“Inside here, you will find an auditorium, books, films, a micro-credit loan office, and an office for entrepreneurialism,” Marina explains. “So what people find here are not just access to culture or a place to hang out — what they find are opportunities.”
Knowledge and culture seem to be behind many of Fajardo’s projects, as he has increased city spending on education, bringing it to 40 percent of the annual budget. “We have built the greatest schools in places where the poorest child in Medellín goes to a school as good as the private one where the rich kid goes,” he says. Fajardo expects that the effects of his spending will resonate beyond the classroom.
However, the former mayor is not without his detractors. Some in Medellín feel he has been wasting their money. At one of the arteries of the city, staring at a boulevard where trees grow from colorful pyramids, Miguel, a local small- business owner, asks, “Why did we let him spend so much money on his useless and pretty projects? We are a very Latin American city — why do we want to be like an American or European one? We might look a bit alike on the surface now, but we will never be one — be sure of that. What this city needs are stronger and more experienced politicians, not a fashionable one.”
Yet Fajardo seems to be learning fast. About five years ago, while campaigning, he crisscrossed the city on foot, talking to people. Until recently, he was crisscrossing the country as the main star of a radio show, trying to understand the realities of other Colombian communities — and gauging whether he feels ready to run in the next presidential race, probably against the incumbent, Alvaro Uribe.
“He would probably be the strongest candidate the center-left has,” according to Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program in Washington, D.C. Fajardo is “a very skilled politician, very charismatic, not corrupt, and seems to have a vision for how to govern. On the other hand, he does have a hyper-inflated opinion of himself — the same ‘arrogance’ argument the [Republicans] have used against Obama.”
Isacson adds that some of the credit for transforming his troubled city is shared with Uribe, who increased its security force. Indeed, Uribe is very popular and could be re-elected if the constitution is amended to allow him to seek another term, according to Hernando Rojas, a UW-Madison assistant professor of life sciences communication with a focus on Latin American politics. “I think [Fajardo] will continue to play a very important leadership role in Colombia for years to come, even if he doesn’t get elected,” Rojas says. “Fajardo is very young, and he probably has many years and many elections to come.”
The politician’s youth has also contributed to a rapport with young people that began at Wisconsin, where he was a math teaching assistant. Remarkably, this academic with no prior political affiliation has evolved into a political symbol, especially for young people, his most loyal fans. They have even created more than forty Fajardo groups on Facebook, the social networking Web site.
“I come from the academic world, so my relationship with youngsters is something natural,” he says. “Somehow I became a symbol of youth, without being one, as they felt confident simply because I was close to them.”
He points at his Levis and casual shirt, saying, “I dress up like this all the time, this is the real me, somebody that will never put distance.”
Reaching out to youth has been central to the transformation of the city. “For years and years, the youngsters of Medellín had violence as the only option in life,” Fajardo says. Determined to change that bleak scenario, his team of specialists employed a broad formula tailored for each young person that combined psychological attention with educational and vocational training. Since then, many youths have seen that positive things were happening in their communities and that, as one of Fajardo’s slogans says, “Being good pays good.”
“Violence was our pain, our tumor, and we needed to do something for our community so the youngsters were able to realize the magnitude of the problem. … Helping them find their own talents was a good idea, helping them to grow as musicians, mathematicians, waiters … because when you are young is when you build the way toward a prosperous life,” Fajardo says.
He believes that Medellín’s younger generation needs to develop its own talent — talent that will have nothing to do with crime and violence. “If you have people that have a wall in front of them,” he says, “you need to help them to build doors in that wall.”
And some did build those doors. At the business office of a sports shop close to Barrio Triste, Yuli, a twenty-year-old single mother of a paraplegic child, talks with me over a cup of sublime Colombian coffee.
“I come from a humble family,” she says. “My mother abandoned me when I was twelve, and I used to live with my sick uncle in what used to be a very dangerous neighborhood. I gave birth three years ago, and at the beginning [that] was very hard for me, to raise a kid and support myself. I wanted to study, but my family was pressuring me not to do it.
“I thought there was no way out, no future,” she tells me, adding with a growing smile, “but now, after attending one of the courses the mayor’s office started to offer, I’ve got an internship here [at the shop], and now they’ve offered me a full-time position. I am now attending another course and I feel I am growing. I see a future now, for my kid and me. I see a future for this city. And if Medellín and I now have a future, it is because of Sergio Fajardo.”
Andres Schipani is an Argentine-born Latin America correspondent for the BBC. Educated at Oxford, Cardiff, and London, he also writes regularly on Latin American issues for newspapers such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, and the Financial Times.