Welcome to the new Colombia

· Economics
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By Whistle Stopper | Picture “Santa Marta” by Study Tours.

Cartagena. As he presses the flesh and meets with the locals in this impoverished slum community, known as Vía Perimetral, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe resembles an American-style urban populist. Short and bespectacled, he has a physical stature that belies his charisma and steely toughness. Uribe moves through the crowds of Afro-Colombians, promising them housing and receiving cheers, before holding forth at an impromptu town hall-style meeting. The heat and humidity are oppressive—this is a swampy area right along the Caribbean coast—but the Colombian president listens to the Vía Perimetral residents and responds to them dutifully.

His audience includes a U.S. delegation led by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, which has come to Colombia to witness the stunning transformation wrought by Uribe over the past five and a half years. The Bush administration has run a few of these Colombia junkets—and is planning more—with one goal in mind: increase support for the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) that was signed in November 2006 and is awaiting Congressional approval.

House Democrat Gregory Meeks needs no further convincing. He has visited Colombia several times since 2003 and hails the “miracle” produced by Uribe. Here in Vía Perimetral, the Colombian president invites Meeks to the microphone. Surveying the crowd of Afro-Colombians, Meeks, a Congressional Black Caucus member from New York City, remarks that they look just like his own family.

“I want to express my gratitude to your great President Uribe,” he says, praising the government’s efforts to boost the living standards of Afro-Colombians in places like Vía Perimetral (which is one of Colombia’s poorest communities). Uribe is better known for his security agenda than for his social agenda, but Meeks insists the two are related. “He’s intertwined both,” Meeks says. “I am tremendously impressed with his commitment to social programs.”

When Uribe, a Harvard-educated lawyer, first took office in 2002, Colombia seemed to be on the verge of disaster. The peace process initiated by his predecessor, President Andrés Pastrana, had failed to curb the Communist guerrillas that have been waging war on the Colombian state for decades. Instead it had allowed the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to dominate a patch of territory roughly the size of Switzerland. Brutal right-wing paramilitary forces were fighting against the FARC and its smaller rival, the National Liberation Army (ELN), while also fighting against the official Colombian army. There were tens of thousands of illegal armed combatants running drugs and wreaking havoc. The government appeared unable to stanch the violence. Things were spiraling out of control.

Uribe embraced a hardline approach. He expanded the army, created specialized new units, and pursued the guerrillas relentlessly. At the same time, he spearheaded a parallel strategy of demobilizing the paramilitaries. Colombia saw immediate results. As a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explains, “In 2003, some 133 percent more paramilitaries and narco-traffickers were captured than the previous year, and 85 percent more guerrillas. Desertions from the FARC and ELN and paramilitaries more than doubled between 2002 and 2004, with some 10,000 guerrillas and their supporters breaking ranks from 2002 to 2007, including an increasing number of seasoned veterans. By 2004, the FARC had lost its offensive momentum, and the paramilitaries were seeking to demobilize. The FARC’s current order of battle troop strength is an estimated 10,000, down 40 percent from its peak.”

Ever since 2000, Bogotá has benefited from a U.S. aid initiative known as Plan Colombia, which includes massive supplies of military and development assistance designed to curb the drug trade. In 2002, the Bush administration broadened Plan Colombia to encompass anti-terrorism aid, acknowledging that the drug war and the guerrilla war had become deeply enmeshed. This provided a critical financial boost to Uribe’s efforts.

Between 2002 and 2006, Colombia reduced the number of murders by 40 percent, the number of terrorist attacks by 63 percent, and the number of kidnappings by 76 percent. More than 33,000 paramilitary fighters have been demobilized. Though still a menace, the FARC has lost thousands of its armed combatants and been pushed out of the cities. “For the first time,” says the CSIS report, “there is a legitimate state presence in all of Colombia’s 1,099 municipalities.”

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“Since 2003,” Newsweek reports, “per capita income has increased by 25 percent, unemployment has fallen from 17 percent to 12 percent, and business investment and new construction have surged. At the same time, the percentage of the city’s schools considered low-performing by national standards fell from 50 to 14. Complaints about congestion and pollution are typically met with the observation that residents have gone from discussing the daily body count to grumbling about their commute.”

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