In Cartagena, Racism And Poverty Stain Colombia’s Caribbean Jewel

A report by Mauricio Albarracán for El Espectador.

Tourism feeds a construction and real estate boom in the historical town of Cartagena de Indias. But the shadows of this former slave port hide a huge gap between rich and poor.

Cartagena de Indias, a registered World Heritage Site, is the jewel in Colombia’s tourism crown. Its colonial buildings and Caribbean beaches make it a choice destination for domestic and foreign travelers, and as such, it has become a magnet for travel-related port and real estate investments. It all looks grand on paper, but there are things tourists don’t see, and wouldn’t want to.

When visitors stroll on the Bocagrande or in the walled city, they will hear invitations to visit “Playa del Rosario, Playa Blanca and Barú.” They will inevitably want to discover these pristine beaches and the translucent Caribbean, and take boats from a pier near the Convention Center for a day trip to paradise. A typical trip would include visiting the Rosario Islands and particularly the Aquarium on San Martín de Pajarales Island. There is lunch, usually on Playa Blanca, with the rest of the afternoon left for lounging on the beach. The boat then either takes tourists back or they can sleep in a hostel by the sea.

What tourists don’t see are the neglected Afro-Caribbean communities that live on the islands off Cartagena, and their struggle to keep community lands like those of the Orika Community Council in Isla Grande or of La Boquilla. The tourists don’t know that while the pier they depart from is well maintained, those used by island residents to go to work or the doctor are much more precarious. Cartagena effectively has piers for white people and piers for black people — and similar segregation everywhere else.

Tourists don’t realize that the biggest fight over land rights and tourist developments are in Playa Blanca. Tourists probably don’t wonder about the purpose of armed guards standing behind the fences that surround their little cocktail paradise. They probably don’t ask where all their trash goes or see the polluted swamps behind their hotel facilities. Tourists do, however, complain about salesmen and peddlers — but again, they tend not to relate their presence to the dearth of job opportunities for locals. They may not understand that peddling is a way of participating in — asking for your share of — the tourist money flowing into the area. Day after day, the tourists occupy Playa Blanca like lobsters shifting slightly between indolence and ignorance.

After a day at the beach, the tourists stroll in the romantic streets of the colonial district, inside the same walls that separate Cartagena from reality and confirm the modern divisions between rich and poor. What tourists may not know is that Cartagena was the biggest slave port in this part of the world, that the Plaza de la Aduana and Plaza de los Coches were the settings of the worst of crimes (selling slaves). There is no plaque even to recall the pain inflicted in the past, nor does anyone speak of the historical discrimination against blacks that has undoubtedly paved the way for their present poverty.

From the Castle at San Felipe de Barajas, tourists can view the “intelligent building,” built in the Chambacú zone. Members of the local black community used to live there, before they were displaced for being an obstacle, for living on a plot the rich wanted. The colonial period endures in modern forms of exclusion that have replaced their historical versions.

There is certainly a lot to see in Cartagena. Don’t miss the ingrained racism, the forced displacements for the sake of grand projects, the evident neglect of islands and small towns, and every other sign of tourism’s voracious appetite. Next time you visit the “Heroic City,” as they call it, enjoy its beauty but ask a few uncomfortable questions to better understand one of the most unequal and contradictory places in this wild and magical part of Colombia.

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