Cartagena: One City, Two Faces

By T. Elisara


Cartagena, the most unequal city, in the most unequal country in Latin America. As a tourist city it is designed to offer a certain reality to its visitors. There are blemishes as you walk through the city, but the sights and sounds distract you from looking at the rot at the heart of the city. Take the old city. Once you pass through the gates you cross into the old slave market, where poor souls were bought sold by those with economic, social, and cultural power. Today, in the brightness of day the square is populated by hot and flustered tourists, many from the cruise ships. The plaza draws the attention of the desperate and resourceful, who in the plaza to sell various goods or even to just ask for a few pesos. The police presence the old city enjoys during the day, dissipates at night, allowing history to reclaim the plaza, as foreign buyers once again exploit the Colombian landscape and populace. Once night falls the slave market begins to resemble its former self. At night the vendors and beggars give way to prostitutes, who through circumstances and conditions beyond them have found themselves standing where slaves once stood, being ogled by foreign men, who themselves are unwittingly stalking the ghosts of former slave buyers. On the corners stand men handing out fliers for clubs staffed by Colombians, frequented by foreigners, and if you appear to be the latter, offer you a variety of supplies for partying

With the rampant inequality that continues to divide Colombian society it came as no surprise when on the 21st of November, large parts of the population took to the streets to demonstrate their displeasure with this government. They were driven to the streets over labour reforms, delays in peace agreement implementation, structural inequality, the death of children at the hands of the army, and the ongoing murders of social and community leaders – in short, anger over Colombia not being the country it should be. I ventured out to witness democracy in action, and express solidarity with the protestors, and in the process, became and unwitting participant. The atmosphere was jovial, and for a moment, it was impossible to tell whether I was witnessing a protest of street party – the ambiguity was soon cleared. As I approached the walls of the old city, a squadron of police horses were attempting to clear the road, after some resistance all but one cleared the way. A police officer rode up to him and grabbed him by the strap of his backpack and began to forcibly move him; another officer then rode up and hit him with a baton – this enraged the once calm crowd who began to shout, and throw water bottles and bags of food at the police. The police quickly mobilised, and having seemingly found everyone in the area guilty, charged at the crowd on motorbikes and horses. Having been caught in the crowd we all turned and fled. Most of us were successful; those who were not, were left with bruises – physical reminders of the price of dissent. From the apartments above, people yelled down at the police, who, having beaten back the crowd, withdrew and threw tear gas. Once the gas dissipated, things went back to normal, vendors resumed selling, the crowd continued to protest, and the police returned to their posts. The speed in which normality resumed was jarring yet reminded me that I was in the country of magical realism. It became clear to me that decades of conflict had taken its toll on civil society, public discourse and the rule of law. There exists a deep disconnect between the expectations of the Colombian populace, particularly the younger generations, and the political will of political elites to meet societal demands. Peace is an ongoing process; it is more than a signed piece of paper – it arises from constructive dialogue between all parties. People are hearing, they just aren’t listening. The government was not interested in listening to the complaints of the people, rather, they deployed additional forces and granted them special powers to quell the protests; the emphasis on security, as well as the tactics of the police, only furthered tension. Deep cleavages continue to run through the country and has led to extreme polarisation War still wages in Colombia, but it is one on difference.

We visited the Fundación Centro de Cultura Afrocaribe at their school in a poor neighbourhood that is caught in a battle between two different gangs, and in the sights of developers who yearn for the dollar signs in the view from the hill. To visit we needed a police escort. The school was very rudimentary, with the most advanced aspects linked to site security. The staff detailed to us their mission, struggle and reality; it was the wakeup call we didn’t know we needed. It was the Cartagena that is left off the brochures, the Cartagena, that for many is a reality. The state is not present in the area, not in terms of security, development, or basic services. One of the leaders talked about how she lived on a street where the sewer and pavement had been installed by the community themselves. In an area that could see million-dollar penthouses and luxury hotels it was particularly startling. This community was just one that has largely had to govern and service itself. We could see new development of Boca Grande, and the tourist havens of the old city that had their sights set towards not towards the sunrise over these communities, but toward the cruise ship dominated Caribbean sunset.

After some days in Cartagena, a few of us decided to escape the city and visit Isla Grande and experience the Caribbean. I went to the island to escape the unreality of Colombia and instead found myself engulfed in excess and luxury, while surrounded by need and poverty. On Isla Grande, we were greeted with smiles and refreshments, and with the sun shining on us, the sea wind blowing through our hair, we looked out to the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean. After weeks of lecturers on the protracted conflict it was good to escape the tyranny of time and the ugliness of reality. Curious as to what lay beyond the tree line I decided to walk to the nearby town, twenty minutes from the hotel and beach. On the walk, I passed sugar cane farms and houses roofed with corrugated iron, built with exposed brick, some with doors and glass windows, most with neither. Eventually I arrived at the small town, with no roads or motor vehicles. After a quick walk around the town, I returned to the idealistic beach, although this time, the waters seemed less clear.

What is happening in Colombia, did not form in a vacuum. History, geography, culture, and socioeconomic factors were and clearly are drivers of the conflict and inequality in Colombia, but it is a self-serving story to overlook the impact that foreigners have had on this country. The international pressure on policy, and demand for both licit and illicit markets has drastically shaped the conflict, peace process, indeed the political fabric of Colombia. In the case of Cartagena, international tourism has exacerbated already existing inequalities in this city. Where once the Spaniards came to find their riches, and pirate ships threatened to pillage the city, there now comes cruise ships. Cocaine may be produced in Colombia, but it is Mexican cartels and global buyers that drive this illicit market. It is not local Colombians who are frequenting ladies of the night, or procuring partying supplies while in Cartagena – it is the international tourists, who in their attempt to escape the reality of their lives for the magical realism of this country, only contribute to the unreality of the place. Economic and political elites who have traded the interests of their population and the city for the tourist dollars bare considerable responsibility. Tourism does provide income to the area, but with current political, economic and social structures in Colombia, it ends up exacerbating the already numerous structural inequalities in the city. Should we visit a place if it is worse for having set foot there? The construction of a certain idea of Cartagena by elites for personal gain has damaged the city. It is not only the international dimension, ultimately it is the political and economic elites who have morphed Cartagena into an unequal, unsustainable city at breaking point.

Cartagena is a beautiful city, there would be few who have experienced the warmth of its population and have marvelled at its architecture and the Caribbean who would debate that. The tragedy of the city is that it is not paradise for everyone who lives there. On the day of the protests there were those who came from communities with legitimate grievances, for who it was better to try and sell water for two thousand pesos a bottle than to risk a day of no monetary gain through engaging in civil disobedience. For many in Colombia, the daily concerns of trying to meet basic needs trumps civil disobedience and the fight for structural change. Through developments such as Boca Grande, there is an effort to push that which makes us uncomfortable, to the margins, the periphery. If one were to step of the tourist trail, one would see a Colombia that is under served, forgotten by those in power. Despite it all, there remains a great amount of hope within the populace for change, ultimately it will need to be the ordinary Colombian people themselves who build the country they deserve – which is to say one that overcomes structural inequalities.I had come to find the oblivious debauch elite and international tourists that have doomed this city to a profoundly unequal existence. Little did I know I was one of the monsters I had come to slay.

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