Rags in the Shadow of Colombia's Riches

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Inside Spanish ramparts built to repel pirate attacks lies a colonial gem -- the historic heart of this city on Colombia's northwestern coast, complete with $500-a-night hotel rooms, stylish restaurants and newly renovated apartments at Manhattan-like prices. To the government of President Álvaro Uribe, Cartagena symbolizes a new Colombia, vibrant and prosperous.

But outside the 400-year-old walls, away from the cobblestones and charm of the old city, is a swath of slums so miserable that public health officials compare conditions there to life in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike those who live in and visit Cartagena' affluent heart, most of the residents of the ramshackle barrios are black. Drug trafficking is rife, children are malnourished and preventable diseases are common.

United Nations data show that Colombia remains one of the world's most unequal societies -- a root cause of the country's 45-year-old conflict.

"The poverty is immense," said Adil Meléndez, a human rights lawyer and activist who works in Cartagena's poor neighborhoods. "And then there is a small pocket of very rich people who maintain a life of extreme opulence."

Yodiris Parra, 32, one of 55,000 people who arrived in Cartagena during the past decade after being displaced by war , says her life has changed very little in recent years.

Her home is a wood-plank shack in the teeming Villa Hermosa slum. There is no running water, and raw sewage flows in the streets outside. Though Parra's husband works in construction, ostensibly benefiting from a building boom, she said that the typical meal she serves her three children is soup filled out with a bone.

"Meat is too expensive," she said. "Sometimes we can get ground beef, maybe chicken, but not usually."

Although senior Colombian officials acknowledge the great gulf between classes here, they also cite government statistics showing that poverty and inequality have dipped in Colombia as the country, like most in Latin America in recent years, has prospered.

Poverty fell from 51.5 percent in 2002 to 44 percent in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Homicides have fallen from nearly 29,000 in 2002, when Uribe took office, to 16,359 last year. The economy has grown by an average of 6 percent a year in the past seven years, and $40 billion in foreign investment has flowed in, making Colombia among the most important destinations for investment dollars in Latin America.

The Bush administration strongly supported Uribe for leading an offensive that disrupted a once-surging Marxist guerrilla movement here. Analysts say the Obama administration is expected to continue support for this strategic ally, which is important to the United States because of Uribe's commitment to its war on drugs. So far this decade, the United States has provided nearly $7 billion in mostly military and anti-drug aid.

As Uribe lobbies Washington for a free trade agreement, held up so far because of Democratic concerns over human rights abuses, he makes the case that his twin policies of fostering a healthy business climate and fighting armed groups have improved the lives of ordinary Colombians.

"In building confidence in Colombia, our work is focused on three pillars: security, investor confidence and social policies," Uribe said in a recent speech. "In these years, there is more security, and there has been more investment."

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