Last week the World Urban Forum was hosted in Medellín, Colombia. Twenty years ago this city was under the thumb of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar and deemed the murder capital of the world. In 2013 it was named most innovative city in the world by the Wall Street Journal, beating out Tel Aviv and Sydney. This transformation is indicative of what Colombia and the rest of Latin America have seen in recent decades: 70 million people pulled out of poverty, contributing to a burgeoning middle class, the toppling of dictatorships, the emergence of liberal democracies, and the incorporation of international law.
In the United States we are prone to sweeping stereotypes and negative connotations when assessing Latin America- that is, on the rare occasion that the region even enters the national consciousness. Rarely are we asked to dust off antiquated visions of desperate poverty, widespread violence, and political turmoil long associated with the region. And while these plagues are far from eradicated, they are yet further from what they used to be. Trade agreements, improved education, and increased economic stability have made many of these countries viable economic partners around the world.
Colombia embodies the best of these transformations. As host of the World Urban Forum, Medellin was able to flaunt its greatest successes. From an intricate underground metro system to the gondolas that soar up the mountains and down into the valleys, the city has been applauded for strategically designing development within its unique topography. The infrastructure is impressive in its own right, but perhaps most notable is how it connects the city and where it reaches: the re-envisioning of Medellin has focused on connecting the poorest parts of the city to city centers, making access to parks and commerce and real freedom of movement a priority for the most impoverished neighborhoods. Mayor Sergio Fajardo famously declared “our most beautiful buildings must be built in our poorest areas.” Eighty percent of Latin America’s population live in urban centers and that number continues to grow. Addressing the impact of wealth disparity on city structures will be instrumental in continuing to grow Latin America’s middle class.
As we witness the transformation of Colombia and our other hemispheric neighbors, Americans would be well-served to consider this country’s relationship with the region. Though many nations are still striving to effectively protect freedom of speech, personal property, and basic rule of law, these values are integral to Latin American societies. We have a cultural and moral likeness to the region much harder to come by in other parts of the developing world, and this is a strong basis for political and economic engagement. We would be wise to view Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico as partners in economic growth and regional stability; we would be wise to invest in their businesses in order to expand our own; we would be wise to seek free trade and cultural exchanges and political engagement. Latin America is full of success stories, and we would be wise to be part of it.