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Colombians Perked Up By Non-Violent TV Soap Opera

SUNDAY, MARCH 19, 1995

Millions of Colombians are eager to learn if the beautiful Gaviota will choose the married coffee heir, or go for the staid businessman who adores her.

In a land tormented by guerrillas and drug traffickers, Colombians are seeking nightly solace in “Cafe,” a televised dose of romance and high stakes deals - with no drugs or violence.

“There has not been one kidnapping, blackmail or killing,” said the show’s screenwriter, Fernando Gaitan. “My computer is programed to beep if I ever write the word ‘drug.’ It’s not in my vocabulary.”

The rags-to-riches love story between Gaviota and her two suitors has captured 70 percent of the nation’s viewing audience. Some people don’t eat dinner out on weeknights anymore; shopping comes to a halt in malls as hundreds of people cluster around TV sets in the passageways.

Even President Ernesto Samper is reportedly an avid fan of the half-hour show that airs every weeknight at 8 p.m.

The show ignores the violent tragedies associated with cocaine, Colombia’s most ignominious export, and uses its most successful legal industry as a backdrop: coffee.

“‘Cafe’ shows Colombians an ideal world, which we need to see,” said Alberto Vargas, one of 200 people watching a recent episode at a Bogota shopping mall. “It shows us how our country should be.”

In real life, Colombia is home to the powerful Cali cocaine cartel, a ruthless outfit which controls 80 percent of the world’s cocaine market. This South American nation is also host to a decades-old rebel insurgency, and has the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world.

The wave of bombings and assassinations that plagued Colombia has tailed off since security forces killed Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin drug cartel, in December 1993. Drug violence, however, still kills hundreds of people every year.

The now-dominant Cali cartel wields wide influence in top levels of the police, government and industry. It owns hospitals, shopping centers and soccer teams and even funds beauty pageants. Drug traffickers and their bodyguards party openly in Cali’s nightclubs, their luxury cars parked outside.

But these are of no concern to Gaviota, played by a former Miss Colombia runnerup, Margarita Rosa.

A poor girl who rises to power in Colombia’s coffee federation, Gaviota must choose between Sebastian, a handsome coffee heir stuck in an unhappy marriage, and Dr. Salinas, a businessman she only considers a friend.

How the show will end is top secret - even the cast doesn’t know who will win Gaviota’s heart. After more than 200 episodes, Colombians refer to the characters as if they were real.

“Gaviota has become a flesh-and-blood character. It’s like magic,” said Camilo Borrero, a sociologist who watches the show every night. “She’s got to pick Sebastian. It just has to be.”

Borrero is like most other fans, rooting for passionate Sebastian’s divorce to come through before Gaviota gravitates toward the more stable Salinas.

The show is scheduled to end later this month, leaving viewers wondering where they will get their next fix of televised romance, and of a vision of an uncomplicated, unthreatening Colombia.

“We are going to suffer a lot when it is over,” Borrero mourned. “We may never see a show as good.”

Tags: television

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