Colombia's divided society united in reality-show battle for survival

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Even on a continent defined by the gap between rich and poor, Colombia manages to stand out as a divided society, but it has been united in recent weeks by a reality show that has pitted the extremes of this nation against each other in a battle for survival.

Up to five million Colombians from the Caribbean coast to the outskirts of the Amazon have been tuning in every night to watch a gruelling contest between three teams: "the privileged", the "middle class" and the "down and outs".

In Desafio 20.06, 18 contestants compete for a top prize of $150,000 (£80,000) over three months of physical challenges and infighting on the beaches of the Dominican Republic, loosely modelled on the US programme Survivor.

Initially, contestants were treated in the style to which they were accustomed. The rich were assigned luxury air-conditioned lodges with chilled white wine and lobster; the middle class, a featureless beach with enough clothes for three days; while the poor were deposited in a cave with little food and told to fend for themselves.

The "down and outs" could win the right to upgrade their quarters while the rich could be demoted and the in-betweens, rise or fall. Participants and viewers vote out individuals.

The producers of the programme, Caracol Television, say the reality show is, "a mirror image of ourselves", a strategy which appears to be the secret of its success.

"Everyone can identify with one of the social groups and relate to what they go through," said Beatrice Martinez, a Desafio fan. "It's fascinating to see how the poor successfully fought to get better food and shelter while the rich got to experience what it's like to go to bed on an empty stomach."

In a country where endemic poverty is exacerbated by four decades of civil conflict, where a tiny minority own the overwhelming wealth of the country, and 55 per cent live below the poverty line, these views are common.

Colombia's unique class system - los estratos - has grown out of this, and everything from people, to restaurants to neighbourhoods can be immediately identified on the ascending strato scale of one to six.

Raul Garcia, continuity director of the reality show, said: "The show offers a rare opportunity to witness different classes forced to compete with each other to survive which is entertaining and illuminating. People know what social class they belong to and everyone wants to see whether different classes can really get on, understand and live with each other."

He added that in more developed countries where social divisions are less pronounced, groups based around gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity would be more relevant.

Critics of the $5m production claim that it only serves to deepen already entrenched class divisions and trivialises Colombia's complex social problems.

The contestants were chosen in a nationwide competition where hopefuls were asked to form separate queues according to the social class they considered themselves to belong to. They were all were asked one question: "Why do you think there are so many poor people in Colombia?"

Juan Camacho, a wealthy stockbroker from Bogota admitted, "I've never been near people as poor as those I met on the programme."

Manuel Velasco, a former shoe-shiner who was forced to flee his home because of the armed conflict, emerged as the star from the poor contestants and confessed to being bewildered by the soft beds of the rich and awed by his first glimpse of the sea.

But it was middle-class Diego Agudelo and privileged Alfredo Varela who remained as the last men standing ahead of a final poll this week. After all the votes were counted, it will surprise few who know Colombia to discover that it was the elite that came out on top. A delighted Mr Varela said the friends he made were more important than the money; that, he said, he would in any case share with the other contestants.