In a dispatch from the Associated Press last week came the report that the Colombian government wants to turn the home of Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel until he was gunned down by Colombian troops with US assistance in 1991, into a museum highlighting the evils of drug trafficking. The museum would show "all the barbarities that occurred in Colombia in the 1980s due to narcotrafficking," said an anti-drug functionary.
Colombia already has museums, of course, and while Columbia University anthropologist Michael Taussig thinks it lacks at least one, this is not what he has in mind with his latest book, a strange and wondrous blend of anthropology, ethnography, critical studies, travelogue, and fabulous storytelling. "My Cocaine Museum" is Taussig's passionate response to the famous Gold Museum in Colombia's Central Bank, the Banco de la Republica in Bogota.
Taussig has spent years visiting and living among the Afro-Colombian gold miners of the country's Pacific Coast, one of the most isolated and wretched pieces of land in the hemisphere. It was the slave ancestors of these people who mined the gold that enriched the West, first colonial Spain, then the pale Colombian elites and the various foreign entrepreneurs -- from France, from Russia, from England and America. Like official Colombian history, the Gold Museum fails to acknowledge their role, writes Taussig. In "My Cocaine Museum," Taussig attempts to right that wrong.
For Taussig, speaking the language of high lit-crit, cocaine, like gold, is a fetish, an object that "transgresses" society, one to which wealth and luster but also violence and death accrue. And while the Afro-Colombians of the Pacific Coast, with their hundreds of miles of miasmic mangrove swamps broken only by the occasional river roaring down out of the towering Andes that separate the coast from the rest of the country, still mine for gold -- making a dollar a day if they are lucky, dying if they are not -- cocaine now has made its way over the mountains and into their lives.
And it is his writing about the concrete reality of life in these remote corners among these neglected people, that Taussig really shines. With a handful of words and phrases, he can illuminate more of coca's role than a stack of statistics. Talking with a woman miner in Santa Maria, who might go years without finding gold, about why people keep doing it, she explains. There is no market for agricultural goods, she says, because everyone grows the same thing, there is no capital to start new businesses, and mining continues because it "is customary, it is traditional," she says. "...But of course there is one thing that can crash through all this," writes Taussig, "and that's cocaine: like gold, immensely valuable, and also chance-prone in being illegal and having its value dependent on the wrath of the US government, it is a commodity subject to fluctuations not in price -- that is assured by the policies of the United States -- but in violence. As soon as the guerrillas encourage it or as soon as a paisa [white entrepreneurs originally from Antioquia] turns up with coca seed and a promise to buy pasta." That was in the early 1990s.
Coca and cocaine have since made it over the mountains, being borne by leftist FARC guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries alike, both competing to set up new plantations along the remote rivers, where the perpetually cloudy and foggy conditions hamper fumigation and aerial surveillance.
Taussig displays a remarkable ability to cut through the chaff and get to the point: "What do peasants want? Right now?" he asks. "Justice and cocaine is what they want right now. Hence, the success of the guerrilla. The guerrilla brings justice, big-time, and cocaine, meaning income, also big-time," he writes. "On the other hand, the state brings no justice, prohibits cocaine, and is seen as totally corrupt." The guerrillas bring law and order where the state has never ventured, except to kill peasants and destroy crops.
But despite Taussig's ability to turn a phrase, "My Cocaine Museum" will be a difficult and inaccessible read for anyone who is not a grad student in what have become the very esoteric disciplines of literary criticism and cultural studies. With as many references to early 20th Century French progenitors such as Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin, whose work is both obscure and obfuscatory to most of us, as there are to the cocaine economy, "My Cocaine Museum" ultimately has a very limited audience.
These people write the damnedest things. To take just one phrase: "Time strains to be free even while it sleeps in petrified meaning." To be honest, I have no idea what that means. And there is an awful lot of that sort of musing in this book. Some of his far-ranging excursions are exhilarating, as when he cites mysterious novelist B. Traven on prisons. "As everywhere on earth," Traven wrote, "the building of a prison is the first step in the creation of a civilized state." Indeed. But all the dwelling on Walter Benjamin's obsession with stones in Marseilles in 1929 will not thrill most readers of this publication.
And that is a shame, for, if you can get past the lit-crit high theory and the po-mo mumbo-jumbo, Taussig provides an important and illuminating look at coca, cocaine, violence, and daily life among the impoverished and marginalized. You know, those people who are supposed to be our enemies in the war on drugs.
By the way, that drug trafficking museum? The government functionary quoted by AP noted that eight poor families currently occupy the former Escobar estate where the museum would be located. They would have to go, he said.