Colombia has its skeptics.
On the one hand, most of the official news about Colombia these days – and for the past several years – is extraordinarily optimistic. Despite the worldwide recession, Colombia’s economy contracted only slightly at the end of 2008 before returning to modest gains. Last year’s 4% GDP growth exceeded the central bank’s forecast. In May of this year, Colombia ousted Mexico from its #3 position in the list of Latin American and Caribbean countries with the most foreign direct investment (Brazil is far and away number one, with Chile coming in second). Last year, Medellín was named “Innovative City of the Year” in a global contest sponsored by the Wall Street Journal Magazine, Citi, and the Urban Land Institute. Just over a week ago, former President Álvaro Uribe – who, during his 2002 to 2010 time in office, led successful offensives against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups – was voted “greatest Colombian in history” in a poll sponsored by the History Channel and the newspaper El Espectador.
But for every hopeful account of Colombia’s present condition, there are those who would beg to differ. Some question whether the rising tide of $3.706 billion pumped into Colombia during the first three months of this year will actually lift all boats, or only a handful of behemoths found primarily in the oil, mining, and manufacturing sectors. From both inside and outside Colombia, rumblings can be heard about the relatively high prices and sometimes low quality of the transportation and tourist infrastructure. Those who laud the accomplishments made during President Uribe’s tenure are countered by those pointing to an alleged legacy of scandal, corruption, and violence that they fear will haunt the country for years.
I fall on the more optimistic sides of these debates. I agree with Anthony Bourdain, who in a recent episode of Parts Unknown declared Colombia to be “encouraging” – a reminder that if real progress can be achieved in tackling this country’s sometimes overwhelming challenges, then surely places with more resources can make headway in addressing their own. I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism when I first visited Bogotá in 2010, and I feel it no less here in Barranquilla in 2013. It’s hard to feel that things are “down” when, thanks to this blog, I’m contacted routinely by folks who just moved here or are planning to do so soon, and when all of us in Killa (as the hip kids are calling it) are literally surrounded by construction projects. That being said, unearthing the real story behind Colombia’s statistics – figuring out how much is good, and how much still needs improving – is easier said than done, and perhaps nowhere is that exemplified more than in Puerto Colombia.
Never heard of Puerto Colombia? You’re not alone. This small town situated just west of Barranquilla has diminished into near obscurity. The fall has been almost as dramatic as its post Industrial Revolution rise. By 1893, Puerto Colombia was not only connected to Barranquilla by rail, but also boasted the third longest pier in the world – the Pier of Puerto Colombia, designed by Cuban engineer Francisco Javier Cisneros. For more than four decades to come, Puerto Colombia served as the most important maritime terminal in Colombia, receiving not only untold amounts of goods in trade, but also immigrants from around the world. Puerto Colombia’s reign ended though, with the construction of a navigable canal through Bocas de Ceniza, the point in Barranquilla where the Magdalena River enters the Caribbean Sea. Port activities in Puerto Colombia were officially prohibited by 1943, and the town’s decline began. On March 7th, 2009, two hundred meters of the famous pier crumbled into the ocean, and the structure was closed even to foot traffic.
In the face of such challenges, it might be hard to imagine that Puerto Colombia could ever be more than an impoverished shadow of its former self. Yet when I went there in late May 2013 with my husband and two friends, I left feeling almost inexplicably hopeful. The pier was indeed closed off to all traffic, and the tiny kiosks and restaurants in the pier’s neighborhood were modest to say the least. The once popular beach nearby was desolate and eroded, narrowed significantly by rising waters and lack of maintenance. But the sense of history was there thanks to the remnants of the great pier and the old railway. A very current air of artistry was present too; the benches along the Malecón, or seaside promenade, were painted with bright scenes, and the local handicrafts for sale were among some of the best I’ve seen in Colombia. A short drive away, the seaside PradoMar Hotel served up food and ambiance that was chic and elegant, but authentic too. It was not hard to imagine what Puerto Colombia could be with the right injection of resources. In short, despite Puerto Colombia’s slight ghostliness, we were charmed – charmed enough to plan to go back in the very near future.
Puerto Colombia’s current mayor, Carlos Altahona Arraut, was recognized in December 2012 by the National Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty (my translation) for his work in reducing extreme poverty in the municipality. In spite of this and other activities publicized by the Mayor’s office, a sign erected by a local businessman outside a pier-side storefront stated, “URGENT: Please, Mr. Mayor, we need your help. Our votes were also for you.” Next to the plea was posted a newspaper article entitled, “No beaches anymore” and an official notice of government construction “for the protection of the Pier Sector.” A handwritten note beside the notice stated that the construction plan was arrived at during a community meeting on March 21. Part of the note seemed to again plea to make Pier Sector development a priority.
As with so many small towns in Colombia, rumors circulate about funds being allocated to development and then somehow “used up” before the projects are completed or even begun. I’ll probably never know what the real story is behind those signs, and I have no idea whatsoever whether local corruption is a problem in Puerto Colombia. In any case, the answer doesn’t affect my level of optimism about the place. My hope comes from the fact that 1) citizens like this businessman at the pier are speaking out, 2) the government is allowing the people to speak, and 3) there’s an attempt to hold elected leaders accountable. That’s a pretty good recipe for progress, even if it may not be on the desired timetable.