Can cultural tourism clean up Colombia’s image abroad?

published in Seattle Globalist

Once known for brothels and drugs, an old quarter of Cartagena is experiencing big changes as part of a nation-wide cultural makeover.

“Ten years ago there were robberies and prostitutes here,” says Ernesto Muñoz. “But now there are tourists.”

The stern blacksmith turns to us and shows off the iron-forged scrolls in the dim light of his workshop.

He walks down the street from his shop and points out his work: cages, door knobs, gates. He has a reputation when it comes to safeguarding the people of Getsemaní, a working class neighborhood in the old town of Cartagena, Colombia.

But the thing is, safety is not too much of a worry in the neighborhood these days.

The tourism-driven transformation of this neighborhood reflects the challenges that have come with this South American country’s changing image.

Getsemaní's Cafe Havana, which has hosted celebrities like Hillary Clinton, is symbolic of the challenges of a changing neighborhood trying to hold on to its authentic feel. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)

Getsemaní’s Cafe Havana, which has hosted celebrities like Hillary Clinton, is symbolic of the challenges of a changing neighborhood trying to hold on to its authentic feel. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)

Some travelers still come for the easy drugs and prostitutes that used to line the neighborhood’s main street.

But more and more, travelers are visiting to meet people like Muñoz and soak up the culture springing up around his workshop.

“And I have no problem with them,” he explains from a plaza outside a worn out yellow church in the center of his neighborhood, where music, soccer games, and street food take over the neighborhood each night.

With $27.8 million in investment this year, Colombia is dressing the city in tourism promotion. The amount invested in Cartagena’s tourism scene outweighed investments in infrastructure and industrial competitiveness, according to figures from Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Tourism and Industry.

All that money comes with a new message too.

To combat it’s reputation for cocaine and conflict, Colombia is now promoting the imaginative, literary machinations of national icon Gabriel García Márquez.

In April of this year, Colombia announced its new slogan: “Colombia, Magical Realism”.

Del Morris, a Pacific Northwesterner in his late thirties, escaped to this city from the cold, oil sand country in Northern Canada, where he works as a welder. He came searching for travels that mirror the magical realities Colombia promises. Cartagena had just what he wanted.

“This is a place where I would love to learn ironwork,” Del says, pointing toward the iron scrolls that decorate gates, cages and door features around Getsemaní.

Tourism has helped to boost Colombia’s economy and image over the past decade. Much of the transformation is thanks to former President Alvaro Uribe, whose series of controversial hardline security policies helped turn cities like Cartagena into safe destinations for travelers.

Money is only the first step though.

Cristian Ahumada, director of Ciudad Movil, an arts & culture workshop in Getsemaní, says that there are a lot of foreigners and travelers who come to participate in the neighborhood’s flourishing cultural scene.

He thinks the Getsemaní has the right ingredients to change Colombia’s image.

“It wasn’t always like this. It used to be considered a really dangerous neighborhood.” says Ahumada, who grew up in the city. “But now the main street is filled with hotels and travelers.

But it’s still a delicate issue, he says. According to some residents the neighborhood, known for its sleepy streets drenched in beautiful colonial architecture, is in danger of being overrun by the wave of travelers.

Blacksmith Ernesto Muñoz shows Northwest native Del Morris how to craft a scroll out of metal in his workshop in Cartagena. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)

Blacksmith Ernesto Muñoz shows Northwest native Del Morris how to craft a scroll out of metal in his workshop in Cartagena. (Photo by Wesley Tomaselli)

There’s a local population that isn’t in favor of it. Lots of people I know complain about gentrification,” adds Ahumada.

The other problem, of course, is that there are still foreigners who come to Colombia’s Caribbean city for its vices.

In April of 2012, a scandal broke out when 13 C.I.A. Secret Service agents enjoyed a night of drunken debauchery involving prostitutes and booze during a visit by President Barack Obama for the Summit of the Americas.

Cartagena taxi drivers report that they still encounter plenty of tourists in search of drugs and prostitutes, not just beaches and historical sites.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia in designated tolerance zones. But it still taints the country’s image.

Ahumada says that for the most part, however, travelers who come to his city join in on the throng of arts, music and culture that gives it its spirit.

It’s a point of cultural exchange,” he says.

