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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)


Some of our hemisphere’s emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

In this issue:

Civic Innovator: David Assael, Chile

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To some, Santiago is a city of smog, congestion and contaminated waterways. But David Assael wants the world to know that Chile’s capital city is also home to world-class green spaces, vibrant cultural centers and eco-friendly design. If you don’t believe it, check out Plataforma Urbana (, a website that has become a world-renowned window into Santiago’s innovative community of architects and urban planners.

Assel, a 30-year-old Santiago-based architect, launched the site with David Basulto, 30, in 2005. “Seventy percent of Santiaguinos want to leave, and it’s due to a lack of information about what we have here,” says Assael. The founders were not only interested in distributing information; they wanted to improve their city as well.

In addition to serving as an information resource for locals, Plataforma Urbana publishes regular posts on issues like transportation systems and innovative architecture. And they found that Santiaguinos cared about urban development. Today, the site boasts a staff of 12 and has posted more than 4,000 articles in its five years.

Success has prodded the site’s creators into further expansion. Under the umbrella title of Plataforma Networks, two additional sites have been added: Plataforma Arquitectura ( (launched in 2006) and the English-language ArchDaily ( (2008). “Once we saw that the posts and comments on Plataforma Urbana were becoming too [technical], we created a separate space for this dialogue,” explains Assael. A year after its launch, Plataforma Arquitectura became the most visited Spanish-language architecture website. ArchDaily, run by a six-person editorial team in the U.S. and Chile, has become the most visited architecture website worldwide.

More recently, Assael and his team have focused their energies on Chile’s reconstruction efforts following the 8.8-scale earthquake that struck in February 2010. The Plataforma Urbana team organized an army of 2,000 architects to volunteer their services in local reconstruction efforts. Since the quake, Assael and his writers have been providing a steady stream of information on topics such as building effective emergency housing, debris cleanup and creating green spaces in affected areas.

The site has received praise for its civic contributions. In 2009, Fundación Futuro, a Santiago-based pro-democ racy organization founded in 2003 by President Sebastián Piñera, awarded Assael its Premio Ciudad for making Santiago “...more green, entertaining, cultured, and safe.” Fundación País Digital, a foundation dedicated to promoting a digital culture in Chile, also named him one of their innovators under 35 years old. Assael participated in the Innovadores Sub35 conferences, touring seven universities in Chile in an effort to engage with university students interested in e-innovation.

For Santiago residents, the site has opened a door to a city few knew about. Only 1 percent of the city’s 5 million residents, for instance, visit Santiago’s Parque Metropolitano, which at 1,784 acres is one of the largest urban parks in the world, notes Assael. Similarly, few Santiaguinos are aware of urban treasures such as La Plaza de la Ciudadanía, a public square adjacent to the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda, that features theatre performances, art exhibitions and film.

But perhaps equally significant, Plataforma Urbana has made the often impenetrable lingo of city planners accessible to the public. “Our advantage is that we have neither the space restrictions of a print publication nor the bureaucracy of the more established names in these fields,” says Assael. The site focuses on young, emerging architects and uses journalistic prose and interactivity to engage its readers, who are also invited to submit guest posts and comments.

Assael believes more citizen information and engagement can transform his city. “In 25 years, [Santiago] will be a city with less inequality, without the pockets of poverty that exist today and with greater access to services and more empowered citizens,” he says. The site’s popularity demonstrates that residents care. The next step is transforming the understanding of the connections between urban planning and city life into political and social engagement.

Political Innovator: Faride Raful, Dominican Republic

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Voters in the Dominican Republic may know Faride Raful best as the face of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano’s (PRD) daily official television program, “PRD TV,” which she has produced and hosted since 2003. But the 30-year-old lawyer from Santo Domingo is pursuing another and potentially more far-reaching goal: encouraging Dominican youth to play a more prominent role in the politics of her country.

