The front page of Colombia's leading daily, El Tiempo, sported the following stories one day last week.
The first-time visit by Madeleine Albright. The first appearance before the press in 10 years by the world's oldest living Marxist leader.
Oh, and there was another headline: "They Want Her Ugly, But Not Corrupt."
No reference to cocaine or civil war here. Just a soap opera. And we're not talking "The Bold and the Beautiful."
The front-page story referred to "Yo Soy Betty, la Fea" (I am Betty, the Ugly One). For several months now, this clumsy, but bright and honest, woman has invoked the passions of editorial columnists, politicians, academics, and millions of TV viewers across Colombia.
Beatrz Pinzn - the maladroit, yet noble protagonist - is striking a chord with an entire nation. This unlikely soap star apparently embodies the ideals and values that Colombians yearn for, but find so lacking in their society today.
In a country with some 300 beauty contests, the idea of a television series based on an "unattractive" woman is, well, revolutionary. Betty has braces and lacquered hair. Despite her job as executive assistant at a fashion company, she wears gawky soda-bottle glasses.
According to journalist Alvaro Perea, writing in the newsmagazine Cambio, "Colombians put appearances before substance." Job applicants here are required to paste a photo onto resumes, for example.
Nearly every day of the year, somewhere along its three Andean ranges and two coasts, a beauty queen is being crowned. Just a week ago, on the shores of Lake Tota, the town of Aquitania chose the first Miss Trout. In this town's province alone, there are already Miss Potato, Miss Onion, Miss Sunshine, and Miss Steel contests. Apparently, the only natural resource not honored by feminine beauty was the trout.
Still, several months into the plot, Betty La Fea has doubled all other programs in ratings, and has been sold to two other countries in the region. Why?
According to former Vice President Carlos Lemos Simmonds, "In Latin America, where calamities are commonplace and prosperity is the exception, the anti-hero is the triumph of the genuine over the artificial.... Betty Pinzn is just that. (She) comes from a world ... where principles like loyalty and honor still matter. And she tries to make her way in another world, the world of 'beautiful people' ... where greed and cynicism rule."
Of course, greed and cynicism are pillars of corruption. And corruption, fueled by money made trafficking drugs, is one of Colombia's biggest obstacles in reaching peace and prosperity - from politics to sports.
For example, the Colombian Soccer Federation is investigating Carlos Rendon of the Deportivo Pasto team, for allegedly taking a $4,000 bribe. A headline last week screamed "Rendon, el Feo!" - or Rendon, the Ugly One. In an interview, a journalist asked Mr. Rendon if he hadn't been watching Betty on TV. Maybe he would have learned his lesson.
So, on Jan. 13, when a fabric company offered Betty $87,000 to curry favor with her boss - only days after her father was laid off - millions of viewers balked. Scenes showed the heroine imagining herself in a silver Mercedes Benz and prt--porter suits.
On Jan. 14, RCN, the network where the series is aired, was bombarded by phone calls. The next day, scriptwriter Fernando Gaitn appeared in El Tiempo, asking for patience. By the following day, columnist Juan Lozano wrote an open letter to Betty, begging her not to "be swallowed up by corruption."
"We need your example...,"continued Lozano, to "unmask all the Miguel Robles who have our country in pieces." Robles is the guy from the fabric company, of course.
In case you're wondering, Betty didn't take the money. Distraught, she telephoned her father for advice. An honest laborer for 30 years, he implored his daughter to reject the dirty cash, and keep the family name untarnished.
Well, Daddy knows best.
The next day Betty admitted the tempting offer to her boss. As a reward for her honor, Betty promptly received a whopping raise - more than doubling her salary.
And an entire nation breathed a sigh of relief.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society