In July Denver Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper will host the The Biennial of the Americas (BOA), a month-long international politics and culture fair that will draw leaders from 35 nations to Denver to discuss domestic and foreign affairs, share ideas on how to deepen ties among the countries of the western hemisphere and bring about mutually beneficial policy changes. In the works even before Hickenlooper landed a $2 million grant from the Boettcher Foundation in 2008 to help launch the festival, the Biennial will be a large stage this summer from which Hickenlooper can demonstrate statesmanlike charisma and leadership abilities.
Already the festival has started dialogue. Colombian Ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco came to Denver recently in advance of the event and told the Colorado Independent that the event represented the opportunity to contrast the image of her country in the popular imagination with the reality as she sees it. She is looking forward to the Biennial to discuss the new and improved criminal justice in Colombia and the need to put into law the languishing free trade agreement signed between the U.S. and Colombia in 2002.
“We are pleased to accept the invitation of Mayor Hickenlooper to participate in the Biennial of the America’s in our own bicentennial year,” said Barco. “The nations of the Americas have demonstrated how well they can work together in a crisis, in assisting Haiti this year. It’s time for us to enter a new conversation and learn from each other’s experience on so many issues while sharing our cultures.” Barco said she was interested to engage with other nations in “very serious conversations about health, education, climate change and women’s leadership” at the Denver event.
Barco said that the image of Colombia around the world is based on a place that existed 20 years ago. Today’s reality is different. It’s not a land of cocaine warlords. “Drug trafficking has been greatly controlled. Violence in Colombia has been halved. Our economy up until last year’s international recession… was growing at 7 percent. Our social indicators have improved. We had decreased our poverty by more than eight points. Colombia is in another moment.”
That’s why she sees the Denver festival as a great opportunity.
“I think it’s an opportunity to talk about what we have done in Colombia, what we have done together with the United States and the importance of partnership. ”
Barco said was encouraged to hear Pres. Obama in the State of the Union Address talk about the need to strengthen exports with Colombia. She said that the trade agreement is about more than opening markets between two countries but also about strengthening the ties of a region. “We now have Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Central America, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. all coming together to create this open market– and that brings us together politically.”
A hold up for now in ratifying the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement concerns murders of union leaders in Colombia and the weak legal system there that had failed to bring the murderers to justice.
The U.S. AFL-CIO walso opposes the agreement. “Workers across both countries oppose passage of the FTA until workers can fully exercise international core labor rights without fear, the country makes deep and sustained progress on ending impunity for killers, and the agreement is amended to address persistent criticisms of the trade model.”
Barco said the Colombia has taken steps to address union and congressional concerns.
“Colombia had incredibly high violence but a domestic security “Plan Colombia” pushed down crime by 40 percent, more than halving the homicide rate. Labor killings have plummeted. Eight years ago, 220 trade members were killed, a number she said was down to 22 last year. “Twenty-two is still too many but that is a decrease of 70 percent.” Some labor unions in the country mark the number of labor union member deaths as high as 40.
“I think it is clear we are making progress and when you speak to the labor unions in Colombia they will say the same.”
Colombia changed its constitution to toughen the judicial system, a change Barco said that this has helped speed the process and reduce backlogged cases. She added that a special unit in the Attorney General’s office is also now dedicated to human rights cases, which include unions among other abuses.
“The positive trend is very significant and this is what we are asking the U.S. labor unions and the congress members to consider,” Barco said.
These are the kind of substantive discussions we will all be having in Denver, Barco said. “I think that this event is a way to show how our different cultures work together to enrich our societies, not only with music, but family values, and serious ideas.”