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Bird’s eye views


Eric Smith

Bird’s eye views

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Social policies targeting the poor and dispossessed can promote major changes in countries and their people. We know it so very well in Barbados because of the major transformation in this island over the past 50 years, thanks to education, enhanced health care and better housing.
In Colombia this change is perhaps best exemplified in Medellin, that country’s second city, in which new opportunities have been created for millions of people.
 When the drug lords held sway between the 1980s and the turn of the century, Medellin suffered from non-stop violence which fed on the existing urban decay – the sprawling hillside communities. Colombians became fearful and uncertain; visitors simply stayed away from that city.
But one man, Sergio Fajardo, made a difference. As mayor between 2004 and 2007, he, along with the independent civic movement, instituted change by urban renewal, social inclusion and safety.
Now, Colombians proudly indicate that Medellin was named City Of The Year for 2012 in a coveted award from the Wall Street Journal in collaboration with Citi and the Urban Land Institute. It won ahead of New York City and Tel Aviv. At the heart of the change has been social inclusion of the inhabitants living in the hillside housing projects, not of the type you would see in The Mount, St George, or St Barnabas, St Michael.
The gangs are no longer in control and most man-made barriers have been removed. The one thing making a real difference has been the transit system, including the metrocable. It is more than a transportation system connecting neighbourhoods with the city centre, but a socially uplifting effort that has transformed the lives of the city’s inhabitants, who were social and economic outcasts.
I had the privilege of travelling on the system during my brief visit and I was surprised by its efficiency and cleanliness, considering that approximately 553 000 passengers use it daily. The real joy in Medellin was using the metrocable system, which gave me the opportunity to go up the steep mountainside and have a panoramic view of the cluster of houses lining the Valley of Medellin. While on the journey – both up and down – it dawned on me how fortunate we in Barbados are, even in tough economic times. As someone who regularly passes through some of the narrow streets in our inner city, I accept that we need upgrades to both roads and houses, but we really have a paradise compared with what I saw in Medellin.
Before the development of the metrocable system, residents of these mountainside squatter communities endured the type of hardships we hardly ever hear about in Barbados: a treacherous and long journey mainly by foot down the mountainside; limited access to good education, health care, and other necessities; as well as discrimination when seeking jobs. It is understandable that the drug lords had so many recruits.
Because of the metrocable system, these hillside communities have new parks, schools, hospitals, and police services – many integrated into the infrastructure of the metro system itself – while those Colombians and visitors who had previously avoided trekking into these areas can now do so, thereby supporting their tourism product.
My visit up the hillside that rainy Thursday afternoon in subtropical weather was a real blessing. I met a young teenager trying to make a few dollars to contribute to his household. His job was to explain to visitors the past challenges of the area as well as the benefits the cable cars had brought to his area. His English was not perfect, but we understood him. He indicated that it was important for him to learn English, Portuguese and perhaps French. He was not interested in being a translator, but felt a command of other languages would help him in the future – a sentiment shared by many other Colombians throughout my brief trip.
As English speakers, we Barbadians expect that wherever we go English will be spoken. When that spoken English is slow or hard to understand, it can create problems. People all over the world are trying their utmost best to be bilingual or trilingual. But most of us are interested in English only.
We have to change because even those places we flock to on our annual pilgrimages all across the United States are becoming bilingual. in the next ten years or so English may be the second language in Miami. So we need to stop talking and start ensuring all our schoolchildren are exposed to conversational Spanish – and Portuguese, given the growing power of Brazil, if we want to intermingle and be part of a culturally diverse world.
One of the unfortunate things about the trip was my inability to obtain Colombian coffee. But the sad memory has been the homeless people along an extensive stretch of a thoroughfare. We have a growing problem with homelessness, but thankfully nowhere near as bad as what I saw in an otherwise inviting Medellin. After a while I just closed my eyes. It was simply too depressing. I suppose in a city with millions this could be overlooked.
 On the plus side, this Medellin is home to over 30 universities, with the public ones having rich traditions, helping to fuel the successes being recorded in commerce, industry, science and horticulture. Textile and fashion design are gaining significant growth and importance, but it is the health tourism services that promise significant opportunities for growth.

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