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Cartagena Diary, Pt. III: The Colombia Obama Won’t See

By Marc Hanson

Editor's Note: RI Senior Advocate Marc Hanson is in Cartagena, Colombia, this week for the Summit of the Americas. Click here to read his final entry.

Earlier this week, while previewing President Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called Colombia “a tremendous success story in the Americas…It’s one of our really model partnerships, not just in the Americas but in the world. We’ll be able to discuss our continued security cooperation, which has supported the Colombians as they’ve made historic gains in their efforts against the FARC.”

Those security gains, while real, are little comfort to Maria, who was displaced from her hometown of San Onofre in northern Colombia. She now lives in Arjona, a municipality 46 miles from Cartagena which has become a haven for displaced people from across northern Colombia.

Maria told me that back in the 1990s, it was common for paramilitary units (paras) to raid her hometown after dark, dragging people from their homes before disappearing into the night. After a few years of nighttime terror, things got even worse. The paras became more brazen—occupying houses, killing animals, and demanding food and provisions. Community members were killed in broad daylight while women were raped and abused in public. For Maria, the only options were to submit or leave. She fled in 1999.

Turning from her past to the future, I asked Maria, “Do you want to return to your land, your community?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too hot,” she said. But she wasn’t talking about the weather. She meant that the war was still raging in her small corner of Colombia and she’d rather steer clear of it.

The simple, stubborn fact is that – success story or not – large swathes of rural Colombia remain insecure and beyond government control. Colombian or American self adulation, at a time when so many challenges remain, risks missing an historic opportunity.

If inequality is democracy’s credibility gap, then forced displacement exposes a credibility gap in governance. Both inequality and displacement persist in Colombia. More than 40 percent of Colombia’s people live in poverty, with 20 percent in extreme poverty. As a displaced person, Maria faces even more dire odds. Roughly 98 percent of Colombia’s displaced people live below the poverty line, while 82 percent live in extreme poverty.

Though displacement in Colombia has fallen considerably from the high-water mark of 400,000 people in 2002, an estimated 100,000 people were displaced in 2010 alone. And just yesterday, the UN High Commission for Refugees reported a rise in the number of Colombians fleeing into Ecuador due to “the deteriorating conditions” in Colombia's southern state of Nariño. In a single week, UNHCR estimated 600 new arrivals to Ecuador. In any other country, numbers like this would be a cause for panic, not triumphalism.

Still, hope remains for Maria and people like her. Successfully implementing Colombia’s new land restitution and victim’s reparations law could mitigate both displacement and the poverty that comes with it. Success is not assured: since the passage of the law, more than a dozen land restitution leaders have been assassinated. Nevertheless, the US must start providing as much assistance for peacebuilding in Colombia as it does for war-making. Failure to lock in peace now could push Colombia into another violent, downward spiral.

Three areas in particular require strong U.S. support. First, the U.S. must increase its support to UNHCR in Colombia. Second, it should help Colombia’s municipal governments assist those victims who want to return to their land, coupling aid with clear guidance and accountability measures. Lastly, and perhaps most important, USAID and the State Department must invest in educating lawyers and getting victims the legal help they will need to pursue their rightful claims. After all, getting people like Maria back home safely should be the real measure of Colombia’s success.

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