“Live to tell the tale.” That’s how Gabriel García Márquez titled one of his literary works, and it’s true; it’s very difficult to talk about something you haven’t lived or even worse, to talk about something you know nothing about. And yet, it often seems that there are an enormous amount of people, living here, who really know nothing about the city. Or rather, they only know about one side of the city, one face. The other face is one the politicians and city promoters would rather you didn’t see.
According to data presented by the National Bureau of Statistics and also a study performed by Universidad del Rosario, Barranquilla is one of the most attractive places to live or to start a business in Colombia. It has a warm climate, friendly citizens, a majestic River, the Caribbean Sea and strong economic growth; all attractive elements, luring investors and tourists alike.
Indeed, with a quick drive around the north end of the city, it’s quite obvious that heavy growth is underway – there are more than 300 high-end buildings being constructed including a couple of new, upper-class shopping centers. There are beautiful parks, bicycle paths, upgraded streets and even beautiful, painted fire hydrants.
But all that glitters isn’t gold and there’s another side to this city, hidden from view, undeveloped, dirty, smelly and crumbling. Given the solid growth at the North end of the city, the complete lack of attention in the poor sectors is appalling.
In an effort to improve the living conditions of the poverty-class, and to create a worker community for nearby industrial businesses, the municipality has built several hundred low-end houses just outside the city, in the region of Galapa – and for the people who work in those districts, that’s a great improvement. However, here in the city itself, there are some sections which could be mistaken for favelas from Sao Paulo. Indeed, Barranquilla is a city with almost no social programs and there are almost 2000 registered homeless people, an increase from 1500 in 2010. If you cycle through the issues, it’s clear there are some class challenges.
For example, Barranquilla has some of the best healthcare facilities in the country. In fact, most Barranquilleros enjoy good medical coverage, relatively quick wait times for appointments and solid, immediate care in the case of emergencies. But there are thousands residents of us who actually have no coverage whatsoever. There are many people living on the fringe for various reasons, and they lack income and any sort of care at all. In fact, even people who live in a middle strata neighborhood need to wait in line for hours to get even mediocre medical care.¹ It’s a tragedy.
Education is also high on the list; there are thousands who have no access to education – even though it’s supposed to be a legal right. Unfortunately, if you can’t afford to buy books and a uniform, or to pay for transport, your kids can’t go to school.²
A true indicator of a city’s progress is not how much concrete it has poured but rather how far it has gone to improve the lives of its poverty class. Social inequality needs to be opened, analysed and discussed. As a civilized society, we need to consider whether we’re taking the right actions to ensure the security, health and safety of all of our citizens, especially those who can’t do it on their own. It’s time to shake hands with those who most need it, and work together to share opportunities for progress.