Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in all its splendor
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval

CESAR — Without saying a word, which none would have understood anyway, Guneymaku Chaparro, an Arhuaca Mamo or spiritual leader, and Tenzin Priyadarshi, a monk and disciple of the Dalai Lama, took each other's hands and lightly put their heads together to say good-bye.

It was the end of a meeting that the northern Colombia natives, living now in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, had been expecting for centuries.

The two met at a spot a two-hour walk to the north of Nabusímake, a site venerated by the Arhuaco nation. The paths leading there are restricted: Only those with a proper understanding of Arhuaca beliefs may use them. We were given access and attended the meeting, all barefoot, in direct contact with Mother Earth.

The Mamos, dressed in typical white robes and wearing conical caps that symbolize the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, gave the monk an emotional welcome. And he, clad in a Buddhist monk's ochre and orange robes, was ready to receive a message destined for the spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists.

Tenzin Priyadarshi left his home at the age of 10, impelled by a force that led him after several days to a monastery he had only seen in his dreams. He knew there that "they were waiting for him," and he began then a life of study and meditation, and of helping the many people who would in time seek his counsels about the hardships of this life. It's a life he sees with simplicity and the accumulated wisdom of those able to reach the essence and rid themselves of the dramas we helplessly term bad fortune.

Tenzin Priyadarshi made the pilgrimage from MIT. Photo: Christopher Michel

He speaks and acts like a spritely man of 400 years living in a 40-year-old body. He responds simply to a range of questions, with a fundamental, refined and definitive logic. Tenzin studied physics, as one of his ancestors wanted him to, but also philosophy and international relations. His "nest" is in the Buddhist chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also runs a center for ethical studies. Above all, he carries a millennial tradition with grace and is able to speak without arrogance, sharing with anyone a little of his wisdom.

Preparing for his arrival

The Mamos stayed awake the night before he came, engaged in extensive dialogue with their pupils. They described to them aspects of Buddhism, which they said shares some of the Arhuacos' own interpretations of life. The message they wanted Tenzin to take with him was expressed in the form of several Mamos performances. They began with a declaration that they had been expecting the arrival of a man from the East who would bring them a message of understanding and encouragement in their fight to defend the earth and nurture harmony among its creatures.

After that, they stressed the Arhuacos' ancestral beliefs about the duty to respect the natural world and Original Law, intended to order relations between good and evil, light and darkness and between all creatures, including ourselves. The rites expressed the Arhuacos' anxiety about threats to the natural balance of which they are guardians, and at the failure to understand its laws. They are worried about people's inability to capture nature's messages, and to appreciate the ephemeral nature of our existence and duties to the future.

Native inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range. Photo: Thomas Dahlberg

It was a moving encounter between two worlds with no confusion over their respective origins, beliefs, values and destiny. Two worlds of serenity that know how to keep their traditions and live a life of simplicity and happiness.

And witnessing the meeting was an audience from a third world, Colombia. What are we if not confused about our origins, beginnings and destiny, disorderly in our beliefs, barely able to list our values and divorced from our rituals. We are, of course, convinced that we are the happiest people on earth, proud of our passions yet indolent before violence and inequality.

We boast of living in an advanced democracy, would fight to the death for every little privilege — even a parking space — yet are happy to follow imposed codes of conduct that kill both imagination and initiative. Clothed as we are without knowing why, and almost inclined to kill ourselves before accepting a reproach. We are definitely among those beginners banned from treading the Arhuacos' woodland paths.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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