This article appeared in the January/February 2012 edition of Américas magazine.

Cartagena Connects the Americas

The region's presidents and prime ministers will gather in a fortified city that was a crossroads of the hemisphere from its very beginnings

By Janelle Conaway

It is only fitting that Cartagena de Indias—that jewel of a city on Colombia's Caribbean coast—will be the setting for the Sixth Summit of the Americas, which takes place in April. The leaders of the 34 countries that make up the Organization of American States (OAS) will focus on the theme "Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity," and Cartagena's history is rooted in connection.

Spanish colonizers first settled on the spot in 1533, drawn by its strategic location and sheltered bay. Cartagena soon became the prime gateway to what the Spanish called Tierra Firme; in fact, according to historian León Trujillo Vélez, in the first two centuries of colonial rule, "Cartagena was the most important port in South America."

As an intercontinental nexus for trade, Cartagena in a sense was a product of early globalization. It was the main distribution point for Spanish convoys bringing clothing, manufactured goods, and other merchandise—most infamously, African slaves—to South America. Ships returning to Spain left Cartagena laden with gold, silver, and other treasures.

"Because Cartagena was important, privateers, admirals, and captains from the English, Dutch, and French crowns made it a target," said Trujillo Vélez, president of the Cartagena de Indias Academy of History. Repeated attacks by the likes of John Hawkins and Francis Drake gave rise, over the course of two centuries, to the massive fortifications that today make the city's colonial center so distinctive.

Trujillo Vélez notes that Cartagena played a pivotal role in the history of the Western Hemisphere on at least two occasions. In 1741, Spanish forces defeated a formidable English fleet—the largest that had been amassed to date—in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, thus ensuring continued Spanish dominance of the continent. Then in 1812, Cartagena helped shape the region's independence movement by giving refuge to Simón Bolívar after his first defeat in Caracas, and supporting his subsequent revolutionary efforts. A statue of Bolívar in the colonial center quotes the independence hero's paean to the city: "Cartagenians, if Caracas gave me life, you gave me glory."

Cartagena, at the time an autonomous province, had declared its own independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, proclaiming itself a "free, sovereign, and independent state." It went on to draft a constitution that Trujillo Vélez notes was republican and progressive for its time. While it did not abolish slavery, it established that freed slaves were citizens.

Strolling around the walled city center today, it's easy to become absorbed by the history and forget that Cartagena is a modern urban area with a population of just over one million. It is an important economic center, home to Colombia's busiest port and a strong industrial sector with a large petrochemical refinery.

A well-known tourism hub and UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, colonial Cartagena draws visitors from around the world, cameras raised to capture every cannon, cupola, and quaint balcony. Cruise ships bring crowds of day trippers, and on holiday weekends the beaches in the high-rise stretch of Bocagrande are packed and the nightlife hopping. The city hosts an array of musical, artistic, and literary events throughout the year, an international film festival, and an annual beauty pageant. Colombian presidents bring their guests to Cartagena, the country's rich and famous have second homes in the city, and celebrity sightings are practically routine.

And yet, as the city prepared to celebrate its bicentennial late last year, a voice recording at City Hall hinted at another side to Cartagena: "If 200 years ago the struggle was for freedom, today it is for dignity," said the message, which went on to tout the results of municipal anti-poverty programs.

On January 1 of this year, Cartagena began a new chapter in its history with the inauguration of its first Afro-Colombian mayor, Campo Elías Terán Dix, who succeeded the first woman to hold the job, Judith Pinedo Flórez. Terán Dix, a onetime sports announcer and radio talk-show host, gained a following over many years by using his familiar voice to demand action and accountability from public officials.

In his inaugural speech, delivered in Cartagena's baseball stadium, Terán Dix underscored the urgency of combating poverty. "Even today we continue to have inequality, exclusion, and social injustice, which make the situation of many of our fellow citizens no better than that of our forebears," he said.

Sol Domínguez would probably agree. Domínguez works as a housekeeping manager in an apartment complex within the walled city, but she lives in the Nelson Mandela barrio—a neighborhood settled by squatters—on an unpaved street where there is no sewer system or reliable public transportation, and where heavy rains late last year caused widespread flooding. Those are things the new mayor has said he will fix, said Domínguez, who moved to the city 17 years ago from a small coastal town near Barranquilla. She said she was drawn to Terán Dix because he spoke frankly on the radio and always tried to help people. "If he did that before, imagine what he will do now that he's the mayor," she said.

Despite the problems in her own neighborhood, Domínguez described Cartagena as a place that has been growing and progressing. "I give thanks to God because this city has given me many opportunities," she said.

With healthy growth in tourism, industry, and trade, Cartagena is "a city of opportunities," according to Luis Ernesto Araújo, who heads the Cartagena Tourism Corporation. "Besides being a beautiful, incredible city, we're convinced that Cartagena represents the best of the country," he said.

Parts of the city, including several parks and plazas, have been undergoing major improvements lately, as part of a revitalization project sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Araújo said one priority has been to provide a better connection between the heart of the must-see historic center and the Getsemaní neighborhood just to the south, which is drawing a growing number of budget travelers. It was from Getsemaní that in 1811 a Cuban-born artisan named Pedro Romero, leading a militia of black and mulatto revolutionaries, spearheaded Cartagena's declaration of absolute independence from Spain.

Last year, to mark its bicentennial, Cartagena opened several new public schools with interactive classrooms. Araújo, who has led the city's public-private tourism promotion entity for the past three years, said the private sector in Cartagena understands and supports the need to improve city life for all residents.

At his inauguration, Mayor Terán Dix praised his predecessor for putting the city on a better path during her administration, and called for citizens to work together to overcome persistent social disparities. According to Cartagena's El Universal newspaper, he talked about the need to attend to children, young people, seniors, the unemployed and underemployed, women heads of households, and citizens who have been displaced by the country's internal conflict.

"Of course, the government cannot solve all problems, but if we can come to an agreement, we can give priority to solving those that most affect us," he said.

El Universal reported that when the outgoing mayor and her cabinet met her successor at City Hall to symbolically hand over authority to him, she joked, "Tomorrow if I wake up and it's raining, Campo Elías is the one who has to solve those problems."

Even though Cartagena has long-term challenges, it is a place that draws people in with its tropical rhythms and rich colors, and beckons them to stay. Adriana Campo, who works at Ábaco, a bookstore and café in the old city center, is originally from Bogotá but lived in Spain for several years before landing in Cartagena. "In Madrid, you go at 100 per hour. When I got here I slowed down to 30 per hour," she said, with a contented smile.

Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who owns a house in Cartagena, described the city's hold on him this way, in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale: "…it was enough for me to take a step inside the wall to see it in all its grandeur in the mauve light of six in the evening, and I could not repress the feeling of having been born again.”