Ian Johnston – January 23rd saw the first bullfight in Bogotá for five years. It promised bloodthirsty passion and violence in abundance. By the end of the day, the event had delivered both. With a generous helping of teargas thrown-in for good measure.
Bullfighting is undoubtedly a ‘marmite’ sport. Its supporters consider it a tradition at the heart of Colombia’s Hispanic identity, a bloody yet beautiful fight to the death between man and beast. For others, it is a barbaric, antiquated act of torture. The naturally peaceful bull is wounded and enervated to such an extent before meeting the matador, that it attacks its opponent with rage. And, whereas the matador will almost inevitably emerge unscathed from the competition, the bull will almost inevitably die in the ring. The figures speak for themselves: in 2015, 70,000 bulls were killed in Spanish bullrings. When a bull pierced the lung of Sevillian matador Victor Barrero last July, he became the first matador to die in the ring for three decades. Entering the stadium is risky business for the matador, but bullfighting is far from a fair fight. For this reason, many view bullfighting not as a contest at all, but as an act of extreme animal cruelty.
At least this was the opinion of the demonstrators gathered outside Bogota’s bullring on Sunday. Their protests began peacefully. On one side of the Carrera Septima, students dressed as cows called on passers-by to sign petitions. On the other, an elderly man sold vegan burgers to Bogotanos, who sported t-shirts emblazoned with animal rights slogans. Hundreds gathered in the afternoon heat, laughing, singing and growing in number. But the good will was short-lived. As bullfighting aficionados made their way through the crowds towards the stadium, protestors hurled insults: “asesinos”, “cobardes”, “hijodeputa…” (Murders, cowards, sons of bitches). They soon started to hurl objects too. Food, red paint and glass bottles passed just over the spectators’ heads or smashed inches from their feet. The anti-violence protestors had little qualms over attacking their opposition.
At 18:30, spectators left the stadium, their lust for blood no doubt satisfied for the day. For the protestors the show was just beginning. This time, the spectators were not forced to walk through the crowds, but ushered along by police. Some waved sarcastically to the protestors restrained by barriers some fifty metres away. An increasingly enervated crowd chanted “hijos de puta” and the very catchy “ahí están, ellos son, asesinos sin corazón”. (Literally “There they are, they are, heartless murders”, which is much less catchier in a language with only one verb for “to be”). The already high tensions continued to build. Protestors pushed against the police barrier. The streams of spectators began to shout back at their accusers. Suddenly, a teenager crossed the police barrier. He sprinted towards the spectators until police armed with batons stepped in. They wrestled him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. As horrified protestors looked on, other policemen mounted on motorbikes fired rubber bullets and tear gas towards the crowds. The crowds dissipated, the spectators made their way home and, the following day, the morning papers reported six arrests as a consequence of the violence.
This scenario proves what we already know: bullfighting is exceptionally contentious. Tempers flare and tensions escalate when the topic is raised anywhere in the world. Ernest Hemingway viewed it as a supreme spectacle, “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.” The USPCA focuses less on brilliance and honour. Instead, its charter mentions the death and extensive injuries suffered by both the bull and the horses that are brought into the ring. The animal cruelty argument certainly has weight in Colombia. In Bogotá, however, the vegan burger seller didn’t appear to have too many takers. The success of hotdog stands opportunistically installed beside the protestors, on the other hand, suggests that protestors were not merely opposing animal cruelty. For Bogotanos, the issue is an inherently political one.
Political opposition is evident in the strength of feeling and the sheer number of the protestors. Petition-holders were not merely calling on signatures against bullfighting but also for the demission of the Bogotá mayor: Enrique Peñalosa. The previous mayor, Gustavo Petro had put an end to the normal functions of the Bogota bullring, instead promoting theatrical and cultural activities in the historic space. He believes the space should be used for “activities for life, not death.” His successor has also declared himself against the sport. But, when the constitutional court ruled that the ban was an infringement on bullfighters’ right to expression, bullfighting returned. Rather than take a stand, Peñalosa declared himself duty-bound to respect the decision.
The consequent money invested in the ring, came at the expense of healthcare and education. Bogota is undoubtedly a flourishing cultural centre, and the bullring can be considered an integral part of this image. But many of the city’s citizens live in severe poverty, suffer from drug addictions and have been left abandoned by an inadequate educational system. Peñalosa education is also questionable – in the past he falsely claimed to possess a PhD. His opponents consider him to be corrupt and inconsiderate of the city’s poor. During his previous mandate (1998-2000), he took tough measures against Bogotá street-sellers and declared them an invasion of public space. It is true that there are a lot of them – 20,000, to be exact. But selling on the streets is the only means these individuals have to support themselves. The sellers and their families represent a grand total of 70,000 people. When Peñalosa ordered the use of bulldozers to dislodge them, left-leaning Colombians were less than amused.
They would like to see Petro return to power. A former guerrilla-fighter turned politician, his progressive measures made him a popular choice among poorer Bogotanos. He led extensive research into an underground metro-system. Peñalosa has since called a halt to this research. He has pledged more money into the Transmilenio bus system, a system he is rumoured to have shares in. The contrast between the businessmen and his predecessor could not be greater. During his mandate, Petro was plagued by investigations into his past with the Communist group M19. Led by a conservative press, the investigations enabled Peñalosa to dislodge his opponent.
So Sunday’s events go far beyond a simple stand-off between a man and a bull. Behind a quintessentially Hispanic cultural phenomenon lies a complex and bitterly-divided political system. For Anglophone onlookers, the debate invites topical comparisons. At the beginning of January, previous IRA commander turned socially-progressive politician, Martin McGuinness stepped down from his long-standing role as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. The appointment to political office of a conservative business magnate with questionable credentials also has a familiar ring to eagled-eyed followers of recent political events. Meanwhile, back in Colombia, the same constitutional court that ordered bullfighting’s reinstatement is debating another ban. The result remains to be seen. Both bullfighting aficionados and animal rights activists are waiting with bated breath.