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Rags in the Shadow of Riches
Prosperity of the Newly Glitzy Colombia Masks Rampant Misery Throughout Slums

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."

Here, inside Cartagena's ramparts and along an adjacent stretch of luxury seaside high-rises, it is easy to see signs of that investment and feel the optimism that has come with it.

Churches and houses that were falling apart have been renovated. Boutique hotels have replaced backpacker dives. The number of cruise ship passengers arriving in Cartagena has grown five-fold since 2003. And six times as many hotel rooms will be added this year as were added in 2008.

Spazio Urbano, a company that builds luxury apartments and remodels fading architectural jewels, is among the winners in the new Colombia. Its brochure declares, "The hour has come to invest in Colombia." And fortunately for Spazio Urbano, many are heeding the call, paying million-dollar sums for apartments in the old city.

Strolling through a 4,300-square-foot apartment, part of a former convent next to the residence of Colombia's Nobel laureate in literature, Gabriel García Márquez, a Spazio sales rep shows off the ocean views and sealed-coral floors that have attracted buyers from as far away as Paris and New York.

"The foreigners love Cartagena because the prices are good, it is a good time to invest, and also because we have a very safe city right now," Vicky Dunoyer said. "Our president is doing a good job, and that's helping us with the guerrillas and everything."

Featured in government-funded commercials broadcast internationally, Cartagena has attracted visitors such as Juan Lopez, a retired postal worker from California. After a tour of the city's Inquisition Museum, Lopez explained his fascination with Cartagena's rich history, which includes Francis Drake's failed invasion, cholera epidemics and pirate attacks. He was also surprised to see a vibrant modern side to Cartagena.

"From what I've seen, it's a beautiful city," he said. "When we docked, I thought I was in Chicago, with all the beautiful skyscrapers."

But to Jesús Mercado, who takes tourists on romantic carriage rides, the city that tourists see is far from being the real Cartagena. "They show the tourists and the foreigners the good face of Cartagena," he said. "But the dark side, the southeast side, they do not show that. They hide it."

Indeed, in this city of 1 million people, 600,000 are poor, and tens of thousands are destitute. The percentage of residents lacking basic necessities -- a yardstick used by demographers to measure poverty in Colombia -- is 26 percent, nearly three times the rate in Bogota, the capital.

Infant mortality due to diarrhea, though dropping, occurs at twice the rate of Colombia's biggest cities. Tuberculosis increased from 2005 to 2007. The number of people suffering from dengue has grown, health statistics show, and leprosy is not unknown.

Cartagena's mayor, Judith Pinedo, who took office in 2008 after years of corrupt governments, has broken sharply with her predecessors by acknowledging the scope of the problem. Her administration has embarked on a program designed to identify the poor, catalogue their needs and then channel the necessary aid.

"For a long time, we built two cities -- one the city we show off, the city that seduces the world, and the other a city closed off by lack of opportunities and poverty," Pinedo said in an interview last week. "The city is not viable if it continues to be a city with so many people who cannot live up to their potential."

Pinedo said her administration plans to improve public education and public health care. She also spoke of the need to expand tourism, the city's port and its petro-chemical industry, all of which have been booming.

Still, the boom's effects have yet to trickle down to most people.

"What we are seeing is an economic growth that is not having an impact on poverty," said Lluís Casanovas, a Spanish doctor who studies disease and infection in poor communities here. "What I'm saying is we have a model of development that is not inclusive of the whole Cartagena population."

That population includes people such as Miguel Ángel Urbina, 69.

The conflict uprooted his family eight years ago, and he has lived in the Villa Hermosa slum ever since. His days are spent finding odd jobs. In the evenings, he comes home to a hut on a crowded, fetid street.

"Life here is hard because there is no work," Urbina said. "This is how most of us here live."

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