A Colombian doctor around the world

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We were in our office – Mr. Yulth Oyola and I – in Sihanoukville talking with Doctor Javier Alonso Pineda Aguirre. He is from Medellín city and nowadays the doctor of the personnel of the United Nations in Cambodia. Doctor Pineda spoke to us about his experience in many countries and how he sees his own country. Talking frankly and keeping his Paisa accent, Doctor Pineda delighted us with his experiences and like-Paisa-philosophical way of see the world.

By Al Rodas.

Interviewers and pictures: Rodas and Oyola. Español.

Sihanoukville. Doctor Javier Pineda Aguirre was born in Medellín but he did not say the year, only that he was born in January 3. But he said the year he finished his studies in medicine in Universidad de Antioquia in the year 1986. He did his year of training in Salgar, a town of the Department of Antioquia and he was director of the El Carmen de Viboral town hospital. In 1989 he went to England and since then he has been in many countries giving his medical services. Wearing a T-shirt with the mark of Café de Colombia and talking with his Paisa accent that has not been altered by his living abroad, Doctor Pineda answered with openness and familiarity, making not so few jokes.

In which countries have you been and doing what?

In 2000 I arrived to East Timor with OIKOS (Cooperação e Desenvolvimento) a Portuguese NGO, but I worked there also with the Ministry of Health of that country. After that I went to Liberia with a British organization, Merlin (Medical Relief, Lasting Health Care). In Sudan I went with the American International Medical Corps. In Sierra Leona I worked with the Spaniard Médicos del Mundo. Nowadays I am in Cambodia as the doctor of the United Nations personnel since November 1, 2006.

Which experiences to underline in those countries?

I have good memories of East Timor, but more of the personnel than the people, since my contacts with them were rather few. From Liberia I remember the difficulties of the war. We have to work with vest bullet-proof and helmets. I was during six months attending refugees. In Sudan I have many good moments to remember from the people: they are very kind and welcoming, very polite and show lot sympathy for foreigners. They underline all the time that they do not have to see with terrorism and that their Muslim religion has nothing to see with it. Its regimen is rather strict and it is very difficult to go from one place to another. You need a visa to leave the country and Sudanese persons abroad need a visa to enter their own country. It was in Sudan where I realized that we Colombians belong fully to the Western culture: the only country of the world where I missed a beer, although I do not drink much beer. But I missed it very much in a country where temperatures go up 40°C during the day and go down 10°C during the night during the dry season. Between dry and raining season it has the strong dust storms. In Sudan there is a war, but I think it has not the same proportions like the Colombian one, although it is true that they use rape as a weapon of war.

In Sierra Leona the experience was difficult. In a way I felt that working with Spaniards was not easy, because they see us as we were almost children and on the other hand the administrative corruption of the country was very hard. It was from this experience in Sierra Leona where I came to the conclusion that Africans must be let alone to lead their own countries. In a side there are the multinationals exploiting the natural resources and promoting corruption and on the other side many humanitarian organizations creating a paternalism to the population that does not allow the people to grow in the responsibility of their own problems. My conclusion was that Africa must be let alone and let the euro-centrism.

What do you think about Cambodia?

I like Cambodia, although I have been in few contacts with the people due to my work as the doctor of the personnel of the United Nations, so I live here almost as I am inside a glass. I do not know well the health system of the country and I do not know much about what happens in the country.

Which moments have been the more difficult ones in your work abroad?

In Liberia. It was during the day of the peace agreement between government and guerrilla. The guerrilla came in cars of UN and they were thousands. That day they were supposed to be paid if they give up their weapons, but there were delays, so the guerrillas started to hit the cars and prepare their weapons to shoot. I was in a car in the middle of them and they were pointing to us. I was terrified and I asked the driver to start to move carefully trying to let out of their circle. The driver did and fortunately they opened the way and did nothing to us. I think it was also because I was working with Merlin, a British NGO that was the only organization that remained in the capital when the rebels took up the capital. That decision gained lot sympathy from the people for Merlin. But that moment was for me the most fearing of my life.

Doctor Pineda visiting the Upper Pagoda of Sihanoukville with Al Rodas.

Have you found lot Colombians abroad?

When I arrived in East Timor I thought I was the only Colombian and even the first one to step on that country. But I was wrong: there were 40. With the exception of one who said that he did not left Colombia to know Colombians, with the others we did a very friendly group of friends. I think we need our people when we are abroad, it is very important for us to meet each other. I did know any Colombian in Liberia, but three in Sierra Leona and we built also good relations. In Cambodia I met once a couple of Colombians in the market. I asked them when I listened them talking in Spanish, but when I said to them that I was also a Colombian, the lady trembled as she has seen the devil, so I let them. Now I found you two.

How about Colombians in England?

Colombians in England are a very heterogeneous group: there are people from many different backgrounds and, unfortunately, I think there is not a real fraternity among them. It is the only national group I know where a Colombian goes to the police and denounces other Colombian if this one is irregular in the country, but only because envy or other problems. Now there is much commerce, but I do not see much support among Colombians in Britain as in other national groups.

