Dear Friends of Colombia:
Welcome to our “Reconnecting with Colombia” Conference commemorative issue. One hundred and eighty-four former Colombia Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Cartagena February 4, 2008. They came from across the United States as well as from France, Mexico, Canada, Dubai, and Outer Mongolia. They brought with them a spirit of excitement, anticipation, adventure, and renewal. Reconnecting with Colombia and the Colombian people was their agenda.
From the many comments, notes of thanks, and e-mail received, the conference far exceeded expectations. To begin with, the setting in the Santa Teresa Hotel, in the center of the walled city, was splendid. The hotel staff was prepared to meet whatever need arose. Our planning committee—Ned Chalker, Mauricio Suarez, Mercedes Uribe, and I, was supplemented by American Embassy personnel on-site. We were amazed that everything went smoothly, without a hitch.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a cocktail reception, sponsored by Chevron, in the hotel plaza, a marvelous venue set off by colonial architecture, horse-drawn carriages, and a conjunto playing in the background.
The conferees opened the next day with resounding applause and smiles from ear to ear. What a way to begin! I deeply felt the gratitude from everyone for the l6 months of planning that had led to this moment. It was an emotional experience that will remain a highlight in my life. Ambassador Barco kindly greeted us with words of welcome. It was her idea to make it possible for RPCVs to return to Colombia, enjoy the country, experience its changes, and have a great time. Darrel Young followed with a lively illustrated presentation on the 20-year history of Peace Corps-Colombia.
The Colombian Embassy in Washington made our conference a priority. They raised the money for the cocktail reception, a luncheon, and a party on the tall ship La Gloria. In addition, they arranged for all of the speakers:
Sandra Alzate, Director of International Cooperation;
Juliana López, Director Fundación Granitos;
Carolina Rentería, Director Planeación Nacional;
Juan Gossair, journalist;
Luís Guillermo Plata, Colombian Minister of Tourism and Foreign Trade;
Pedro Medina, Director, Yo Creo en Colombia.
At President Uribe’s request, Cristina Gustillo, the young woman who organized the February 4th peaceful demonstration in Cartagena against the FARC, presented the Cruz de Plata de la Orden National al Mérito to Friends of Colombia. The President then addressed the conference and answered questions, remaining with us for well over an hour.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, spoke as well. He was positive about the support the U.S. Embassy can give RPCV projects in Colombia, and acknowledged that Peace Corps had a definite impact on social change in Colombia during the years 1961-1981. Helene Dudley, Haroldo Suárez, Maureen Orth, Mary Ray, and Merrily Beyreuther made presentations about projects they have initiated in Colombia which FOC helps support. Congressman Sam Farr and Ambassador Larry Palmer, President of the Inter-American Foundation, spoke about U.S. involvement in Colombia and continuing private and governmental support structures.
Participants had the opportunity to visit three Colombian social projects in Cartagena: Fundación Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar, a neonatal clinic; Actuar Por Bolívar, a micro-credit project; and Granitos de Paz, a multi-service project in a barrio setting. The afternoon of the last day, we visited micro-enterprise projects initiated by The Colombia Project.
We received considerable news coverage for the event with articles in El Tiempo, and interviews on radio and television. As RPCVs moved around the country visiting their sites, the press was often present. (Visit our website at www.friendsofcolombia.org for some of this coverage, photos, and responses to the conference.) Encouraged by the success of the conference, we want to raise our FOC numbers. At this time we have 400 dues-paying members out of l,500 names on our mailing list. How can we increase active membership?
If you have an idea, please send it to email@example.com. Membership dues and donations allow us to continue to support our projects in Colombia. If we are to branch out into new areas, we will need more funding.
Special thanks to Ambassador Barco, Ned, Mauricio, and Mercedes for the part they played in making “Reconnecting With Colombia” an exceptional experience for us all.
Arleen S. Cheston
President, Friends of Colombia