CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - More than 2,000 of the world’s top business and political leaders gathered last week in the Swiss ski resort of Davos looking for solutions to the world’s problems.
But were they in the right place?
Half a world away, in the balmy Caribbean colonial city of Cartagena, a very different type of “global conversation” was taking place among some of the planet’s leading thinkers, writers, poets, scientists and philosophers, inspired by the Renaissance notion that the exchange of ideas between intellectuals of different disciplines fosters original thought.
An offshoot of the Hay Festival of arts and literature founded around a kitchen table in 1987 and held each year near the Welsh border with England, the Hay Cartagena festival is now in its seventh year and has its own distinct identity, attracting a growing and eclectic crowd of intellectuals mainly from the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic worlds.
The global Hay Festival agenda - once described by former U.S. president Bill Clinton as “the Woodstock of the mind” now stretches well beyond literature and the arts to encompass freedom of expression, climate change, conflict resolution and human rights and has spawned a worldwide network of events from Bangladesh to Mexico.
At first sight, the idea of comparing two such diverse forums - one a gathering of the rich and powerful, the other a mecca for bohemians - might seem bizarre. Yet Davos and Hay Cartagena were discussing some of the same big global themes and targeting some of the same audience of global thinkers with their ideas.
The topic of Europe’s economic woes was prominent at both events and encapsulates their contrasting styles. Davos leaders (slogan: “Committed to Improving the State of the World”) focused on how big the risks were to the future of the euro and how to solve Europe’s debt troubles; Hay Cartagena speakers looked at the crisis in a broader context.
Mexico’s leading writer Carlos Fuentes picked up in Cartagena on the symbolic significance of the first major news item from Europe this year being the shipwreck of a modern cruise liner just off the Italian coast in calm seas.
“It’s a symbol of Italy sinking and of how the engines of old Europe are failing,” he observed during a panel discussion.
U.S. novelist Jonathan Franzen analyzed Europe’s woes from a different angle, noting at a news conference in Cartagena that: “If you go to Europe now, politics doesn’t matter. The people making the decisions that matter are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy and the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.”
The comments were typical of the free-wheeling dialogue at Hay, where participants don’t have to worry about the burdens of office or the shackles of protocol - only to respect the diversity of opinions represented and to observe a one-hour limit on the length of sessions.
Peter Florence, the Hay Festival’s easy-going global director, described the event’s ethos to Reuters thus: “Festivals should be that place where you can explore ideas in total freedom without political responsibility. The political class only ever listens to the political class. Here you bring writers, thinkers, politicians and scientists together and you give them complete freedom. That’s why it’s not like Davos.”
“Davos would hate us. We are dreamers and they want solutions to everything.”
Adrian Monck, director of communications at the Davos World Economic Forum, said in an e-mailed answer to questions there had not been contact between the two organizations about any possible links. He pointed to the WEF’s Open Forum, accessible to all and running in parallel to the main meeting, as evidence of Davos’s desire to be inclusive, as well as the fact that this year’s meeting was opened by South African activist and retired bishop Desmond Tutu and closed by Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
“Lastly 40 percent of participants (who come free) are from politics, academia, civil society, media, trades unions etc. Do they epitomize the 1 percent? Doubtless they can give their own reply.”
Yet in Davos, multiple layers of security and a strict hierarchy of different colored badges control access for participants. Protesters in the past have been taken off trains by police long before they got near the ski resort, and regulars say the most important meetings are held in secret at heavily guarded hotels between chief executives and bankers, where deals are hatched or sealed. Davos nightlife revolves around a whirlwind of parties.
Hay Cartagena goes in the opposite direction: set in a spectacular stone-walled port city built by the Spanish Empire to guard its hoards of gold and silver before the treasure was shipped home over the Atlantic, the main venues include a 17th century converted convent, a charming early 20th century theatre close to the sea and the open courtyard of a Spanish colonial cloister filled with palms and tropical flowers. Temperatures stay well above 20 degrees Centigrade and often move into the 30s; the blue skies rarely cloud over.
Many of the interesting Hay conversations take place spontaneously between participants and the audience in midnight jazz cafes, at exuberant parties held in tastefully renovated Spanish colonial mansions and over a cup of coffee around a courtyard at the main hotel hosting the event, enlivened by the presence of a playful toucan.