Inside Ernesto Muñoz’s shop, Del Morris picks up the blacksmith’s scrolls and admires them. The forge is hot, and sweat pours off hard, serious faces. Muñoz is proud of his work. The pounding of the hammer against the anvil starts up again.

The Canadian welder says he feels inspired after visiting Ernesto’s forge. He wants to bring back what he learned to Vancouver and someday start his own blacksmithing shop.

Visitors like Morris may be the key to nurturing Getsemaní’s art, music and craftsmanship.

But if tourists make different choices with their money, the local culture might just fall prey to gentrification and disappear.

Interview: What are the economics behind Colombia’s agrarian protests?

A wave of agrarian strikes and protests have gripped Colombia over the past several weeks.

Farmers, truck drivers, students and other protesters from the countryside to urban centers like Bogota and Medellin have denounced President Juan Manuel Santos’ economic policies, saying that Colombia’s free trade agreements and neoliberal economic policies are hurting farmers.

During the protests in Bogotá last week, a potato grower named Benjamin Morales said “we’re broke because we’re facing high prices in everything from fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides… These products have too many taxes, too many tariffs.

“And about the issue of the FTAs… we’re importing a lot of milk, a lot of cheese and domestic production has fallen,” added Morales.

“It’s the same as [the problem coffee farmers are facing]: fertilizers and pesticides are too expensive, and when we go to harvest, the price is too low. And we don’t receive any kind of subsidy. Coffee growers do. But we don’t.”

I interviewed Economist Mauricio Reina, who is a researcher at Fedesarrollo. Fedesarrollo is a Bogota-based non-partisan think tank that develops research and analysis on economic and social policy in Colombia.

I asked Mr. Reina questions about why farmers are angry, and what economic foundations underlie the agrarian crisis. This is the interview transcript:

W. Tomaselli: It seems like there’s a paradox here: the potato farmers are shouting that the products that come from abroad are pushing down their prices and they can’t compete. They’re upset. But other economists I’ve spoken with say that isn’t an issue that has to do with Colombia’s Free Trade Agreements. They say it’s an issue of productivity. Colombia doesn’t have the productivity to reach the domestic demand in Colombia. But doesn’t that mean that food imports are competing with farmers to reach that demand?

M. Reina: The first thing you’ve got to keep in mind is that the products that protesters are complaining about are imported, but they’re imported at a low level in comparison to the national level of production. In the first place, Colombia only imports frozen potatoes, not fresh potatoes, and that’s from years ago… and this [frozen potato] product doesn’t compete directly with the farmer in the small towns of Colombia. It competes in big urban supermarkets, which in some cases could affect the small farmer, but in the majority of cases doesn’t.

W. Tomaselli: You said it’s a low level of imports coming into the country. How much food is imported into Colombia compared with domestic output?

M. Reina: Yes, it’s really important to look at the size of imports. If you look at frozen potatoes, they accounts for less than 1% of the production of potatoes [in Colombia]. In other words, if a sector goes into crisis with an added 1% of imports, it’s a sector that has serious problems with productivity. It’s not a sector that has problems with free trade agreements or international markets or competition from abroad. It’s a sector that has major problems with productivity.

W. Tomaselli: Can you talk about another example of how this works?

“When you look at the case of milk, milk is imported [into Colombia] as powdered milk. And what happens is more or less what happens with potatoes – it competes with a part of the market, but not with all the milk [Colombia produces]. While more farmers produce regular milk, powdered milk doesn’t compete with them that much.

But in any case, let’s suppose that it were regular milk. Milk that [Colombia] imports accounts for less than 3% of total national production. So a sector that goes into crisis as it sees 3% of imports come into the market is a sector that has serious productivity problems.

In the case of rice, imports don’t even reach 5%. The problem is the domestic sector, not the international market.

W. Tomaselli: Ok, so my question then is if it’s not the free trade agreements, and it’s not about competition from the international market, then what’s happening? Why is there a crisis in the agricultural sector then?

Well, the Colombian agricultural sector has historically been very isolated from the international market by a very protectionist policy. What that means that a sector that has kept out international competition will not have experienced advances in productivity during the last couple decades.

This kind of protectionism has had two different kinds of effects on two different groups of producers.

