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Cartagena's Urban Fix For The Poor? Remove Them

Cartagena flooded
Cartagena flooded
Javier Ortiz


BOGOTÁ — In August 1894, while traveling to Venezuela, the Colombian poet José Asunción Silva spent time in Cartagena de Indias, the colonial port on Colombia"s Caribbean coast. He wrote about his impressions of the city to his mother and sister. He had taken a liking to the locals, who were cheerful and informal, and made particular note of the conduct of the city's poorer residents and those of African descent. "Humble black folk here are more attractive than our own. People move, shout, and fumble through English or French but without the awful intonation common to the unfortunate inhabitants of our plains."

These poor black people survived, as they did in previous generations, eking out a living with odd jobs, a bit of good fortune and the traditional inventiveness of people from the Caribbean.

There has never been a systematic commitment on the part of the country's political class or rulers to address the city's poverty. What never changes is the infinite contempt local elites have for the poor. They are not seen as people whose rights must be guaranteed but, rather, as a nuisance and obstacle to the implementation of commercial projects.

"The poor are seen as an obstacle to the implementation of commercial projects' Photo: Luz Adriana Villa/Flickr

Right now, the city is going through one of its worst political crises. As the country's top tourist destination, everything that happens here makes national news. Still, we do not see any official creating a program in the city to ensure the payment of historical debt to the city's poorest residents. Big investment projects associated with tourism and port facilities are not enough to generate structural changes in Cartagena. They have not had an impact on transforming the life conditions of the neediest people here.

Houses look more like prisons

Some weeks ago, the Central Bank or Banco de la República, issued a report on eradicating poverty by 2033. In spite of its good intentions and the professionalism of those who compiled the paper, one of its proposed solutions was much the same as those tried before in the city. The report recommended relocating the poor. This effort had previously been carried out in the early 20th century wherein residents of humble cottages built around the city's ancient walls were moved. It happened again in the 1970s with the people of Chambacú, a shantytown that used to be outside the historical district.

Nobody is thinking of sanitation or solving resident's problems or building facilities in the neighborhoods where they have established strong roots and memories. People do not feel adequately compensated when they are moved to apartments or houses that look more like prisons than homes.

We know what happens once people are relocated. Land prices rise and expensive tower blocks begin to emerge. As long as city governments, whatever their political hue, refuse to seriously tackle the problems of the poor, we shall never see the structural changes Cartagena needs.

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