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Kicking off an Aspen Institute effort in Colombia

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA - An intellectual group of celebrants descended on Cartagena last month: the high-profile participants of Colombia and South America's first-ever Aspen Institute Socrates Seminar. Over 40 leaders from business, the arts, the sciences, and from government came from across Colombia, Latin America, the US and even Japan to take part in a Socrates Seminar. By the end of the weekend, many participants were discussing the possibility of starting something even bigger: the creation of an Aspen Initiative for Colombia, which would convene South American leaders regularly to tackle big ideas and build a stronger civil society.

One of the Aspen Institute’s signature programs, Socrates Seminars are discussions led by experts, based on provocative readings, and designed to encourage free, fierce, and anonymous discussion about pressing topics. The format allows for bold opinions to be asserted while still forging trust and deep connections.

"As I listened to my peers think about these big questions for the future," said Juan Carlos Pinzon, former ambassador to the United States, "I thought ‘we need this here in Colombia.’"

"It’s been a weekend of big ideas and wonderful company,” said Brynne McNulty Rojas, Trustee of the McNulty Foundation “it was so refreshing to hear these topics be discussed from the perspective of Latin American voices."

Spaces like this, where we can be unafraid to challenge, and to be challenged, are incredibly important.

Luis Javier Castro

Although the discussions are private to encourage free discussion, the topics, hosts, and guest lists are not. MIT Professor William Powers led participants in a seminar entitled “Order Amid Chaos: Major Trends Shaping the Future of Technology, Business and Society” where participants considered how Artificial Intelligence will reshape our lives, and economist and former Obama administration official Sonal Shah challenged business leaders to examine the appropriate balance between the public and private sectors in solving the market's inequalities in a seminar entitled “Can the Market Fix the Market?”

“Spaces like this, where we can be unafraid to challenge, and to be challenged, are incredibly important," said Luis Javier Castro, President of Mesoamerica, and a co-founder and Fellow of Aspen's Central America Leadership Initiative.

“The insights and collaborations shared at the Socrates Cartagena Seminars are indicative of the critical conversations and innovations taking place in the region. As the Aspen Institute and our international partners convene thought leaders in dialogue and the exchange of ideas to address the world’s most pressing problems, it is imperative that we pursue and engage global representation. We are excited about the prospect of a partner Institute forming in the Andean region,” said Elliot Gerson, the Executive Vice President of the Institute’s Policy and Public Programs and International Partnerships.

The Socrates Cartagena Seminars were sponsored by the John P. & Anne Welsh McNulty Foundation, Luis Javier Castro, Julio Rojas, Sonia Sarmiento, and Francisco Staton and Jennifer Burris. The next convening of those interested in bringing the Aspen Institute to Colombia will take place on May 13th as part of the Concordia Americas Summit in Bogota.

Seminar moderators Sonal Shah and Bill Powers in conversation with Cordell Carter (middle)

Seminar participants engage in text-based dialogue

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. It offers a plural and balanced forum to debate issues of general interest among participants who aim to turn their ideas into action. Their activities are developed through programs, seminars and conferences on leadership, values and public policies.The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, CO; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit

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