Today, May 9th, we awoke early and headed to the airport for our flight to Medellín, which is only about a 45 minute flight from Bogotá. We landed about 9:30 a.m., and took our bus from the airport high above the city, down a winding road through beautiful countryside down to the city. Like La Paz, Medellín is a city in a bowl, but there the comparison stops! Recently named to the New York Times list of 52 Must See Cities for 2015: 52 Places to Go in 2015, Medellín was also named the Most Innovative City in the World by Citigroup in 2013, Medellín Wins “City of the Year” Global Competition.
Before we left, we had a ton of questions and concerns expressed about our decision to visit Colombia, and particularly, about our decision to go to Medellín. Almost uniformly, the concerns stemmed from Colombia’s violent past caused by drugs, crime and para-military terrorism. In order to tell you all why we made this choice, and why we think it was a good one, I’ll be touching on some (as our tour leader, Ernesto, would say) “controversial topics”, and making a deeper dive into politics that we usually do. However, the bottom line is that we are firmly convinced Colombia is safe and welcoming to foreign tourists, so even if you don’t agree with the political conclusions drawn here, do yourself a favor and go to Colombia to make your own observations. You’ll enjoy the trip, we promise you!!!!
Our first stop of the day was at a super gourmet grocery store which could compete handily with Whole Foods back home, where we bought snacks and bought wine to use in our suite hotel. As we drove away from the airport, we marveled at the neat master-planned communities which looked like they’d had a lot of influence from Orange County’s best architects. Wow, we thought! We’d definitely consider coming back here! As we entered the city, we went straight to Medellín’s teleferico (cable car) station which was the model for the one in La Paz, Bolivia. The cable car system here is called Metrocable. The station was spotless, and there was a museum on the premises free to anyone who wanted to visit. The destination of our cable car ride was the Santo Domingo neighborhood, which formerly was one of the poorest and crime-ridden comunas in Medellín, which today is home to numerous civic improvement projects, including the biggest and best library in Medellín (the Biblioteca de España).
How did this city change so much? For starters, you might want to read this short article about the so-called “Medellín Miracle” which appeared last summer in The Economist: The Medellín Miracle However, to explain briefly, even though Colombia is an acutely capitalistic country, there are numerous social engineering policies (some of you may even call them socialistic) which effectively have helped to mold the successful transformation and progress of the country, and particularly, that of Medellín. To be sure, there are still myriad problems in Colombia. However, as demonstrated by the example in Medellín, there are some intriguing concepts at work here. What are they?
First, as we learned in Bogotá, every neighborhood in all the major cities in Colombia are ranked from 1-6, based on a variety of factors such as quality of the housing stock, access to utilities and public transportation, crime rate, quality of schools and other factors. In short, a “1” neighborhood is the poorest and a “6” neighborhood is the richest. People who live in neighborhoods ranked from 1 to 3 qualify for government-subsidized reductions in their utilities, taxes, school and medical costs, with those living in “1” neighborhoods getting the greatest subsidies, and the subsidies ratcheting back for those living in “2” and “3” neighborhoods. Conversely, those living in neighborhoods 4-6 get no subsidies, and pay increasingly higher levels of taxes (although not very high at all, even for those living in “6” neighborhoods). Initially, we were somewhat put off by this system, particularly when we learned that there is some social stigma attached to those in the lowest ranked neighborhoods, and that there are ways to “game” the system. However, some of the things we learned subsequently made us re-evalute our initial thinking, because the overall system has produced some very tangible successes for the Colombian nation. The country has made a conscious decision to locate most of its high-profile public construction projects, like the cable car lines, in the poorest neighborhoods to help those neighborhoods turn around. Colombians use a particularly effective form of representative government called “participatory budgeting” in which people at the local level have a direct say in how government funds are spent in their cities or comunas. We saw a similar system at work in Cuba, which seemed very successfully in causing effective community revitalization.