How the British see Colombians?

Our Calvary as in many other parts is to be identified with drugs. But there are other positive things, for example, nowadays salsa is getting on in the country and this opens lot spaces of communication. Other good thing is that Colombians have a good fame to be hard workers. The community of Colombian migrants in England is very big and they come most of them from the Department of Valle del Cauca and the Coffee Axe (Eje Cafetero) due to a policy of the British government during the 70’s giving work visas to Colombians of that region. During the 80’s many political refugees came to the country, but after 2001 England started to ask visas to Colombians and it stopped very much the coming of Colombians.

What do you say about Colombia abroad?

If I ask a British residence is because facilities for my work, but not because I give less value to my country. When many Colombians leave the country, they put a cover to their passports so people can not see easily it is a Colombian passport. I never have done it. I like they know I am from Colombia and even I like when they come to ask me many questions about my nationality because it is an opportunity to show them that things are not always as they imagine. But I think all Colombians should live for a while abroad, so in this way they can realize the real value of our country, to love Colombia in a real way. I talk well about Colombia but I do not hide its problems, because foreigners have the right to know our problems and only when we can talk frankly about our problems, we are going to have the opportunity to get real solutions.

Doctor Pineda leading a workshop about first aids to a group of students of the Don Bosco Sihanoukville Technical School in Cambodia.

Now the big question, the one that is usually asked to Colombians who leave the country to give humanitarian services to other nations: Why a Colombian doctor let the country to support other poor countries when we have many marginalized regions to attend? For example, Chocó, many places in our Caribbean littoral, the Llanos…

Two practical reasons to answer that question: the first is because security and the second is because economics. It is safer for a professional to work abroad in countries like the African ones than to work in those marginalized regions of Colombia where your life is not guaranteed. The other is economics. Health in Colombia became business. It is okay for two or three guys to open a private clinic and do business, but it is not okay for the State of a country to make of the health services for its people a business and it was done in Colombia by the 100 Law. In conclusion: security and economics send professionals out of Colombia.

If the situation in Colombia changes, so things like that can be guaranteed, will you return to work in Colombia?

I do not believe things in Colombia will change much, at least in the next ten years to come. I will return to my country, certainly, but I am not waiting things will change. I will return in the middle of the chaos. I will return because I am tired of being abroad. I do not have roots abroad and I am not looking for roots abroad, as many who go to Spain to look roots and they find there just a hole of the roots that were… My roots are in Colombia.

Few days ago Spain was asking for Colombian doctors, why that?

It is because Europe is lacking doctors; even if they do not want to recognize it. Europeans need in this moment our natural resources and now they need also our human resources and in ten years more it would be an emergency. It is the reason why they do not want we become rich, because if we become rich, we will not want to emigrate. Moreover, to form a professional is very expensive for a country and to import professionals from a country as Colombia is cheaper than form them in a country where local young people is every time less and less. Europe needs immigrants, but it is Spain the only country that recognizes it. England, that has a population older than Spain, does not want to recognize it and even they expend time to attack immigration. For this reason, because its more intelligent policies about immigration, Spain could gain the normal grow rate that is needed. But the Europeans are rather xenophobes and it makes immigration more difficult than what Colombians think.

What do you think about Colombians?

I think that we have to stop to see us as we are inferiors and also we have to stop corruption. The politic class of Colombia is opened to the corruption imported by some foreigners. But the hope of Colombia is undoubtedly the movements of union in Latin America. The best example is provided by the European Union: only when the European countries decide to join each other, they were able to talk to United States in the same conditions. The same with Latin America: only when we will be united, we are going to be able to talk in the same conditions to United States and to any one around the planet.

The other thing is to end the ghost of the drugs. Legalizing is to facilitate the control over it. Illegality is always associated with under worlds and criminality. When Marlboro was illegal in Colombia, many people were looking to smoke Marlboro. Now that Marlboro is legal, nobody wants to smoke it. All the thousand of million of dollars that go to the drug dealers could be reduced if that problem is ended as an illegal business, so it can come inside the real control on it. But the fear in Colombia is that we can be blocked if we do so. Holland legalized drugs and nobody blocked it. But our problem is that we do not govern ourselves, we are governed. We have to wait until “they allow us”.

We have to finished that idea that we are small. It is also something that was created by others. If you see some world maps, you can compare the territory of Brazil with the one of United States and you find that the one of United States appears bigger than Brazil and that is not true. If you compare the territory of England with the one of Colombia, it seems like England were almost the size of Colombia and that is false: Colombia is the size of Spain, Portugal and France combined! If you compare the size of Switzerland, you see it bigger than the reality, when Switzerland is the size of the Department of Cundinamarca! Therefore, they want us to appear small and we are not.

1 Comment

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  1. Manuel Montenegro

    Javier siempre ha sido un hombre con un corazón que no le cabe en el pecho. Un abrazote, Manuel

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