“Hay is a Renaissance-style festival focused on solving humanity’s problems through literature, science and philosophy while Davos is a more technocratic affair,” said Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, Colombia’s ambassador to Britain and a past attendee at both Davos and Hay Cartagena. “Hay is a richer experience and perhaps a more lasting one.”
If there were themes at Hay Cartagena this year, they revolved around a sense of how the old order is irreversibly changing, how Europe and the United States are in decline as world powers and how technology enables but also complicates our lives.
U.S. social critic Morris Berman, whose polemic “Dark Ages America” was attacked by the New York Times as “the sort of book that gives the Left a bad name” was given space at a Hay panel discussion to speak of how his country resembled the Roman Empire: “Our job now is to disintegrate.”
Decrying what he said was the myth believed by poor black Americans that they could advance socially through hard work (statistics showed, he said, that the reality was more likely to be jail, repossession of their homes or grinding poverty), Berman dramatically predicted that the story of the 21st century would be the break-up of global capitalism.
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of London, contrasted what he called the coming of age of Latin America with what he termed the death of Europe: “Europe is now colonizing itself. The Greeks, who were the cradle of Western civilization, are now denounced by the Northern Europeans as people who are dark-skinned, live in debt and are lazy - in other words, the same way they used to describe us in the colonies.”
For leading U.S. novelist Jonathan Franzen, dangers lurked elsewhere, above all in information overload.
He told a Cartagena news conference that “the combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world which really feels out of control.” He explained how he physically disables his Internet connection before starting to write to cut out unnecessary interference, and views the task of the novelist in a world saturated with information as one of sifting, reflecting and making sense of things.
While in Davos bankers and politicians discussed whether Portugal or Spain represented the next big threat to the eurozone, Javier Moreno, editor of the Hispanic world’s most influential daily El Pais, explained at the Hay Cartagena the crisis gripping his country by talking about a single letter to the newspaper from a reader which had captivated the nation.
The letter writer, a researcher, pointed out how Spaniards were constantly being told they had triggered the crisis by living beyond their means. But the researcher had met all his obligations, not spent or borrowed excessively, always worked hard - and was now about to lose his job. “They say we lived beyond our means,” he said. “Beyond whose means?”
Latin America has been one of the world’s relative economic success stories over the past decade, but the Hay panels were unwilling to take the continent’s sudden prosperity at face value.
“The system of economic development has not changed since the 19th century,” said Nicaraguan writer and former vice-president Sergio Ramirez, noting the continent’s reliance on raw materials and agricultural exports. “In the 21st century, Latin America needs to get out of the 19th century. Every 10 years, the continent enters a ‘decade of triumph and progress’.”
In case any Hay participants risked saturation on a diet of literature and politics, there was plenty to distract them.
The turmoil sweeping the Middle East was touched on in Cartagena, but through the prism of two writers from the region, Lebanon’s Joumana Haddad and Egypt’s Khaled Al-Berry, who spoke of love and religion as well as politics. Another panel delved into Latin American cookery, where Argentine master patissier Osvaldo Gross described how a molten chocolate fountain was poured on his head as a sensory experiment.
In the final reckoning all the statistics, of course, favor Davos, a multi-million-euro business entity in its own right with huge financial backing from a roll-call of the world’s top corporations, including Thomson Reuters, the owners of the Reuters news organization.
As well as the more than 2,000 global leaders taking part in this year’s World Economic Forum, a small army of journalists ensured blanket coverage of the proceedings in the world’s media.
Hay Cartagena, by contrast, made do with a modest 100 panelists and 250 accredited journalists, most of whom were from local publications.
Among those choosing Cartagena over Davos this year was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. He was in the Swiss Alps last year but this time joined a panel at the Hay Festival where he made news by proposing a joint global effort to legalize drugs and kill off the profits made by organized crime from the trade in narcotics.
“Of course the real power is in Davos,” said El Pais editor Moreno, who has attended both events in the past. “But in Hay, as in a good newspaper, you have the sense of a nation in dialogue with itself. Davos is all about capitalism in dialogue with itself.” Over the long term, he said, the ideas expressed at Hay may prove more influential.
Editing by Janet McBride