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The many faces of Cartagena

For anyone familiar with Colombia's Caribbean shore, the name Cartagena de Indias instantly evokes contrasting images. It is impossible to visit this beautiful port and tourist center, home to 850,000 Colombians, without seeing reminders that it was once a fortified Spanish stronghold and center of the slave trade, before becoming the first Colombian city to declare independence.Cartagena is a uniquely appropriate host for the annual meeting of the IDB's Board of Governors scheduled for March, because it embodies both the aspirations and the challenges facing Latin America as a whole.

Founded in 1504, Cartagena has always been known as a gateway to the Andean region and a natural setting for international encounters and cultural exchange. The IDB recognized that heritage in the early 1980s, when it helped finance the construction of Cartagena's state-of-the-art convention center. Located in front of the Muelle de los Pegasos, where slave ships docked centuries ago, the center offers a full range of services and facilities for up to 5,000 visitors.

Although Cartagena was already famous for hosting Colombia's annual beauty queen competition and one of the region's most prestigious film festivals, the new convention center in 1982 turned the city into a venue for presidential summits, ministerial meetings, and all sorts of professional and technical conferences.

"Before the center opened we had a very limited infrastructure," recalls Moisés Alvarez, director of Cartagena's historical archive and a sort of living encyclopedia of the city. "There were few specialized service companies, so it was a challenge ." Since then, Cartagena has gained extensive experience hosting events on the scale of the quadrennial United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement member nations.

This track record makes Cartagena's mayor, Nicolás Curi, confident that the city will be more than prepared for the logistical and security demands of hosting the IDB's annual meeting. But Curi sees this event as more than a chance to showcase Cartagena's world-class hospitality and services. Indeed, he views the meeting as "an opportunity to show the international financial community the immense needs of the ‘other Cartagena'." For just beyond the charming alleys and grand colonial mansions of Cartagena's historic section and the glittering skyscrapers of its Bocagrande district lie neighborhoods that epitomize the challenges faced by nearly all Latin America's urban centers.

Environmental hazards, unemployment, crime, poverty, lack of education: Cartagena's residents might debate the causes and solutions to these problems, but they all agree on their urgency. A visit to the city's southeastern section provides a stark example. Along the edges of the Ciénaga de la Virgen, a large marsh into which some 60 percent of Cartagena's waste water is dumped, thousands of families live in precarious and unsanitary conditions, lacking medical facilities, schools and other basic services. Many of these families are originally from Cartagena. Others settled there after fleeing violence in other parts of the country. Some 250,000 Cartagena residents endure conditions of "extreme poverty," according to official statistics. The 200,000 people who live in southeastern Cartagena share a single hospital. Children who are able to attend school in that area face decaying and severely overcrowded classrooms: one local school has 700 students and just 10 teachers.

But if the problems are conspicuous, so is the determination of Cartagena's residents to overcome them. Mayor Curi speaks with enthusiasm about a successful anti-hunger program. Civil society groups and residents of local communities take an increasingly active role in collective efforts to find solutions. In the southeastern zone, for example, a local security task force composed of police, firefighters, municipal officials and neighborhood leaders recently met to plan a strategy for dealing with crime and violence during large public events. And although Cartagena as a whole remains one of Colombia's poorest cities, it is also considered among those that have made the most progress in the areas of education and sanitation in recent years.

It is these paradoxes that ultimately make Cartagena a fitting host for the IDB's annual meeting. While the city's history, location and resource--not to mention its hospitality and security features--make it a perfect setting for a major meeting of financial and development experts, the "other Cartagena" will remind conference participants of the seriousness and urgency of their work.

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