Colombian telenovela has passion, drama — and a million bucks from U.S. government

No Olvidarás Mi Nombre, a new Colombian telenovela, received $1 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The show tells the story of Colombia’s conflict and promotes reconciliation.
No Olvidarás Mi Nombre, a new Colombian telenovela, received $1 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The show tells the story of Colombia’s conflict and promotes reconciliation. Courtesy

Colombia’s newest television series will have many of the hallmarks of a classic telenovela. A handsome stock broker from the big city meets a mysterious and beautiful country girl. When she disappears, he’s left as the prime suspect in a shocking crime.

But the biggest twist might be who’s helping finance the project: Uncle Sam.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, put $1 million into the RCN Television series called “No Olvidarás Mi Nombre,” or “Don’t Forget My Name,” which began airing Tuesday, June 13.

In broad strokes, the show is a story about Colombia’s grinding violence and how once-bitter enemies — left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, rural poor and urban elite — have to learn how to live together.

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That story of forgiveness and compromise, at a time when Colombia is struggling to implement a historic peace deal with the leftist FARC guerrillas, is what attracted USAID to the project.

The agency declined to talk about the series but in a brief statement said the show would “reach a broad Colombian audience with the goal of fostering understanding and reconciliation.”

It is not USAID’s first foray into entertainment. It has also funded children’s shows in Pakistan and Ethiopia, youth debates in Afghanistan, and a reality series, with MTV, in Kenya.

RCN executives said they always look for partners when producing telenovelas to make sure they’re getting “the strongest content possible,” but this is the first time they’ve worked with the U.S. government. Colombia’s Agency for Reintegration, which helps ex-combatants re-enter society, also participated in the project along with the National Center for Historical Memory.

Fernando Gaitán, the show’s creator, said he wanted to tell a nuanced story about the nation’s decades-long violence and provide something of a road map for the war-torn nation.

“This is the most aspirational show that has ever been made in the country because the objective is reconciliation,” he said. While the show is loosely based on real events, the final six chapters represent a proposed future: “An idyllic country where we learn to forgive and all shake hands.”

If the series risks sounding preachy, its creators promise that it’s first and foremost about entertainment.

“This isn’t a show that was created to be politically pleasing or to educate. This is a drama,” said Nubia Barreto, the head scriptwriter. “It’s a story that stands on its own because it’s dramatic.”

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Indeed, RCN is touting the show’s entertainment, not educational, pedigree. Gaitán is best known for creating one of the country’s most successful series: “Ugly Betty,” which became an international sensation and later was remade in English. And Ana María Orozco, who played Betty in the 1999 series in Colombia, has a supporting role in this new show.

To create a series like “No Olvidarás” at this time in Colombia’s history is to venture into a political minefield. Many here are still wary of the peace deal signed six months ago with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the political debate about how to reincorporate ex-combatants who might have blood on their hands is fierce.

“This is a complicated time for the country, full of pain and hatred and political polarization,” Gaitán said. “It’s a very difficult time to tell this story.”

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The show joins recent efforts like “La Niña,” “El Estilista,” and “El Patrón del Mal” that are trying to digest the conflict (and drug war) through popular culture, said Alex Fattal, a professor of media studies at Penn State University and author of an upcoming book, “Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency, Capitalism, and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels in Colombia.”

“No representation is neutral and questions of historical memory are hotly contested,” he said. “USAID has been under the directive — more so recently than going further back in history — to make sure initiatives and funding are tied to political objectives. Which raises the question: What type of narrative is being promoted in these telenovelas?”

“One of the strategies of this education-entertainment is to reduce a complex phenomenon to simple dramatic and compelling stories. And of course, the Colombian conflict itself is dizzying in its complexities,” he added.

The producers say their story wasn’t changed by USAID and the other partners. Instead, they say, the scripts were reinforced with a greater sense of realism and made legally bulletproof. The creators are also hoping that the story’s focus on the victims of all stripes can provide a nuanced view of a story usually presented in stark contrasts.

“This isn’t about good and evil, this is about human beings,” said director and producer Rodrigo Triana. “There’s not just one group of victims in this country — everyone’s a victim in this country. ... Just because you’ve been a paramilitary or a guerrilla doesn’t mean you’re evil. ... You had to choose a path because of X or Y reason and that’s why you’re stuck in this mess.”

Like any good storyteller, Gaitán won’t reveal the end of “No Olvidarás Mi Nombre.” And while he calls it an “open-door” finale, it’s not one that telenovela aficionados might be accustomed to.

“The ending can’t be happy,” he said, “because there are too many deaths, too much pain, and too many difficult memories.”

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss