Friday, August 24, 2018

Report from Rural Colombia

Now it’s on to the third leg of my three week Colombia visit. First leg was the capital, Bogata where I had arranged lots of meetings to get a feel for the politics and trade potential. Second leg was the city of Medellin, learning about how city planning and people power has transformed the most murderous city in the world into a modern, well connected economic powerhouse.

The third leg of my Colombia ‘familiarisation visit’ is to rural Colombia.

This leg began in Boyaca, where I visited the magnificent monuments marking two of the key battles in Colombia’s struggle to cast off the imperial yoke of Spain - at Vargas Swamp near Paipa and at the battle of Boyaca itself which prevented the Spanish forces reaching Santafe Bogata (at it was then known). These two battles signalled the end of Spanish rule in South America.
Was were very relaxed until reaching Tunja (pronounced toon-hah), when our brilliant driver Tatiana jumped out at her house and handed me the keys for the onward drive to Tuta. As darkness fell. Not sure I’ll ever completely forgive her. Panicked when a police car appeared in my mirror with blue lights flashing. What on earth had I done wrong now? Actually nothing. Hadn’t realised they always have their blue lights flashing.

A lovely evening with my daughter-in-law, Zulma’s extended family and their pet animals. Commitment to family is very strong in rural Colombia.  The landscape of Boyaca is not dissimilar to Wales, except more mountainous and extensive with the Andes providing backdrop in the distance.

And then today we drove via Bogota to a small town called Anapoima. What a drive. Seemed like it was over top of the Andes. The road was being widened (well actually rebuilt). Maybe 30 miles of it. It’s the sort of dramatic infrastructure development Colombians specialise in. In Medellin they are building a tunnel through a mountain to create better access to the airport. In Bogata, they are going to build an underground system - from scratch. They would sort out the Third Runway at Heathrow in short order.  Today I travelled along a motorway being built over the Andes, which makes M5 improvements seem a mini job. Anapoima is nearer to the Pacific coast than where I’ve been so far. Hotter and more muggy. First encounter with a mosquito.

I’ve learned so much about Colombia while during my visit. So much more to learn. It’s a country of great contrasts and massive physical differences. And I’ve not even mentioned the Amazon or the Pacific Coast. The whole country is utterly breathtaking. And for someone who loves flowers, it’s a dreamworld. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Report from Medellin

Report from Medellin.

Medellin is the most stunning place I’ve ever been to. In the early 1990s, it was the most murderous city in the world (over 27,000 murders in 1992 alone). Today Medellin is mainly peaceful. This transformation has involved a truly astonishing level of forgiveness. Equally astonishing is the speed at which the population of Medellin has grown. In 1950 there were around 350,000 residents. By 1970, the population had increased by a factor of 6, and today Medellin has 2.64 million residents - a truly dramatic urbanisation. It’s also become connected to other adjacent settlements taking the total population to over 4 million. 

This population is crammed into a city with more defined dividing lines than anywhere else I’ve known  - leading to huge physical and social challenges that ‘city planning’ has sought to counter. With outstanding success it seems to me. 

Firstly, there is the ‘Rio’ area. The Medellin River runs through the length of the city. The rapid urbanisations had destroyed its natural and ecological value to the city. Today the river valley floor has been, and continues to be transformed. There is more to do. There are impressive buildings, a striking civic centre, and a brilliant botanical garden. All very impressive but it’s not what’s most striking. That’s the connection of this job-creating river central zone to the much poorer population which lives on the steep hillsides rising up from the river. Probably over a million of mostly poor people live in what are shanty developments. Very small self-built houses, with tin rooms, often weighed down by rocks and pieces of wood. No way could this population walk to where the jobs are. The most astonishing aspect of Medellin planning has been the transportation system to connect these people with the more prosperous parts of the city. A Metro, connected to a Metro cable car system, which brings the houses on the hillside into contact with the work in the valley. It’s the equivalent of the tube system in London. The end of the Metro line is at Santa Domingo Cable Car Station high up the side of the Andes. Santa Domingo is also the start Point for another cable car which travels miles through forest treetops across the Andes heights. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of wildness. A journey not to be missed.

The basis of the city planning is transportation up the hillsides by several cable car systems and escalators. And there are parks, offering education and other services around every stop. Planning aimed to serve the poorest people. Farsighted. Inspirational. There are parks all over, promoting environmental awareness and connections across the city. The Parques del Rio Medellin involves recreating the river environment that had been lost. So much I could write about. 

Much of the rest of the world think of Medellin as the home base of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drugs baron ever. It was in Medellin he based his evil empire. He died in 1993, whether shot by the police or by his own hand we do not know. Since his death Medellin has undergone a revolution - in a good way. Led by the people of the city who turned away from violence. The world should know about this remarkable turnaround. 

How has all this been paid for? It’s another remarkable story. Much of it funded by a publicly owned public services company, providing the water, energy, gas and telecoms. The EPM (Empressas Publicas de Medellin) is a dream come reality for Jeremy Corbyn, providing a huge annual payment to the city. 

Of course there are still problems. So many people to be rehoused. I hope they are not simply being piled high in tower blocks, creating ghettos of the future! Hopefully the parks will help prevent this. And every Colombian city will have to manage an influx of desperate Venezuelans escaping the economic disaster in their country. The border is hundreds of miles away but they are to be seen walking the roads or perched on the back of Lorries - mostly heading to Bogata. And while Colombia is a country I could love, its cities are noisy, and over dominated by the motor car, full of wannabe Lewis Hamilton’s in yellow taxis. 

And then there’s the flowers. Incredible flowers, and wonderful wildlife. Every August there is the Medellin flower festival, the best flower carnival in the world. Regrettably I missed it, having to move on to other parts of this fascinating country. Next few days, before returning to Montgomeryshire, I will be in what I’m promised is quieter countryside surrounded by exotic birds and flowers. Next stop Boyaca. But be back home for Berriew Show.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Colombia - Report from Bogota.

I am spending the first weeks of August in Bogotá, capital city of Colombia in South America. It’s a country not as well known within the UK as its size and importance warrants. Colombia has a population of 50 million. It is bigger than France and Germany combined. Bogotá itself has a similar population to Greater London. It’s a safe developing city, transformed from the danger of attacks and kidnapping that has been a feature of its past. Bogota is built on a high plateau, surrounded by the mighty Andes mountain range providing a spectacular backdrop to the city.  Colombia is a fascinating and diverse modern country with an equally fascinating, sometimes dark history. More British people should visit.

There are two reasons for my being in South America for three weeks this August. Firstly, I have a family interest in that two of our grandchildren are half Welsh - half Colombian. Although they live in the UK and spend much of their time in Berriew, they will always have close family ties with Boyaca, a region of Colombia north east of Bogotá. Family links are very strong throughout Latin America. And secondly, as the UK leaves the EU, I think every politician has some responsibility to use their own capabilities and contacts to help develop diplomatic and trade links with nations of the world beyond Europe.

Colombia, like all of Latin America has a bloody and violent history, particularly as independence was being won through brute force from the Spanish imperialists. Internationally acclaimed author, Robert Harvey, who lives near Meifod has written a book, the Romantic Revolutionary, based on the life of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of much of Latin America. If you want a flavour of the sheer violence and brutality which has shaped modern South America, it’s a must read.

It’s been a historically important week to be in Bogotá. On Tuesday, Ivan Duque was inaugurated as Colombia’s 60th President following a closely fought election, when three men were involved in a bitterly fought contest. There was no violence or corruption reported. Duque is a typically modern politician - charming, engaging, can sing and play football, but with little political experience. He is also closely linked to controversial and influential former President, Alvaro Uribe. So he is an unknown quantity, and faces two huge challenges. Plus several lesser challenges.

Firstly he has to consolidate and take forward the ‘peace process’ which ended a 50 year terrorist campaign by the FARC, (amongst other groups) following an election campaign which has led to concerns about his commitment to it. Hopefully, questioning of the peace accord and implementing adjustments to it does not lead to a resumption of violence. And secondly, President Duque has to take on the drug cartels, and the wanton murder of human rights defenders who challenge the drug cartel’s activities. President Duque will have no choice but take a stronger role in challenging these ‘sons of Escobar’ if his 4 year presidency is to be a success. And on Monday, there was a ‘supposed’ assassination attempt on the life of President Maduro next door in Venezuela, whose history is so intertwined with Colombia. Venezuela is a political and economic disaster, brought to its knees by the policies of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Huge numbers of desperate Venezuelans are crossing the border into Colombia, bringing yet more challenge to Duque. 

Over the last few days I’ve met with politicians of the ‘left’ and ‘right’, the British Embassy in Bogotá, and the important Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. Later this week I will meet with Mayor of Medellin, Colombia’s second city, which is bigger than any other city in the UK, and which this week hosts the week long biggest flower festival in the world. Colombia is a truly amazing country, with a history steeped in tragedy and a future steeped in promise. I believe the UK is well placed to help it achieve its potential.