Colombia works to escape its past

For more than four decades, Colombia has been locked in an armed conflict featuring a bewildering array of left-wing guerillas, right-wing "self-defense" paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The war has taken an enormous human and financial toll. According to the World Bank, if the country had achieved peace 20 years ago, the income of the average Colombian would be 50% higher than today's $3,000.

Recovery under Uribe

In the 1990s, Colombia came perilously close to becoming a failed state. With the state seemingly impotent, drug merchants enjoyed a perverse popular appeal. Escobar, the acknowledged boss of the Medellin cartel, was even elected to parliament. Violence permeated society as presidential candidates, police officers and judges were assassinated.

The U.S. has spent more than $5 billion in foreign aid in the past decade stabilizing Colombia, which produces roughly 90% of the powdered cocaine consumed by Americans. Under Uribe, the state has clawed back. The government, long all-but-powerless in outlying regions, has, for the first time, established a police presence in all 1,099 municipalities. Nationwide, murders are down 37%, and kidnappings have fallen 78%.

In the affluent Poblado neighborhood, the scene at the Oviedo mall would be recognizable to any American consumer. Diners at Café Le Gris sip chilled wine and savor beef tenderloin in sage sauce as shoppers stroll by fiddling with their iPods. A block away, there's evidence of the local real estate boom in a half-finished office building of more than a dozen floors overlooking a second site being readied for construction.

Though fighting between the military and armed guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continues, the president's signal achievement is the demobilization of more than 32,000 paramilitaries.

The turnaround is impressive but not yet complete. Uribe's credibility has been hurt by a political scandal, which revealed links between illegal paramilitaries and his closest allies, including his intelligence chief and more than a dozen members of the Colombian Congress. Uribe has denied accusations that he is personally tied to illegal gunmen.

Improved security has been the key to an economic expansion that is now in its eighth year. The accumulated total of foreign direct investment more than doubled since 2002, reaching an estimated $52.8 billion this year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Some analysts, such as those at the non-partisan International Crisis Group, question the permanence of the recent gains, arguing the paramilitaries have regrouped as criminal gangs trafficking in drugs. Uribe says the country's future development is at risk unless Congress approves the trade deal.

Watching closely are business executives such as Guillermo Valencia, president of Industrias e Inversiones CID, which makes men's suits for U.S. retailers such as Macy's, m Dockers and J.C. Penney. jcp

Under a program of reduced tariffs designed to strengthen the economies of Colombia and its Andean neighbors, most Colombian products enter the USA duty-free. The pending trade deal would make that status, due to expire at the end of February, permanent and extend equivalent treatment to American goods entering Colombia, which are now subject to tariffs of more than 11%.

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