Why did Colombia choose Cartagena to sign its peace treaty with Farc?

Riot police in Cartagena, during the signing ceremony of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. Image: Getty.

At the end of September the Colombian government signed a peace deal with left wing guerrilla group Las Farc, an event that 50.2 per cent of Colombians chose to celebrate by rejecting the peace agreement in a Brexit-esque moment. Whoops.

Anyway, the city chosen to host the signing of the peace deal was Cartagena de las Indias. The Caribbean port city is far smaller than capital, Bogotá. It also hasn’t experienced the same resurgence as second city Medellín.

So what led President Juan Manuel Santos and his negotiators to choose Cartagena over its bigger and more impressive rivals?

Let’s look at some of the deciding factors:

Guests

Signing a peace deal and inviting world leaders, along with media representatives, is much like hosting a party. All things must be considered to make your guests – in this case 27 heads of state – as comfortable as possible. 

Before the event, rumours were circulating that Raul Castro, the 85 year old brother of 90 year old Fidel, and now president of Cuba, was not well enough to handle the altitude in Bogotá, which is 2644 metres above sea-level. 

Cartagena may not be as famous as Bogotá – a signing in the capital’s Plaza Bolivar would have been iconic. But it is on the coast, and would have meant less acclimatisation even for Colombia’s healthier visitors, too. 

Photo opportunities

As something being broadcast all over the world’s media, you need to make sure the city you pick for your political event looks good. Where Medellín is a more functional city – along with the likes of Baranquilla and Santa Marta – Cartagena is stunningly beautiful. 

While the larger metropolitan area looks like any other modern city, Cartagena is also home to a stunning colonial walled city – and fortress – that was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984.  

The city has its own problems with poverty and, it must be said, police corruption (this writer was legit robbed by some of the city’s finest police officers while they pretended to do a security check). But you would be hard pressed to a more beautiful city in which to host a ton of international guests. 


Security

Everyone, from police officers to taxi drivers, was adamant that Cartagena was picked because of its size and ties to the Colombian navy. 

It’s important to remember that the signing of a peace deal with the Farc is not actually the end of all conflict in the country: the government is soon to embark on a peace deal with secondary leftist group the ELN, while right-wing paramilitary successor groups continue to perform as leading narco-traffickers.  

Although these other groups said they would not interfere with the peace deal or signing, Cartagena was undoubtedly easier to police and monitor than sprawling Bogota, or Medellín, which is the capital of the No vote heartland (something which could have presented challenges of its own). 

Regardless of which reason may have clinched it for Cartagena, with a series of on-going peace deals taking place in Colombia, time will tell whether or not the city will once again be selected as a location for ending conflicts.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.