Jim was really pleased to learn that that the most beloved public institution in Colombia is the state-owned utility company, EPM. EPM is by all accounts incredibly well-run and profitable, and thus, provides much of the capital to fund improvement projects in Medellín. Notably, it has also managed not to become corrupt, largely because the politicians have nothing to do with its operation. Another interesting factoid is that there is both a public and a private healthcare system. However, even the private healthcare system is a non-profit one, so the Colombian medical system remains very affordable, while being staffed by world-class medical personnel, and private health insurance is incredibly affordable. In fact, elective surgeries by top notch surgeons are so affordable that Colombia sees a huge amount of “medical tourism” for those seeking cosmetic surgery, and the locals say, “There’s no such thing as an ugly woman in Colombia; just cheap husbands!” Something else we found interesting is that most Colombians living above the poverty level voluntarily invest in pension insurance (again, a non-profit system), for which the premiums and standard benefit are initially determined by your neighborhood classification. While there is no “Social Security” system in Colombia, the premiums are so affordable that even young Colombians seem to be participating in this pension insurance program because the benefit levels are guaranteed, and the insurance companies providing this insurance are heavily regulated and overseen by the government. Moreover, if you wish to get a higher benefit than that guaranteed for your assigned level, you can pay more into the system and get a guaranteed payout at that higher level. For example, if your neighborhood is a “3”, but you want to get a pension benefit equivalent to that of someone living in a “5”, you pay the premium which would be payable by a “5”, and get a level 5 pension.
Another intriguing phenomenon is that although utilities are subsidized for the lower segments of society, they are not free. EPM has made a commitment to providing natural gas hookups to every household in the city, even those where the original construction was done by squatters. However, because everyone has a meter for their utilities, people know (and can pre-pay for) their projected usage. This has resulted in a populace which is incredibly conserving of utility consumption, because as they near the point where their usage may exceed their payment, they voluntarily cut back consumption to the bare minimums necessary. OK, enough social commentary!
We landed in the Santo Domingo comuna by the cable car, and got off in what was probably a “1” neighborhood. We walked immediately over to the Bibioteca España, where we found out it was public audition/performance day for all the youth groups which use the library as their community center. The library itself was a huge, very futuristic building designed by one of the leading architects in Latin America, Colombian Giancarlo Mazzanti. Right away, we saw dozens of young people in costumes, practicing routines, and they were delighted to show us their stuff. One of our tour members, Kwai Ling, was a particular hit, as she appeared to be the first Asian person most of these kids had ever seen. Not to mention the fact that American tourists are not usually seen in this part of town!
However, everywhere we looked, the streets were clean, people were walking with their families and we saw signs that the neighbors were improving their homes. We had lunch in a small cafe, and neighbors began to come around to say “Hi!”, and learn more about us. As the meal concluded, some senior citizens came by and gathered to give us a dance demonstration of the traditional Colombian dance called cumbia. As their demonstration ended, they approached our group members to come dance with them. Since there were only two gentlemen in their dance group, and about 8 women, the guys in our tour, and Jim, in particular, were very popular dance partners!
We rode the Metrocable down to the relatively new subway system, and then rode the subway back and forth across town. Again, the stations were immaculate, and there is a strong culture of courtesy which requires that is someone offers you their seat, you must graciously accept it (even if the person making the offer is older and/or more infirm than you are). Again, the citizens of Medellín made us feel welcome by offering every single member of our group their seats. In many of the stations, we could see public art installations (unmarred by graffiti) or community centers.
Our bus met us as we got off the subway and took us on a driving tour of the city. In the center of town, we saw performance artists in the streets performing during the lapses caused by red lights. In addition to your obvious dancers, one woman was performing an aerial ribbon dance suspended from a tree overhanging a main boulevard. During our drive, our local guide, Paulo, told us about the dark history of Medellín caused by the reign of the Medellín drug cartel and its notorious boss, Pablo Escobar. Since I’ve already tested your patience with the length of this blog, let me suggest you read “Killing Pablo; The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw” by Mark Bowden (author of “Black Hawk Down”) to get the back story on Escobar and the damage he caused. Anyway, as part of our tour, we drove past the house where Pablo Escobar was killed in a gunfight with the Medellín police in 1993.
Finally, we got to our hotel in the Poblado neighborhood, which was very hip and cool (or “Bien Bacano”)! After our orientation walk of this upscale neighborhood, we went to a local artisan pizza restaurant, where we enjoyed a great open-air dinner looking onto a lush public square (Parque Lleras) with abundant live music. We then spent the rest of the night trying to sleep as that vibrant local music scene carried on until the early hours of the morning! Thank God tomorrow is not a travel day!!!!!!!