Barranquilla’s 1st female mayor and the transformation of a city

The first elected female mayor of the northern Colombian port city of Barranquilla has revolutionized the Caribbean city with health and education policies, coupled with campaigns against unemployment and poverty.

The mayor of Barranquilla, Elsa Noguera was chosen “Personality of the Year 2014” by Semana magazine. According to the weekly, in the three years in office, she “changed the way politics are made in municipalities.”

Under Noguera’s leadership, Barranquilla became one of the fastest developing cities in Colombia. Today it’s a point of reference on the country map, especially in terms of health and education policies.

The city’s unemployment rate has dropped to the lowest level of Colombia’s largest cities, according to the national statistics agency.

According to a poll held by the city’s government, 48% of the city’s population said that between 2013 and 2014 their lives have improved against 13% that said life got worse, 61% of its inhabitants are optimistic about Barranquilla’s future, and an impressive 80% said to be satisfied about Barranquilla as a city.

The mayor can count on 62% support among the “Barranquilleros” making her one of the most popular mayors in Colombia.

“Barranquilla is a place under permanent construction. In every corner of the city there is something either recently constructed or in the process of being built. It is exactly what we were after in our Development Plan called ‘Barranquilla blossoms for all of us’. Good things are happening here,” Noguera told the Ola Politica website.

Rise to power

Noguera started her political career as the treasurer of the Governor’s Office of the Atlantico state. Between 2007 and 2010, she spent three years as the secretary of finance in the administration of the previous mayor of Barranquilla, Alejandro Char. Together with her political affiliate Char, she laid the groundworks for the positive transformation of the city.

In 2010, the leader of the Radical Change party and the current vice-president German Vargas chose Noguera as his running mate for the presidential elections he lost to President Juan Manuel Santos. Although Vargas collected only 10% of the votes, the prestigious nomination pushed her to pursue higher political goals.

Noguera’s political connections proved vital in the 2011 elections in which she was supported by the most powerful families in the city; The Char family of her predecessor, the Gerlein family of Senator Roberto Gerlein (Conservative Party), and the Name family of Congress president Jose David Name (U Party).

She won the elections and became the city’s first female mayor chosen through popular vote, doubling the tally picked up by her immediate opponent. Her program assumed the bridging of the social gap in the city and stimulating its economic competitiveness. The main slogan read “order, social equity and competitiveness for Barranquilla.”

Mayor Noguera

When in the driving seat, Noguera delivered. She managed to maintain one of the lowest unemployment rates in Colombia (8,1%) and significantly reduced absolute poverty among Barranquilla citizens from 10% to 2,5%. This feat can be attributed to the number of high-impact infrastructural projects, the construction of hospitals, which improved the quality of health provision, and the revamping of educational institutions in order to improve access to education.

Additionally, Noguera gained popularity by pushing for the revitalization of Barranquilla’s historic city center. “It’s a very important accomplishment. Not only because we are recovering a place of high historical significance, but also because we are recovering public space and generating more space for progress,” announced the mayor at the official presentation of the restored “Intendencia Fluvial” building.

In the city where politics is a though game, Noguera needed only 30 months at the helm to consolidate her position. She withstood heavy criticism the public infrastructure projects received at the stage of agenda setting. In the end, she managed to persuade the city administration and the projects are now in full swing.

Mayors from other towns visit Barranquilla and ask for the formula. Noguera knows how to listen, how to surround herself with the right people. If she has to reconsider her decisions, she does it without blinking an eye. Thanks to her economic background and her experience as the city’s secretary of finance, she manages the finances well and is able obtain resources to carry out her program. Her mother told “Semana” that as a child, Elsa had a solution to everything. In Barranquilla it shows.

Barranquilla on the right track

In the latest “Como Vamos” (How Are We Doing) survey, the Barranquilleros demonstrated their content with how things are going in the city. 61% of the respondents believe Barranquilla is progressing.

According to another study prepared by the “El Tiempo” newspaper, the coastal city is the fourth best in the country in terms of quality of life, behind Medellin, Manizales and Pereira. The newspaper reports as much as 77% of the inhabitants of Barranquilla declaring their pride of the city, only four points less than the leader Medellin. Additionally, the survey reveals betterment in economic conditions signaled by the Barranquilleros over the past year.

Increased investments in education are already yielding positive effects. The secretary of education of the district, Jose C. Herrera claims that the city has come a long way. “Barranquilla was of the cities with the worst problems in education. We have consistently improved our performances in the last six years, which points out to the sustainability of our project,” he said.

Moreover, Herrera insists that Barranquilla is keeping up with the guidelines from the Ministry of Education. “On average, each teacher receives four trainings a year. In 2014 we invested $10 million in food for children from the first through the fifth grade. In addition, $25 million is invested in school infrastructure. We have elaborated a strategy that has enabled us to improve the quality of education and this will continue in the future,” stressed Herrera.

Health care and infrastructure

After a dark period marked by inefficiency, poor management of financial resources, bureaucracy, corruption and obsolete infrastructure, the Noguera’s administration opted for a new health care model. The current system is based on two strategies: unification of public health services and adoption of the primary care model, in which the focus is not only on the individual, but also on families and their environment.

The experts agree: it’s a successful model. The results show that the health care model is working well in Barranquilla, e.g. the city has managed to guarantee universal coverage for all its citizens. “Barranquilla has the best health care model in Colombia. It’s a paradigm of the public-public collaboration and the effectiveness of the primary health-care system,” declared the Minister of Health, Alejandro Gaviria, in 2013.

The city also continues to advance schemes of urban integration through massive public works projects. One example is the recently announced plan to improve infrastructure in less affluent neighborhoods of the Suroriente district of Barranquilla. The design includes construction of new roads, new rainwater channeling system, renovation of public spaces and illumination of parks, streets and squares.

According to Pedro Cepeda, mayor of the Suroriente suburb, children, youth, seniors and families of Barranquilla “will enjoy new sidewalks, street furniture, bike paths and tree planting among other things, as part of the grand program to construct worthy public spaces and improve the quality of life of the citizens.”

Noguera will stay in the office until the end of next year.


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