She leads by example. Raful, vice president of the Juventud Revolucionaria Dominicana (JRD)—the youth wing of the PRD—and a candidate for congress in the May 2010 elections, convened a series of town hall meetings between 2006 and 2008 to encourage university students and young professionals to develop strategies and concrete policies for the PRD in areas ranging from education to health. The success of these groups persuaded her to open them to high school students. “We are always lamenting the fact that young people are not more involved and that we are not producing more socially-conscious professionals, but we cannot change that unless we start [getting supporters involved] at an early age,” she says.

On her TV program, she regularly invites young congressional representatives to discuss their legislation with constituents. “This is not only about getting young people to vote; it’s also about getting them to understand the process and to feel like they can and should shape politics,” she says.

Raful had her first glimpse of the world of policymaking in 1999, when she became a legal consultant to the executive committee responsible for drafting national health care reform legislation. Only 19 at the time, Raful admits that the task was harder than it first appeared. “Prior to the [legislation], we were dealing with a health code developed under Rafael Trujillo,” she says, referring to the dictator who was assassinated in 1961. “I was one of the youngest people to be involved in this, and it was eye-opening to see how long and complicated the process is,” she says.

Although she is one of the PRD’s leading activists, Raful has been unafraid to challenge her country’s political establishment. In January 2010, the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana and the PRD asked the central elections board to suspend enforcement of a law requiring 33 percent of all parties’ candidate lists for the lower house and city council elections to be filled by women. The reason: the alleged difficulty in identifying qualified female candidates to fill the lists. But Raful joined female candidates from the three major political parties in a successful counter-appeal to the board, which voted this March to enforce the law.

Raful’s work has begun to receive recognition from her peers. In January, she received the Youth Merit Award for political and professional trajectory from the Parlamento Juvenil de la República Dominicana, an organization that fosters new leadership in different sectors. “It’s unusual to see someone so young have the recognition she’s achieved,” says Ruddy de los Santos, founder and president of the organization. “We highlighted her because of her impact on one of the major political parties of the country, [especially] given the added obstacles that women in this country unfortunately face.”

Now she hopes to transform that recognition into political influence. Last November, Raful became the youngest person to win her party’s nomination as a congressional candidate for the May 2010 elections. She is currently campaigning to represent District One in Santo Domingo, a 313,000-voter seat that has traditionally been held by men and is home to the biggest commercial interests of the country. “It may be an uphill battle, but I’m confident that this can set the tone for future elections [and give] young women a more promising role in the electoral system,” she says.

Business Innovator: Gustavo Caetano, Brazil

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As Brazil’s economy has expanded, the number of Brazilians connected to the Internet has soared from 5 million in 2000 to 67 million in 2008. That represents a rich opportunity for companies hoping to connect to a growing online consumer market. But how? In Brazil, the person to call is Gustavo Caetano, a 28-year-old former computer gamer who is at the forefront of Brazil’s expanding digital streaming industry.

Caetano is the founder and CEO of Samba Tech, a Belo Horizonte-based online video platform that manages companies’ Internet video presence. Their customers include cable companies looking to leapfrog traditional hookups and reach new viewers as well as rich media producers and companies that just want to improve the quality of their video conferencing. “We’ve created a platform that allows a company to publish a video on different devices and for different channels. With one click, you can publish a video on YouTube, your own Web page [or] on a mobile carrier,” says Caetano. He added that the company, which charges clients on a subscription basis, offers an alternative to pricey in-house software and technical infrastructure. His innovative approach has already made Samba Tech a regional leader in the field. The company streams video to 60 million viewers per month and reported profits of $1 million last year. The future looks even brighter: it expects to earn $5 million in 2010.

Samba Tech was originally created to deliver video games on mobile phones. Caetano founded the business with $100,000 reais (about $50,000) from an angel investor in 2004 when he was a marketing student at the Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing in Rio de Janeiro. In 2007, as companies like YouTube and Hulu were expanding, Caetano recognized the growing demand for online video content. At the recommendation of a group of MIT consultants that he met during a course at the Sloan School of Management, he dropped mobile games and focused all his efforts on building the largest online video platform in Brazil.

