The Washington Diplomat / October 2007
By Larry Luxner
SAN ANDRES, Colombia — Nicaragua may claim San Andrés as its own, but the 85,000 or so people crowded onto this 10.5-square-mile Caribbean island off Nicaragua's Atlantic coast couldn't care less. Either they want to remain part of Colombia, or they demand complete independence.
Virtually no one here dreams of living under the Nicaraguan flag, despite Managua's argument before the International Court of Justice that a 1928 accord signed between the two countries has no validity.
"This island was abandoned for many years. We never had good schools," said Roger Madero, owner of Sharky's Dive Shop, a popular tourist hangout along the coast. "For so many of the younger generation, the only opportunity they have is to get on a boat and take drugs to the States, because there's nothing else to do."
Madero, who got his education in rural Mississippi thanks to the Baptist Church, is one of thousands of "raizales" or native black English-speakers living on San Andrés, by far the most densely populated island in the Caribbean. The raizales speak an English creole and worship mainly in Baptist churches.
They were once the only inhabitants of San Andrés, but today are a minority in their own island due to massive immigration from the Colombian mainland located 480 miles to the southeast; by comparison, Nicaragua is only 137 miles to the west.
Today, the island is filled with duty-free shops crammed with liquor, cigarettes, perfumes and other luxury goods. The shops — owned mainly by Lebanese immigrants with names like Said, Karim, Farouk and Samir — contribute to the local economy, along with dozens of hotels, timeshares and fancy boutique inns.
But the raizales, who these days comprise only 25% to 30% of the total population, fear they're being left behind in this rush to develop San Andrés.
In 1953, the Colombian government made San Andrés a free port, which encouraged the growth of commerce. People flocked here for bargains on household appliances, TV sets, electronic gadgets and other things that weren't available in the rest of Colombia. Later on, when the economy opened up, San Andrés lost its competitive edge for all but luxury goods, so the local government turned its attention to tourism.
It also strongly discouraged the teaching of English in schools, and tried to force the raizalesto adopt Colombian customs, often against their will. When it was obvious that overpopulation was becoming a problem, the government in Bogotá began requiring locals to have a residency card, similar to an internal visa. That's why all tourists — Colombians and foreigners alike — have to pass through immigration controls upon arriving by air.
Claudia Marcela Delgado de Vélez, secretary of tourism for the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, said that last year, 370,000 tourists came to the island, 80% of which were Colombians. The remaining 20% consisted mainly of Canadians, Argentines, Chileans, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, Panamanians and Israelis.
By contrast, very few Americans visit San Andrés; this reporter didn't meet a single one during a four-day stay on the island.
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, no direct flights exist between San Andrés and the U.S. mainland; the easiest way to get there is to fly from Miami to Panama via Copa Airlines, then from Panama to San Andrés.
Furthermore, for years the State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Colombia because of widespread unrest — especially kidnappings and drug-related violence. As a result, San Andrés has paid a heavy price for being part of Colombia, even though violence crime is rare here and most people don't even lock their car doors.
"That's why we want San Andrés to be known as part of the Caribbean, rather than as part of Colombia," Delgado conceded. "We are very different than the Colombian mainland."
So far this year, the island has received exactly three cruise ships carrying a total of 2,000 passengers; another two are expected before year's end. Cartagena, by comparison, receives around 70 cruise-ship visits annually.
Earlier this summer, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited San Andrés for Colombia's July 20 independence day, accompanied by a large military parade. Daniel Ortega, the leftist president of Nicaragua, remarked at the time that "this seems to me a lack of respect, making such a powerful show of force" on the island claimed by both countries.
Claudia Barco, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, said the situation is unfortunate.
"It's a beautiful island and its people are wonderful. I think the raizales are concerned about overpopulation," she said in an interview in Washington. "But the people who came from the mainland have also helped to build up San Andrés and its tourist industry. We need to find a way for these two groups to be able to work together."
That's not good enough for Dulph Mitchell, secretary-general of the home-grown Archipelago Movement for Ethnic, Native Self-Determination.
A retired English teacher, the 74-year-old Mitchell was born and raised on San Andrés. He said the island's population is over 100,000, even though the government claims it's only 57,000.
We have a law which should control the population density and it's not working, because people keep coming in," he said. "We have people here who are illegal. They need to go. Send them home."
Mitchell added that the Colombian government has suppressed the Baptist church in favor of Catholics, and that the Uribe administration has done next to nothing to help the islanders preserve their unique cultural heritage.
"We have three groups of people here: theraizales, the Arabs and the mainlanders. Each group seems to be looking out for itself," he explained. "The Arabs have not contributed financially to anything like education or investing in the community. The Arab is business-minded, doing everything he can to make money. The mainlander is doing all he can to have a happy time, and the islanders are struggling for survival."