hook male passengers up with prostitutes, and some of the city’s major hotels are lax in allowing guests to bring gusts to their rooms. Prostitution is, after all, legal here.”
Colombians have a government strong enough to fight a public relations battle it did not seek. But fight it must. For if it doesn’t the exaggerated tales of journalists seeking to write the definitive story of the Cartagena scandal will do great harm to a nation full of marvelous people who for five decades have been fighting to have peace and regain their international reputation.
That much I know from a lifetime of experience. Going back to the Cuba and the Esquire story from 1958, I can tell you that the failure to combat today’s myths can leave a tragic legacy for tomorrow.
You can’t combat lies unless you confront them with facts. Cubans have had to do that for more than 50 years in South Florida, and throughout the world. This is one of the reasons why “Cubans: An Epic Journey,” which I co-edited with Sam Verdeja, was published earlier this year by Facts About Cuban Exiles.
It shatters all the myths about Cuba before and after the revolution; not with adjectives, but with facts. But even so, the price has been paid for the dark legend about the island that helped inspire the Cuban Revolution.
May Colombia succeed where we did not a half century ago.
Contact Guillermo I. Martínez on Twitter at @g_martinez123, or email him at Guimar123@gmail.com