NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews Laura Restrepo

BILL MOYERS: Colombian writer Laura Restrepo gets to the core of her native country's struggle...with a journalist's attention to detail and a novelist's insight into the inner life. Her novel, LEOPARD IN THE SUN is about a feud between two colombian drug families. Her latest novel, the dark bride, is about people trying to stay alive in colombia's wild oil country. Welcome to now.

I was in Colombia only once, 40 years ago, this year, when I was a young man working for the United States government, the Peace Corps.

MOYERS: It was such a country of promise then. It was-- there was so much euphoria about what Colombia had ahead of it. And now, I know it is wracked by this drug traffic, by war.

LAURA RESTREPO: Yes, well, I-- I have the feeling that we're a country that's not going to be anymore. We are going to be a country that's going to disappear. I believe in ten years from now, we will not exist anymore as a nation. In the modern world, it's not such a big deal for a culture or a people to disappear. Nobody seems to care too much.

We have over 50,000 violent deaths a year-- around five million people in displacement, either inside the country, fleeing from war, or outside the country. We have a terrible civil war that's being fueled by the millions of dollars that come from dr-- drug trafficking. We have the pressure of the United States sending military aid.

MOYERS: In fact, if I remember my figures correctly, the United States sends about five to $600 million in economic and humanitarian aid, and two and a half billion dollars in military aid.

LAURA RESTREPO: That's right.

MOYERS: That's five times what we spend for social and humanitarian causes.


MOYERS: And what is that doing?

LAURA RESTREPO: It multiplies everything to a scale where you cannot control. We have terrible problems. We're a backward country in many ways. We are a very unjust country. We're a country with huge differences between the rich and the poor. We know that. That's our big guilt. We have to deal with that.

LAURA RESTREPO: I watched your shows on-- on drug addiction here in the United States. And I was amazed to find out that what we Colombians, as a country, would need is just the same as all the victims here in the United States, all the drug victims-- drug addicts. The hundreds of people that are in jail because of drug problems.

We need just exactly the same thing. And that is, to have the drug problem not treated as a police or military problem, but as a problem of health, culture, education, prevention-- treatment. To look at it in the face. We-- we are disappearing as a nation. And I believe you're having, in the United States, great problems, because you don't-- don't want to look at the problem as it is.

MOYERS: You mean the drug-- traffic is greater than ever.

LAURA RESTREPO: The drug-- yes. Yes.


LAURA RESTREPO: --has lost the war on drugs. You cannot-- it cannot be otherwise. It's a problem of supply and demand. There's such great consumption of drugs in-- wealthy countries that the poor countries like Colombia, you can understand that a poor peasant, that doesn't-- hardly have-- food to give to his family, who grow cocoa leaves. Because-- he can sell them.

MOYERS: And your military, with the United States support, has been spraying those cocoa fields--

LAURA RESTREPO: Well, this is a-- very large problem. The problem of spraying and fumigating the soil with very poisonous-- substances which are forbidden in the rest of the world.

LAURA RESTREPO: what happens is the point-- the poisonous substances they're using to fumigate end up with the other crops, too.

I don't understand it at all. It's very difficult for us Colombians to understand. You see, we know that all drug that comes out from Colombia gets into United States and other First World nations. So, we ask ourselves, we know we have a responsibility, a big responsibility. We have to face it. We have to end with drug traffic.

But why only us? In a way, we feel that it's part of a need of the American government to put responsibility outside your country, to look for people who are different, look different, talk different, and sort of take evil on them. And tell the people, it's not us, it's not our problem. It's them. They're bad.


LAURA RESTREPO: They're evil.

MOYERS: What the government and it's advocates say is, "Well, we go to the source of the supply."

LAURA RESTREPO: But they will always grow cocoa if they're buying it here.

MOYERS: Because of demand for it.

LAURA RESTREPO: If there's a demand.

MOYERS: How does the United States look to you in Colombia? I mean, it--

LAURA RESTREPO: Well, the United States is a country I love very much. I love it's culture. I love it's people. Many of my dearest friends live here. I don't like-- is your government. Your-- successive governments. I don't like my government either. And they work very close together, so it's not a matter of Colombia against the United States. It's a matter of people from Colombia and the United States against our governments.

MOYERS: And why don't you like the governments of the United States?

LAURA RESTREPO: I believe they're very hard on the rest of the world. They don't know the rest of the world. They don't care about the rest of the world. They do not have the slightest idea of all the hatred that's growing in places. Imagine-- of-- I am 53 now, Bill. And for all my life I have only known violence. The main thing for me is that my boy can grow up and now having my boy killed, and rest of my family.

This is an obsession. It's hard to live with it. And I am only one among 41 million Colombians. And they all have the same problem. And I'm not saying that the only problem we have is this war on drugs. But it is a main part of the problem.

MOYERS: Some people resent it, and hate us as you say. Many people want to come here and live.

LAURA RESTREPO: But it's not--

MOYERS: Is that simplistic?

LAURA RESTREPO: --the United States. It's not the United States that people dislike. It's the government. It's their foreign policy, which we find very unfair. You know, we need health. We need education. We need food. We need every-- any-- everything but war. And the only thing we get is military aide. And now, this fumigation thing that's going to devastate our soil.

MOYERS: The spraying of the crops.

LAURA RESTREPO: The spraying of the crops. So, how can we admire government that forces us into us with the complicity of the Colombian government of course.

