JFK’s legacy in Bogotá lives on 55-years later

An unprecedented “festive” mood was sweeping through Bogotá. Throngs of people dressed in “their Sunday best” were crammed 10-to-20-deep along the streets. Some had clambered up statues and monuments while cheering and applauding. Others brandished Colombian and U.S. flags or waved white handkerchiefs.

It was Dec. 17, 1961, and nearly one-third of Bogotá’s 1.5 million inhabitants had turned out on a sunny Sunday afternoon for one reason: to catch a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The massive outpouring was the largest reception the U.S. leader ever had—surpassing the enormous crowds that welcomed him in Paris, London, West Berlin and on the U.S. campaign trail—according to then-White House press secretary Pierre Salinger.

Kennedy had come to Bogotá to promote his $100 billion Alliance for Progress initiative, a 10-year economic, political and social development program in Latin America. His first stop in Bogotá would be a cornerstone-laying ceremony for one of the initiative’s social housing projects in a district on the outskirts of the city called “Ciudad Techo,” a locality now known as “Ciudad Kennedy.”

The historic visit, which lasted only 14 hours, would change the lives of thousands of families and have a profound impact on the city that is still visible 55 years later.

The Alliance for Progress allowed, “more people in the region could send their kids to better schools, move into better homes and attain a middle-class lifestyle,” Jeffrey Taffet, an associate professor of history at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and author of “Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America,” told the U.S. State Department’s official news publication, IIS Digital.

As Air Force One rolled to a stop at El Dorado Airport, Kennedy’s arrival in Bogotá was set against some giant shifts around the world. The Cold War was in full swing, and so too the ideological and military struggle between the capitalist United States and communist Soviet Union. And every conflict around the world was largely seen by Washington as possibly tipping the balance of power in favor of the Soviets.

In Vietnam, the USS Core was docking at Saigon Bay, marking the official start of the Vietnam War for U.S. forces. In Germany, the Soviets were putting the finishing touches on the Berlin Wall, which would completely divide the German capital for 28 years.

In Cuba, 1,400 U.S.-backed paramilitaries with the aid of eight B-26 bombers launched a failed attack on the island that would come to be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Just 10 months later, the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba would push the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.

And in Colombia, President Alberto Lleras Camargo had severed diplomatic ties with Cuba eight days before Kennedy’s arrival, after Cuban premier Fidel Castro called the Colombian president a “miserable traitor” and accused Colombia and Panama of being “accomplices of imperialism.”

Although Kennedy ostensibly came to promote the Alliance for Progress, the “Cuba problem” was at the top of the agenda. The Kennedy Administration feared Cuba would export communism to the rest of Latin America and believed social projects like the Alliance for Progress could combat any rise in popularity of communism in the region.

“The Alliance for Progress was a signature effort by President Kennedy to strengthen the common bonds between the United States and Latin America by addressing universal aspirations to rise above the challenges of poverty and autocracy that faced the region in the 1960s,” said Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

At 10:50 a.m. on that Sunday morning, Kennedy arrived in Bogotá, just two hours after laying a wreath on the tomb of Simon Bolívar in Caracas.

A sea of people packed the roof of the airport terminal at El Dorado Airport, and national television stations broadcasted the U.S. leader’s every move to the rest of the country. It was the sec- ond time a U.S. president had visited Colombia after President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in Cartagena de Indias aboard the USS Houston in 1934.

President Lleras Camargo greeted Kennedy and the first lady as thousands looked on. Kennedy approached a podium and greeted the nation.

“The relations which have existed between the United States and Colombia stretch back to the earliest days of both our nations,” Kennedy said. “We believe in freedom—in the United States and in Colombia. We are opposed to tyranny of any kind. We are for the social justice for our people, because we recognize that we cannot have freedom unless all of our people have an equal opportunity to the advantages of a productive life—homes, education, work. These are the things to which the Alliance for Progress—the Alianza para el Progreso—is committed.”

After Kennedy’s brief speech, he, the first lady and Lleras Camargo departed for a field on the western outskirts of Bogotá that used to house the Techo Airport, Bogotá’s first airport, which operated from 1929 until the original El Dorado Airport was finished in 1959. The Techo Airport was located next to the present-day Monumento de las Banderas in Ciudad Kennedy. The field was to be the site of a massive social housing project that would house some 32,000 low-income families in around 12,000 homes.