After receiving a $3 million investment from the Minas Gerais-based venture capital fund, Fir Capital Partners, in 2008, the company was able to expand from 15 employees to 45. With a staff of computer scientists and engineers recruited from IBM and Motorola in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Samba Tech was soon providing live streaming for four of the country’s five largest cable companies and landed a contract with Rede Record TV station to stream the 2010 Winter Olympic games. Today, it works directly with national soccer clubs to stream games. In recognition of his work, Caetano was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” in 2009 by the Rio-based business magazine Pequenas Empresas & Grandes Negócios.

Samba Tech has also become a way for companies to outsource their internal communication infrastructure. Companies like the cosmetics giant O Boticário and the magazine publishing house Grupo Abril have hired Caetano and his team to provide support for videoconferencing, remote training and multimedia presentations.

Caetano has already attracted overseas attention. Samba Tech has partnered with Adobe and California-based media distributor Edgecast to expand its reach. Samba Tech will open a Silicon Valley branch this fall to tap into the U.S. market, and the company aims to receive 80 percent of its revenue from foreign customers in five years. But they have no intention of leaving Brazil. Caetano, who has set up a network of young tech companies in Belo Horizonte to help incubate innovation and growth in the field, is dedicated to promoting IT entrepreneurship at home. “We want to show the world that we can also innovate in Brazil,” he says.

Arts Innovator: Aurelio Martínez, Honduras

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Aurelio Martínez, a musician from the village of Plaplaya on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, has bridged the worlds of music and politics to bring greater recognition to the Garifuna people. Ultimately, it’s through his art that Martínez has had the greatest impact. Thanks to his work, listeners around the world have been introduced to the traditional music of the Garifuna, the descendents of slaves and indigenous Caribs who settled in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Martínez, who comes from a family of prominent Garifuna musicians, learned to play the guitar when he was five years old. But the 39-year-old performer and composer always wanted to bring this traditional art form to a mainstream audience—and in the process give his people a long-needed sense of pride in their culture. “Young people don’t have role models within [our] culture,” he says. “My goal is to create some stars.”

He’s now well on the way to becoming one himself. Working with other Garifuna artists, Martínez made the traditional songs “shorter and catchier” to attract commercial interest. His first solo album, Garifuna Soul (2004), sold 10,000 copies and was praised as one of the “top 10 albums of the year” by AfroPop Worldwide, an NPR program.

Martínez’ mission to “...break down the traditional wall and fuse with world music to enter into the international market” has since reaped more success. Two years ago, he was selected by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative—a program that pairs lesser-known artists with famous counterparts—to collaborate with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, who was impressed enough to ask Martínez to join him on tour in 2009. Martínez spent three weeks in Senegal, where N’Dour recorded tracks on Martínez’ album (not yet titled), due out this August. “Visiting Africa was a beautiful experience,” Martínez recalls. “I’d always dreamed of returning to my roots.”

The collaboration inspired Martínez to seek out partnerships between other Afro-descendent and indigenous communities. His forthcoming album also features contributions from the Senegalese Orchestra Boabab and musicians from Brazil and Belize.

“The experience with N’Dour [inspired me to] see how we can with indigenous communities in Honduras and in the region to expose their cultures to the rest of the world,” he said.

Martínez also found time in his performing schedule for politics. Between 2005 and 2009 he served as a deputy in the Honduran national assembly, the first Afro-descendant from his department to be elected. “I thought it was important to show that Afro-descendents and indigenous communities could affect change from within the government,” he says.

But given a choice, Martínez believes his work as an international performer will have a greater impact on helping the Garifuna people. As he puts it, he’s a “...musician first and a politician second.”

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