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Ciénaga monument

Ciénaga, Colombia’s sleeping colonial beauty on its way forward

Squeezed in between Colombia’s Caribbean capital Barranquilla and the coastal resort of Santa Marta lies the city of Ciénaga, a forgotten and largely malgoverned colonial beauty. At last, a new (tweeting) mayor may turn matters around. 


A city with a population of roughly 100,000 and a mean annual temperature of 34°C, Ciénaga’s traditional economic base is banana production, managed by multinational companies. However, large-scale palm oil plantations are now displacing bananas, resulting in the loss of many jobs. Local farmers are also under constant pressure to sell their land to big business, sometimes by means of unscrupulous tactics. Fairtrade-certified farmer’s co-operatives are definitely a way to improve people’s quality of life and economic situation.

In several stories, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez depicts the banana industry’s impact on Ciénaga and the surrounding region. Internationally renowned music artist Carlos Vives, native of neighbouring Santa Marta, is constantly paying tribute to Ciénaga through dedications in songs and music videos.

Ciénaga colonial house
Definitely colonial
balcony Ciénaga
Balcony with a view

The Banana massacre

Banana production is also the centre of Ciénaga’s saddest (yet internationally little known) episode in more recent history. In 1928, a union strike calling for better working conditions was ended bloodily by Colombian army forces, leaving an unknown number of workers dead. US officials and United Fruit Company representatives in Colombia had portrayed the fruit pickers’ strike as “communist” and “subversive”, leading the US government to pressure Bogotá to protect United Fruit’s interests by any means necessary. Ever since, locals told me, that episode has lead to some sort of “uncanny passiveness” amongst its population as regards making their political will heard.

church Ciénaga
Jesus was here, too: San Juan Bautista church

A tweeting mayor

Ciénaga should be rich and thriving town due to its strategic location and corporate tax revenue from the coal industry, extracting the stuff from the nearby beaches. But it is still a relatively poor and neglected town. People say that there is plenty of money around, only it is never invested in anything sustainable and rather spent on symbolic political endeavours or disappears through shady channels all together.

Just to illustrate people’s distrust in local politicians: Urban legend has it that when, decades ago, the city’s marble-made main square monument (title picture) was up for renovation works, the city officials in charge managed to replace the marble with cheap grey granite over night in order to sell the expensive raw material on the black market.

But there is hope, at last. I may not agree with all of his policy stances, but the new mayor, thirty-something Edgardo “Nene” Pérez, has undoubtedly brought a novel communication style and policy focus to city hall. He uses Twitter (one thousand followers is a start) and Facebook as an effective means of communicating with its diverse electorate – something almost unheard of before in Cienaguera politics. (One shouldn’t underestimate the level of non-communication by officials people in these parts of the world are usually exposed to.)

Mayor Pérez also seems convinced of the city’s untapped economic and cultural potential, first and foremost as an “authentic” tourist destination, something which requires sufficient public security and an adequate infrastructure. Education and improving the town’s DIGITAL infrastructure, with fast internet connections being the norm, should be on his priority list as well.

town hall Ciénaga
Town hall, a colonial complex that also hosts the city archives

Ciénaga has a lot to offer. Shady politicians, no political accountability and a resigned electorate have prevented this colonial beauty from living up to its true potential. This era might have come to an end.

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