The nearly 40-block journey was so packed with people who came to greet the president and first lady, the motorcade had to drive slower than normal. And tens of thousands more were waiting at the construction site.

“I remember that day really well because since that day President John Kennedy and Jacqueline arrived, there was a lot of happiness,” Cecilia de González, a resident of Ciudad Kennedy, told RTVC, adding that she is sure Kennedy winked at her. “I went as dressed up as I could…He was a very lovely man. Women were just delighted with him.”

At the site, Kennedy placed the first brick of the housing project. Spectators held up signs greeting the president reading, “Welcome, Mr. President John F. Kennedy. Your presence reaffirms the friendship between our people.”

During the ceremony, Kennedy said: “We have come to this open field today to join in making this a better dwelling place for men. And it is, I know, a source of pride to my people, as I’m sure it is to yours, to see this great effort to provide better housing for our people in this hemisphere.”

Then, Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, attended mass with Lleras Camargo at San Carlos Palace, just blocks south of the Plaza de Bolivar. After mass, the president and first lady parted ways. President Kennedy met with Lleras Camargo over lunch, while Jacqueline Kennedy visited some 200 children at the Lorencita Villegas de Santos Children’s Hospital, now the University Children’s Hospital of San José, located near the intersection of Calle 68 and Carrera 30.

The first lady reportedly gave the hospital a Motorola sound system with two “gigantic speakers.”

That night, the Kennedys hosted a dinner for 400 guests in the Salón Amarillo of San Carlos Palace. At the dinner, the U.S. leader confessed he didn’t speak Spanish, but he said he brought a translator: Jacqueline.

“I know that we share the desire of bringing to all the people of the hemisphere a better life for themselves and know that you agree that the good things in life—education, housing and employment—should be within reach of all and not just a few blessed by fortune,” Jacqueline Kennedy said in Spanish.

After the first lady spoke, the president told the 400 guests: “We in the United States have made many mistakes in our relations with Lain America. We have not always understood the magnitude of your problems, or accepted our share of responsibility for the welfare of the hemisphere. But we remain committed…to the workers, to the campesinos, to the women who toil each day for the welfare of their children—to all we bring a message of hope…when they all have more to eat, and a decent roof over their heads, and schools for their children.”

At midnight, the Kennedys arrived at El Dorado wearing ruanas boyacenses to stave off the “shivering cold” Bogotá night before continuing their Latin American tour.

Fourteen hours had transpired, but the residents of Ciudad Techo never forgot them. In the immediate years after Kennedy’s visit, the most popular baby names registered at baptisms in Ciudad Kennedy were John, Fitzgerald (Kennedy’s middle name), Jacqueline and Kennedy.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, residents of Ciudad Techo petitioned the Bogotá city council to rename the town “Ciudad Kennedy.” The name was ratified in 1967.

“For my dad, it was very hard when they killed President Kennedy because he was a man who changed our lives,” remarked John F. Plazas, a resident of Ciudad Kennedy and named after the U.S. president.

Since its inception, Ciudad Kennedy has been one of the fastest-growing places in the Bogotá metropolitan area (Ciudad Kennedy was not officially incorporated into a Bogotá as a locality until 1992).

In 1948, the Bavaria brewery was built along Avenida de las Américas, where it still operates today, adding much-needed jobs to the area.

In July 1972, a 420,000-square-foot market called Corabastos opened. Estimated to provide food to 12 million people daily, it is second in volume in Latin America only to Mexico City’s Central de Abastos.

What started as a modest housing project for around 80,000 people now boasts 438 neighborhoods, 1.5 million residents and covers 9,520 acres, according to Bogota’s mayoralty.

The locality is home to some tranquil, working class neighborhoods like Mandalay, Marsella and Castilla but also some of the city’s more crime-plagued neighborhoods like Patio Bonito.

But, 55 years later, many of the original homes financed by the Alliance for Progress are still standing.

The Alliance “is probably best judged in terms of how it affected individual people across the hemisphere,” believed Taffet. “To this day, he remains much admired, and there are schools and streets in Latin America that bear his name. Kennedy promoted the notion that the United States can be a benevolent partner in the region. We hope to build on that legacy.”