Despite billions in U.S. aid, Colombia struggles to reduce poverty

Dario Ospino works on a lucrative plantation whose owner receives subsidies from the state.
Dario Ospino works on a lucrative plantation whose owner receives subsidies from the state. (Juan Forero/the Washington Post)

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

ALGARROBO, COLOMBIA -- Eight years after President Álvaro Uribe took office and began harnessing billions in U.S. aid dollars to pummel Marxist guerrillas, Colombia is safer for this country's 45 million people and for the foreign investors who have flocked here.

But stubbornly high levels of poverty expose a harsh reality: Despite better security and strong economic growth, Colombia has been unable to significantly alleviate the misery that helps fuel a 46-year-old conflict and the drug trafficking behind it.

What social scientists here call lackluster results in fighting poverty have become a campaign issue ahead of May elections, in which Colombian voters will elect a president to succeed Uribe, Washington's closest ally on the continent. Unless a 43 percent poverty rate can be steadily reduced, experts on the conflict contend, Colombia could regress even as the United States continues to provide military assistance.

"There is not only significant poverty, but some of the poverty is stunning in its extreme," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who has traveled extensively in Colombia since 2001. "It really is at the root of so much of the unrest that occurs."

That poverty, and Colombia's big gap between rich and poor, is particularly evident in towns along the Caribbean coast, such as this community of dirt roads and forlorn farms. Here in Algarrobo (population 12,000), a wealthy and influential family, the Dávilas, received $1 million in grants through an Agriculture Ministry program that provided tens of millions of dollars to affluent farmers nationwide. Critics here say it made no difference that the Davilas own one of the most productive and lucrative oil-producing palm groves for miles.

The subsistence farmers in the surrounding countryside, meanwhile, have remained desperately poor, among the millions of rural Colombians left behind even as Latin America has grown richer in the last decade's commodities boom. Those farmers, scratching out a living in a stretch of northern savannah that fired the imagination of the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, said they received nothing from the state.

"To the contrary, they charged me taxes," said Beatriz Mesa, 44, who recently gave up farming.

The disclosures about subsidies to the Davilas and other families, first revealed by Cambio magazine in October, have touched off a sometimes-bitter debate over whether the Uribe administration has governed for the rich or for the poor. Federal prosecutors are investigating whether wealthy landowners defrauded the subsidy program.

To its supporters in Washington, and to investors the world over, the Colombian government touts its success in delivering blows to a guerrilla movement that once seemed invincible, an effort carried out with $7.3 billion in U.S. aid since 2000. The economy has since flourished, more than doubling output since 2002, when Uribe took office. Foreign investment in Colombia is the fourth-highest in Latin America.

The other Colombia is one of rising inequality, the only major country in Latin America in which the gap between rich and poor has increased in recent years, according to a report by the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America. The percentage of Colombians who are indigent also rose, from 20.2 percent in 2007 to nearly 23 percent in 2008, nearly double the region's average.

The guerrilla conflict, meanwhile, has uprooted 5 million people in 25 years and has helped ensure that more than 60 percent of rural Colombians remain poor, according to Ricardo Bonilla, an expert on poverty at Bogota's National University.

The number of Colombians in poverty did fall from 51 percent in 2002 to nearly 43 percent in 2008, according to the Economic Commission, but the contrast with big Latin neighbors is sharp. In Brazil, more than 32 million have joined the middle class since 2003, and in Peru poverty fell from 55 percent in 2002 to 36.2 percent six years later.

The Colombian government says that under Uribe, per-capita social spending has doubled, millions more children attend public schools, and a cash-transfer program went from covering 220,000 families to nearly 3 million.

"Now we are reaching millions of people that are under a well-structured and maintained social protection network," said Diego Molano, the government's top anti-poverty official.

Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank's director for poverty reduction in Latin America, agreed, saying that reducing poverty by more than 1 percentage point per year, as Colombia has done, "is respectable."

But even government officials acknowledge that poverty remains widespread in the countryside. Indigent sharecroppers are relegated to the poorest soil, working land without title, while a swath the size of Virginia is in the hands of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, said Alejandro Reyes, an expert on land and author of a recent book, "Warriors and Peasants: The Plundering of Land in Colombia."

Reyes said the Uribe administration places a priority on funneling aid to the biggest farms because the government thinks they are best suited to revive the rural economy. "The government thinks that the peasantry are not good producers, that they don't know how to save, how to assimilate technologies," Reyes said.

That philosophy was crystallized through the Insured Agro Income program, which provided most of a $250 million annual fund to sugar, palm oil and other large agricultural sectors.

In this desperately poor state of Magdalena, four families received most of the $10 million provided in 2007 and 2008, records show. Among those that benefited were various branches of the politically influential Vives family, which received $6.5 million.

Alfonso Vives Caballero, whose farm received about $200,000 and who is among those under investigation, said in an interview that he played by the rules in applying for the subsidy and that there was no prior deal with the government. On a visit to his 500-acre palm plantation, a manager showed how the money was used to put in a modern irrigation system.

Here in Algarrobo, Juan Manuel Dávila was one of the biggest beneficiaries. Investigators are trying to determine whether he evaded limits on the amount a farmer could receive by parceling out his 3,600 acres to family members and a Colombian model who dates his son. The Dávila family did not return phone calls or respond to a visit to their headquarters in Santa Marta.

The poor farmers who live here, though, did not begrudge the assistance. They simply asked why the state had not provided them with grants.

"The small farmers also need help," said Elimeleth Rodriguez, member of one farming family.


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