MOYERS: Which brings me to your novel, The Dark Bride. Your protagonist in here, the chief character in here, is a woman name Sayonara.

LAURA RESTREPO: That's right.

MOYERS: Tell me about Sayonara.

LAURA RESTREPO: Well, she's a prostitute. in the middle of the oil territory in Colombia.

LAURA RESTREPO: And I went there.

LAURA RESTREPO: and then, I began meeting all these old prostitutes that had been young, and working by the time the Tropical Oil Company was in Colombia, and Colombia was being exploited in the 40s and 50s by an American company, known in Colombia as the Troco (PH), the Tropical Oil Company.

And they began telling me these wonderful stories about them, and the oil workers, So it was wonderful talking to them in this very dangerous place with shooting and bombings all over the places. And every now and then we would have to go under the table until the shooting stopped.

LAURA RESTREPO: And of course, when you talk of prostitution, you know the dark side. And I wanted to look on that side, too. And I believe some characters, some of the prostitutes in the book reflect that part of the story, the very-- sad-- degraded part of the story.

But there was this other side, which I found fascinating. The first thing they-- these prostitutes, as all women tell you is, "I'm so romantic."

They keep falling in love, although the first thing they tell them as-- as the-- Sayonara's madria (PH), you know, her teacher, tells her-- the-- the old woman that takes her into this world, and teaches her how to behave there, the first thing that she tells her-- is not to fall in love.

MOYERS: Uh-huh.

LAURA RESTREPO: The only thing you can't do in this job is fall in love. And that's the first thing that she does. She falls in love with an oil worker.

MOYERS: Is Sayonara a metaphor for Colombia?

LAURA RESTREPO: I wondered it to be so, as I think every Colombian is living inside or outside Colombia, there is-- this living in extreme difficulty, which marks all of us. And at the same time, I don't know why-- we have such a joyous, free life.

We enjoy life. The presence of death, having it always so near, always as a possibility, makes life shine, and human warmth be felt very strongly.

MOYERS: Someone who knows Colombia said to me just the other day, "Death has become a way of life there." Is that too extreme?

LAURA RESTREPO: No, it is so. But then, I would put it this way. Death, risk, and danger are always awful things. It's not a matter of falling in love with them. But of falling in love exactly with the opposite. When life-- when death is near, then life shines, with-- with a very special glow. And I believe that's what you feel when-- when you go in Colombia. It's a murderous country, it's a dangerous country. Maybe the most dangerous country in the world nowadays.

But then, for example, I find it a privilege to be there, because there's a joy of life. There's a-- a sense of-- of-- of history, a need of future. People are very deep into that. That's, I believe, why as a journalist, or as a writer, it's-- it's wonderful to work there, because anyone-- if you walk by the street and tell anyone-- ask anyone to tell you their story, they will do it-- which-- with great pleasure.

Because having someone listen to you, having someone here, in such a lonesome country, such a-- forgotten with it's own tragedy, just to have someone listen to your story is a way of giving it-- sense to it.

And I could tell you hundreds of stories, wonderful, heroic, joyful stories of people struggling for peace in very creative ways.

MOYERS: In a civil war. Peace in the civil--

LAURA RESTREPO: In the middle of the civil war. People who say, "I do not want to be either with the paramilitaries, or the guerillas, or the military. I want to live here. I want to stay in my country. I want to protect my children with no arms. I don't want to have anything to do with arms. And it's the strength of the unarmed people what you're beginning to feel there-- to experiment there.

MOYERS: The strength of the unarmed people.

LAURA RESTREPO: Unarmed people. Yeah, of course. There's armed people all over the place.

MOYERS: What-- in a culture where death is paramount, in a culture where there's so much fear, war all around, what is the role of the story teller the creative imagination in times like these?

LAURA RESTREPO: What I feel is our role is to keep history alive. Listen I talk to many people when I write my books and one of the problems is that I have the feeling that everything has to be said now. Because I know if I come back a week later, that person might be dead it is so.

So I'm so eager to listen to everything to put it down to write it down, so our children can read it. sometimes because because you have the strong feeling that your world is disappearing and wonderful people are disappearing with it.

So I think we have a big sense of guilt before our children and it is we are leaving behind a destroyed country. And we know in a way it's our responsibility, we haven't been able to do better for them, they're not going to have a place to live.

And so a way of making up for this a very small, modest way is to leaving something written. So we know we don't understand the world we're living in in Colombia we don't understand. It's too hard it's too big the problem is huge. We don't understand it very well, but what I try to do is to pick up small pieces and leave them in my books.

because I think that maybe when my son is older and people of his generation. Maybe those books can help them put pieces together maybe they'll be able to understand a little more than we did. Maybe they'll have the opportunity to have a better life.

MOYERS: In the meantime, there is the one person or many who read the story you tell. I mean when I read The Dark Bride when I realized that you were writing about a town that I'd been in forty years ago. I came to see more about that town through your eyes than I saw about that town forty years ago

RESTREPO: Well that's wonderful I'm so glad

MOYERS: Well that's what a story does…

RESTREPO: That's what you try to do. I care very much about my people, I love my people very much. I know people are suffering a big deal in my country so what I like to do is tell them your life is worthwhile it's a beaultiful life your struggle is heroic something will come out of this.

MOYERS: Thank you very much Laura Restrepo, the dark bride is a beautiful book.