OK, so I hadn't really wanted to travel to Colombia. It wasn't the country's high ranking among the world's most dangerous places that had put me off so much as the prospect of hours of flying followed by jetlag and lost luggage – all of which turned out to be true, of course.
The fourth largest country in South America, Colombia has been ravaged by "a decades-long violent conflict, involving guerrilla insurgencies, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights" (to quote the BBC website).
So, not surprisingly, it's shunned today by all but the most adventurous (or masochistic) tourists.
But not by co-operators – the Air France Jumbo from Paris turns out to be full of them – who are making this General Assembly of the International Co-operative Alliance not only the first to be held in Latin America but also one of the biggest.
The Hilton Hotel in the Caribbean resort and seaport of Cartagena de Indias is filling up rapidly and there are many familiar faces from co-operatives around the world.
Outside the hotel, I explore the nearby streets looking for a telephone shop where I can ring home to report that I haven't been kidnapped yet
The people are kind and friendly but everyone on the streets seems to be selling something, from very cheap Cuban cigars to ‘chicas' (girls).
I learn from a local friend that Cartagena is fast becoming a centre for of the sex industry, partly because places like Thailand have become better policed.
The sex trade is a symptom of one of Cartagena's biggest problems. Colombia's poor and dispossessed, believing it to be a tourist mecca whose streets are paved with gold, have moved here from Bogotá and other cities seeking work.
The tragic side-effect of this influx of jobless people is that Cartagena can now boast one of the biggest networks of shanty towns in the world – second only to Rio's infamous slums.
This, in a country where almost half the population is unemployed or under-employed, and where the gap between rich and poor is even wider than in Tony Blair's Britain, is a recipe for civil disorder and worse, which presumably explains the military presence everywhere you go.
My first proper working day and I start with an interview with the ICA President, Ivano Barberini, for the daily General Assembly newspaper we're producing in English and Spanish. He praises the co-operative movement in Colombia, one of the biggest and most successful in Latin America, which has shown impressive growth in recent years, particularly in the healthcare and transport sectors.
Transport co-ops are something new to me. One delegate recalls that he came from the airport in a co-operative taxi – easy to spot because of the distinctive logo on the side of the cab – so I make a mental note to try one if I ever get a chance to escape from the Hilton for a few hours.
Later, after a good meal at a nearby restaurant, a group of us drink many toasts.
I suggest ‘Viva la revolución cooperativa' but am quickly dissuaded when it's suggested this might be misunderstood and could be the quickest route to a Cartagena jail.
Strolling back to the hotel, we inevitably take a wrong turning and get lost.
As we regain our sense of direction, one of our party says the streets feel far safer here than in her native Costa Rica.
Maybe that's because there is a young – alarmingly young – member of the army on just about every corner, finger on the trigger of his machine gun.
Another hectic day of meetings for the ICA sectorial bodies, which range from agriculture and fisheries to banking and worker co-ops.
I take a break for a few minutes to gaze from the ninth-floor balcony of my room at the spectacular view across the bay. It's easy to imagine the scene as it must have been almost 500 years ago, when galleons sailed across this stretch of water heading for the other Cartagena, in Spain, laden with treasure plundered by the Conquistadores.
Spain's rulers were kicked out of Colombia long ago but the inheritance of that far-flung empire lives on in the language they left behind, an almost perfect replica of Castilian Spanish, and in the astonishing handsomeness of the local people, whose racial mix and general abstinence from the excesses of smoking and drinking, combined with a diet rich in fruit, means that most of them have perfect skin and look far younger than their years.
I spend most of the night awake with jet lag and watch a terrifying thunderstorm at 4am, which is probably the edge of the Hurricane Rita weather system heading for the Florida Keys and Texas.
Next morning all the roads round the hotel are flooded and it feels, eerily, as though we are all marooned in the Hilton Hotel with no means of escape – which is true for a while, until the water subsides.
This is a day of interesting seminars for the delegates, and the liveliest turns out to be a briefing session on one of the ICA's most promising new projects, The Global 300, presented with passion and eloquence by Garry Cronan (above).
He explains that the ICA is drawing up a list of the leading co-op businesses to demonstrate the significant contribution they make to the world economy.
So far 28 countries figure in the top 300, including a number from the UK, and the aim will be to use these examples to give the movement a much-needed publicity boost.
Steady rain promises disaster for the lavish welcome reception and dinner planned for this evening outside the hotel and on the beach.
By mid-afternoon, however, the rains subside and the show goes on with a colourful musical performance followed by dancing under the stars.
The General Assembly properly opens with everyone a little bleary-eyed, though some meaty keynote speeches give the 1,400-plus delegates and observers plenty to chew on.
For many, the highlight is a feisty address from Sharon Watkins, the whistle-blowing former Enron vice-president, who gives co-op bosses a stark warning of what happens if they ignore core ethics and values.
To me, long-forgotten memories of scandals and skullduggery in the UK movement come flooding back until my thoughts are interrupted by a colleague wondering how on earth we can translate the phrase ‘whistle-blower' into Spanish.
The last day of the General Assembly and as there is no newspaper to produce, at last I get a chance to escape from the Hilton.
After finding a co-operative taxi (below) and a friendly driver, we visit one of the shanty towns around the bay. Here it grieves me to find so many young men and women idling their time away with neither proper homes nor prospects of work.
Such a waste – and such an opportunity for co-operative development work, if only this could happen.
On the way back we're stopped at a roadblock and see hundreds of military in full riot gear, all because the Colombian President is in town addressing the ICA conference.
Later we learn that the President caused quite a stir by suggesting, quite seriously, that the ICA should buy Colombia's last bank remaining in public ownership. Now that would be quite a coup for the ICA, once it comes up with the funds …
Waiting for transport to the airport, I catch up on some of the other drama I missed at the last day of the conference, notably the results of the ICA Board elections.
The good news is that the four women contenders – one from each of the ICA's regions – were all elected, giving the top echelons some much-needed gender balance.
Personally I'm sorry to be leaving such a warm-hearted and hospitable country.
The consensus is that the conference has been a great success, not only for the ICA but also for the Colombian hosts.
Though weary from yet another night of salsa and samba at the farewell reception, as the plane climbs steeply out of Bogotá I can't help muttering: "Viva la revolución cooperativa."
In this article
- Cartagena, Colombia
- Cartagena, Spain
- Human Interest
- ICA AB
- Ica Region
- International Co-operative Alliance
- Ivano Barberini
- Latin America
- Natural Disaster
- Political geography
- Social Issues
- The Hilton Hotel
- South America