“Particular concern” from the House Armed Services Committee Friday morning links
May 172007

Frequent correspondent Chris Stubbert is just back from a visit to Cartagena, and sends this reflection on the stark social contrasts of a city that is both a top vacation destination for wealthy Colombians, and a prinicipal refuge for their internally displaced fellow citizens.

An update from Cartagena

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. - Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter XXI

Cartagena, a city with a population of around 895,000, is fast becoming the major tourist destination in a country where tourism has had a negative reputation for years. Cartagena is not your typical image of Colombia. There are no Andean mountains here, but a Caribbean coast. The weather is warm, but breezy, and the people – ‘Costeños’ – are distinct from those in other regions of Colombia.

Having just returned from a third visit to Cartagena, I think it’s about time to talk about the incredible social contrasts one finds in this city. Charles Darwin wrote the above quote in 1839, reflecting on slavery in South America, which brought millions of West Africans across the Atlantic from the 16th to 19th century. The legacy of that trade in modern Cartagena is still very strong. The contrasts of rich and poor, black and non-black are evident even when driving from the bus station to the center of the city.

Cartagena is currently constructing the tallest building in Colombia, named ‘La Torre de la Escollera’ at 58 floors. And as the skyline quickly fills with new apartment towers and hotels, and Donald Trump has even put his eye on the Caribbean city, one must wonder who is being left behind? With mayoral elections coming up on October 30th, Colombian media have reported that some mayoral candidates are being supported and funded by narco-traffickers and paramilitary elements, who wish to get a hand in the building contracts expected to be handed out in the coming years.

The Attorney General’s office has made it a ‘top priority’ to investigate the pattern of corruption in the lead up to the election. But Cartagena is and has always been the epicenter of this type of activity.

As observers write about corruption and the political changes happening in Cartagena, what about the terrible social situation that persists? Bill Gates had also recently visited Cartagena, and at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum, he expressed his excitement for technology in Latin America.

‘We’re also starting something new, which is taking schools that are designed for how all schools will be within the next 10 years. We call these our Innovative Schools, and in these we go ahead and together with our partners make sure that every student has a laptop or tablet computer; rolling them out in 12 locations around the world, and three of those in this region, one in Brazil, one in Chile, one in Mexico, and we’ll be adding to those.’

I wonder if Gates really could understand that people living in the squalor of Cartagena’s shanty towns first need better roofs over their heads, and secondly enough food to eat, before thinking about computers in their classrooms. It would be foolish to think of Cartagena as a city of progress and development, without recognizing the heavy burden that is placed on the poor, who are the majority of this city. Unfortunately after being here for my third time, I cannot imagine this city any different 30 years from now for the “have-nots”.

C.H. Stubbert
Bogotá, Colombia

One Response to “An update from Cartagena”

  1. Peter McGrath Says:

    Using socially progressive Darwin quotes: we like.

Leave a Reply