Diplomatic Pouch / September 4, 2009
By Larry Luxner
For 10 days beginning this Friday, Washington's Union Station will be overflowing with Colombian passion, when the country's official image campaign, "Discover Colombia Through Its Heart," opens with seven interactive, larger-than-life heart sculptures.
The event — free and open to the public — is aimed at getting the 70,000 or so people who pass through Union Station every day to think positively about a South American country that has long suffered from a reputation of drugs, violence and anarchy.
"Colombia is Passion was created four years ago because the country was changing, but the world wasn't noticing these changes," said the campaign's general manager, Maria Claudia Lacouture, in a telephone interview from Bogotá. "Nowadays, Colombians are more secure."
The 10-day extravaganza includes photo opportunities with the real Juan Valdez, free Colombian coffee daily, 25,000 free bouquets of Colombian flowers and two free salsa concerts featuring popular local Colombian musicians, including Verny Varela and his orchestra who will perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this Sunday.
Each of the seven 14-foot-high hearts on display at Union Station is artistically painted to spotlight a different facet of life in this nation of 45 million people — from its culture, music and talented artists to the country's landscape, cities, flora and fauna.
In addition, 40 eight-foot heart sculptures will appear along Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall and various streets around Washington.
"We know it's really hard to bring people to Colombia, so we did research and decided we should take a piece of Colombia to the world," Lacouture told Diplomatic Pouch."We want the world to see Colombia as a place of opportunity. There is a huge lack of information about my country in the United States."
On Sept. 14, the exhibit closes with a ceremony attended by Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco and other dignitaries. It then moves to New York's Grand Central Station from Sept. 22 to 28, with the 40 smaller hearts being displayed in all five boroughs. Between the two cities, up to a million people are likely to see this massive expression of Colombian passion.
The $800,000 project is funded by both the Colombian government and the country's private sector. Public relations are being handled by Endeavour Global Strategies founder Gretchen Hamel, whose past experience includes public relations work on behalf of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Among other things, the individual "hearts" in the campaign will promote the country's geography (it's the only South American country with both a Pacific and Caribbean coast); its biodiversity (1,800 species of birds, 3,000 species of butterflies and 753 species of amphibians) and its talent (famous Colombians include pop singer Shakira, NASCAR race-car driver Juan Pablo Montoya and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez).
One of the hearts features eight genres of Colombian music — salsa, cumbia, llanera, tropical, rock, vallenato, pacifico and popular — while another showcases the country's major cities: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena.
"Most people know that Shakira exists, but they don't know she's Colombian," said Lacouture. "When you go to Colombia, you vibrate with it. There's so much to see, and the people make you feel at home. They all have a story to tell you."
Bfore taking over the Colombia is Passion campaign, Lacouture's job was to lure the cruise lines back to Cartagena. That she did, and now tourists will embark on Royal Caribbean cruise ships in Cartagena for their Caribbean cruises — something unthinkable during the drug cartel wars of the early 1990s.
"That is a huge change, because it tells the world that a major company is confident about our country," she said.
For more information, visit www.colombiaespasion.com.