A Letter from Bogota: What Do You Think About CHARACTER COUNTS! in Colombia?

I am writing this post from Bogota, Colombia. I am halfway through a full week of high-level meetings and various presentations to educators, parents and government officials.

What am I talking about? Ethics and character, of course. More specifically, I am sharing my thoughts and the Institute’s strategies and programs dealing with character development, parenting, education reform and the corruption and inefficiency that affects their police and other government agencies.

On the one hand, a few of the stereotypes of Colombia were confirmed – there is incredibly tight security everywhere and a continuous awareness of potential violence or theft. Police with dogs are everywhere, not just the airport. They have dogs specializing in drugs, explosives and cash. I was stopped at the airport after a dog detected a small wad of $20 bills I picked up earlier in Los Angeles at an ATM. It was only $200 but the dog detected it. I was politely asked by the dog’s handler to remove the contents of the pocket and if I had any more cash. (They are looking for cash payments resulting from drug sales.) Since I didn’t, they let me on my way.

The presence of all these police with canine colleagues and the widespread use of private security outside restaurants and other public places speaks to the prevalence of drug trafficking and street crime.

Traffic is horrible and like an increasing number of cities I’ve visited, they mitigate the problem by allowing residents to drive in the city only every other day (this is regulated by whether their license ends in an even or odd number). The funny thing about all this is that it wasn’t nearly as oppressive as I thought it would be. Quite the contrary, I found it an easy city to like.

The city itself is much larger, prettier, cleaner and more modern than I expected. In fact, a view of the city from the nearby mountains (they seemed more like high hills) was really quite spectacular. The people are smarter, warmer, more socially conscious and more concerned about the perceived deterioration of traditional ethical values, especially in the younger generation, than I expected.

Although there is a tremendous gap between the well-off and the very poor (about one-third of the country is in poverty), I didn’t see the slums and shantytowns I’ve seen elsewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t taken to those places as I am sure they exist. I didn’t see the beggars and vagrants that are common in both European and Asian cities.

I am not glossing over the problems that even Colombians recognize and I realize the fact that the poor people are so well “regulated” as to not be a nuisance or an eyesore and that poverty is confined geographically, are likely to be the result of oppressive and discriminatory policies that simply hide the prevalent social problems. One of the greatest disparities is between the public and private schools. The public schools are only for those who can’t afford to be in a private school. Even schools that are considered among the best are a pale reflection of the private school.

A school I visited today was peopled by wonderfully committed administrators and teachers but, frankly it looked more like a prison than a school. The inequities of the society are widespread and deplorable.

At the same time, I think it would be unfair to ignore the progress made over the last 20 years, including the willingness to combat the drug lords and street thieves. More importantly, it would be wrong to discount or belittle the substantial efforts to address the problems of passionate Colombians who love their country, but hate certain aspects of it.

A major centerpiece of these reform efforts is an intense focus on education at both the state and federal level. New legislation seeks to require schools to overtly and pervasively promote ethical values and reduce violence, bullying, teen pregnancy and other social issues. It’s hard to know whether anything I say or anything the Institute might do to introduce our philosophies and methods to Colombian society, especially schools, will have any meaningful impact.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that very few people speak English here – even among highly placed, well educated people – so almost all my communications require a translator. All my major speeches included a simultaneous translator transmitting my remarks through ear phones – it feels like I’m a UN diplomat. Among other things, this requires that I speak more slowly than normal (for me).

Frankly, it was gratifying to see how responsive my various audiences have been during the talks themselves (they were laughing and nodding in the right places) and in eager efforts to talk to me after the speeches. I had the warm, exuberant feeling Sally Field expressed during an Academy Awards reaction when she said, “You like me, right now, you like me!”

Perhaps I’m shallow and too easily seduced by flattery, but … I like them. I really like them! I love their passion, intelligence, sincere concern and openness to learn. I am deeply impressed with how many people want to make things better.

There is no doubt at all that millions of Colombians are sincerely committed to improving their society and the lives of their children. Our great success in Puerto Rico suggests we can help if given the opportunity. One of the biggest investments is my time and some think I should not use so much of it in places like Colombia. I have the mentality of a missionary and I’m inclined to help anyone who asks for it.

What do you think? Should we take on such tough challenges abroad when there are so many places that need our help at home (whether they are asking for our help or not)?

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