Since 11 members of President Obama’s own staff were sent home recently during a visit to Colombia because of “improper conduct” life in the country has seen everything from comic songs to advertising posters based on the incident.
Strangely for what most people would see as an ostensibly Catholic country prostitution is legal and whether the country’s leaders and citizens chose to admit it or not this does form part of the attraction for some foreign visitors. Of course this isn’t the only thing that Colombia has going for it, which the government are at pains to point out. And in recent weeks they have been attempting to dissuade their own citizens from using the incident for their own amusement and profit.
In one case an airline has been advertising cheap flights with the slogan “More bang for your buck” with a picture of four young women draped over a man, obviously intended to be a secret service agent wearing dark glasses. The campaign also pointed out potential customers would have to pay up-front.
At least one comedic song about the antics of the 11 presidential staff has become popular too and this has not improved the mood of the government. Singing “Oh, Obama, they left you all alone, they ditched you to take care of Colombian girls …” has left little for the authorities to smile about – to make it worse the Washington Post described Cartagena, a world heritage site that Colombia would love to have associated with wholesome and profitable conventional tourism as “Swimming in prostitutes”.
Even in a society where prostitution is legal the stigma associated with the trade is impossible to shake off.
The reality is that the country does experience sex tourism but the government would prefer that it happened under the radar, bringing in the dollars without fuss and away from the eyes of most tourists and Colombians. As always it’s difficult in circumstances like this to choose the level of control and acknowledgement of the sex trade the authorities should apply. The girls involved are on the whole fundamentally vulnerable, even if they are not being exploited in one way or another. They need money for themselves and their families so criminalising and persecuting them could be disastrous, but as with all situations where humans are at the mercy of economic circumstances there are other humans willing to take advantage of them unless they are protected.