Culture as a city development tool: Barranquilla, Colombia, American Capital of Culture 2013

Cumbiamba La Pollera Colora. 7 de diciembre 2005. Carnaval de Barranquilla

by Claudia Rojas

Last week while surfing the web, I found out that Barranquilla, Colombia, was selected “American’s Capital of Culture 2013”. For those who keep track of the cultural move in the Caribbean, I guess the award was not a surprise. On the contrary, it was an acknowledgment to the city, which has been a cultural symbol for many years now.

When the International Bureau of Cultural Capitals announced the recognition, its President, Xavier Tudela, argued that the city was chosen due to its “clear commitment to make culture a strategic element of social cohesion, civic revitalization, economic development and international promotion” (1). Even if the city as a whole is a cultural hub in the Caribbean, its main event is the Carnival of Barranquilla. The Carnival, having a history of more than three centuries, has been declared a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

A question opens up: How does the third most unequal country in the world according to United Nations (after Haiti and Angola), achieves social cohesion through a carnival? Let’s go back in history to look for an answer. In fact, it is essential to understand the cultural meaning of the carnival.

When the Spanish conquistadores came to America in the 15th century, they were not empty-handed; they brought their language, culture and customs, among others. The Spanish cultural traditions were constantly colliding with those of the Indians and African slaves. The Carnival of Barranquilla is the living proof of the mixture of these three cultures, and at the same time it shows the existence of the Colombian identity, different from the Indian, European and African. A new identity was born from the mixture of these three cultures.

By Otto Nassar via Wikimedia Commons

This is why the Carnival has these tripartite cultural manifestations. The African drums sound along the Indian flutes, and the music is influenced by Spanish rhythms, like the couplets. Nevertheless, the social cohesion created by the Carnival and the opportunity for the African music having that much influence was possible once the country achieved its political independence from Spain. In addition, since Barranquilla is an important seaport, people from other provenance, like Arabs and Italians, came also to the city after the independence, especially in the 19th century.

Because of all this, the Carnival has given a particular identity to the city. It is almost sure, that a barranquillero will identify himself / herself with this cultural manifestation. However, now the question is how the city will use the title of the American Capital of Culture 2013 when seeking social cohesion, civic revitalization, economic development and international promotion.

By Jdvillalobos via Wikimedia Commons

Some activities were already announced. The city will carry out opening and closing events, as well as the creation of a logo specially designed to show Barranquilla as the American Capital of Culture. In addition, a series of urban projects (i.e. renovation constructions) are planned to improve the cultural and tourist sector of the city.

It looks like the city branding is an important and relevant tool that the barranquilleros will be using this coming year, especially regarding tourism since it has been an important income factor for the city. On the one hand, even if there are many Colombians who know the Carnival of Barranquilla, there is still place to promote additional cultural elements of the city. And on the other hand, towards the international sphere, there is a wide field of action to promote the cultural image of the city. The increase of awareness for the cultural environment of Barranquilla could be a promoter for the tourists – particularly international-, who nowadays prefer Cartagena as a travel destination (a city 130 km away and especially admired for its colonial architecture).

By Jdvillalobos via Wikimedia Commons

This international promotion will be supported by the distinction awarded, since the city will have a unique attention from the two official television channels of the American Capital of Culture: Antena 3 International and Discovery Networks Latin America / US Hispanic. This means that Barranquilla will have free advertisement.

However, a mayor effort should be made in order to foster social cohesion and civil revitalisation. Some attempts have been already done, but there is still am enormous field of action where public policy can influence in order to achieve city development.  For example, during last year’s Carnival a campaign was launched in which the participants of the Carnival were invited to party with pride, respect and joy (2). There was also a clear message inviting people to obey the authorities and, in general, to live the Carnival in a peaceful environment. Even if these attempts need to be appreciated, I still think the authorities and the barranquilleros should work harder to achieve the desired social cohesion and civil revitalisation.

By Jdvillalobos via Wikimedia Commons

In short, the city of Barranquilla has a great opportunity that should not be taken for granted. Let’s take advantage of it and build not only an excellent city branding campaign (around culture) to contribute to the economic development, but also let’s have clear and defined objectives in order to achieve social cohesion and civil revitalisation.




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