Colombia’s protectionism has been driven by the big landed estates who have major political representation in the country, and who have very solid backing in congress. So cattle ranchers and rice growers are the types who have searched for protectionist schemes. They’re powerful on a local level. They’re powerful on a political level. And they guarantee that competition from the outside doesn’t enter.

But meanwhile, there are small farmers whose crops don’t compete much with the large landed estates like the rice growers and cattle ranchers. They [grow] fruits, vegetables, the whole line of tropical products – all of these types of farmers haven’t succeeded in gaining influence in the Colombian political arena. Colombia’s agrarian politics have listened to the large landed estates about protecting their economies, but they don’t bother with promoting small farmers’ crops. And those crops, in many cases, are crops that Colombia could export. 

So the central problem here is the protectionist policy that big landed estates promote. It favors the big estates, but it doesn’t favor the small farmers. In any case, it’s resulted in lower development of productivity.

Two additional things to paint the whole picture: first is the whole matter of insecurity in the countryside. We’re starting to slowly approach more security in the countryside. But don’t forget that for half a century, we’ve been dealing with this problem.

The second thing is infrastructure. As the agricultural sector has been so closed, there hasn’t been a need to develop better road infrastructure in order to be able to export and send out product to the international market.

So nowadays, a small farmer can’t find incentives for stockpiling, he doesn’t have resources for commercialization, and he doesn’t have mechanisms for organization in order to face international competition.

We’ve created a closed economy with bad infrastructure. And nowadays, those are the problems that we are suffering from.

Just how much can protests distract from the real story?

Last week, on August 29th, Colombia’s peaceful agrarian protests turned violent after clashes between protesters and police erupted in downtown Bogota. I was there. And after interviewing a number of peaceful protesters – potato growers (photo) and students to name some – I witnessed the crowd turn into a mob.

Police responded with tear gas and high-pressure water cannons. The mob turned more chaotic. The confusion swelled. And the reporters reported what happened.

From my view, the story that unfolded went from the story of how protesters are backing a message that farmers wanted to send to the Colombian government, into the story of a violent clash between protesters and government anti-riot police. Of course, these clashes are part of the story. And multiple media outlets reported on the chaos that took over the protests. But the chaos isn’t the whole story. And it doesn’t seem to be the message the protesters want to send.


The problem I experienced with reporting on the unrest is that the voices of the protesters and the government drowned in the chaos. The reporting got distracted. And with the key voices lost in the fray, the reporters’ duty to, show both sides, lay the foundations of a debate and get to the roots of the problem went down with the ship as well.

As the chaos of the mob swelled, I ran for it, took refuge in a cafe, gathered myself, and called the newsroom. I dictated the facts: an estimate of how many protesters, how a peaceful tone turned into a violent one, how some protesters vandalized property and how the police responded. That was the gist. I dictated the facts, hung up the phone, and went back out into the street only to find myself caught in another clash. This time the speed of the police and confusion of the mob fell right on top of me and I stumbled away after being tear-gassed.

Colombian media reported on police abuses and some media speculated on who the small group of disruptive vandals were. The Santos administration shared its opinion on who was behind the mischief. The mayor gave his view. And other groups guessed and wondered over the question: who is to blame for the violent clashes?

I too, became caught up with this question of the right and the wrong behind the clashes.

But thinking back, I think those are the wrong questions.

The next day when I began to sift through the stories that had hit the screen, I realized that the voices of the government, the students, the potato growers and the thinkers I had interviewed were lost in the stories. And if they did make it in, they got diluted, earning at most a place low down in the story.

If you listen to a potato grower explain the challenges of covering his costs of production and high taxes you dig into the real story. If you listen to an economist explain the government’s policies on competition, you dig into the real story.

How much did we dig?

I went back and looked at what I had contributed to in the day’s report. The voice of Benjamin Morales, the potato grower I had interviewed, wasn’t there. Had I failed? Maybe I was in the right. Or perhaps I had just become lost in a more sensational, less relevant story?

Radio Ojala Episode 1


Broadcasting from Bogotá, this is the week of August 26th.

Tune in to hear about what’s happening this week in Colombia. I talk about the wave of strikes ripping the countryside, what a weak peso means for the economy, and how the FARC has declared a suspension of the peace talks in Havana.

photo credit: Wesley Tomaselli

Visit Ojala to view more multimedia reporting.