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Children of Men Meets Tokenism in Colombia

Today's Times had a sobering account from Simon Romero about the port city of Buenaventura in Colombia. This city has been ravaged by massive refugee inflows from the country's civil war, which has spilled over into the drug trafficking industry, which in turn preys on and operates out of this slum city of shacks built on stilts. Despite massive inflows of U.S. aid, Colombia's human rights and labor situation has only deteriorated over the years, especially for Afro Colombians - whose community is the focus of this piece. The picture, which looks like something taken out of the future-horror flick Children of Men, explains it all.

And not surprisingly, neo-liberal economics is at the root of a lot of Buenaventura's problems:

Some economists hold up Buenaventura as an example of the risks of exposing certain areas of developing economies to market forces. María del Pilar Castillo, an economist at Valle University in Cali, said many residents lost economic security when the city’s port was privatized more than a decade ago, cutting its work force and reducing benefits.

With taxes on the imports flowing through Buenaventura’s port largely going directly to the central government, the city reaps few benefits from international trade, even as Colombia’s economy grows more than 6 percent a year. So the poor in Buenaventura, with an unemployment rate of about 28 percent, resort to the drug trade.

“There is no other viable industry here, so there are no other viable jobs,” said Ana María Mercedes Cano, director of Buenaventura’s Chamber of Commerce. “So we live in a situation with violence all around us.”

This sounds like a lot of urban situations in the United States, where black men are more likely to be in prison than to have a union manufacturing job. It also sounds a lot like Peru, where the sell-off of the privatized ports to Dubai Ports World last year sparked massive protests, for exactly the same reasons as in Buenaventura - without public control, there's no guaranteeing that the local community will benefit.

Indeed, for the average family anywhere in the world who aren't comprised of political philosophers, about the only reason to favor one set of economic policies over another is if the one is better at distributing the economic pie. The record is in: the NAFTA-WTO model is awful at redistributing income, while countries that have pursued alternative development strategies have had much greater success.

Oh, and what has been the development and anti-discrimination strategy of the beloved President Uribe - who has pushing for a U.S.-Colombia FTA despite that country's record as the most dangerous in the world for trade unionists - in the face of Buenaventura's massive problems? He appointed an Afro-Colombian into his cabinet.

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While most everything you say is true you should give credit where it's due.

On Uribe: "During his time in office, the murder rate has dropped 50 percent and kidnappings have been reduced by 75 percent. He has also taken back large sections of the nation that were controlled by drug lords and leftist guerrillas. Which is one reason his popularity with voters is close to 85 percent."

Uribe has drastically cut the murder rate. Just because it does not jive with the meme you are contributing to on Uribe, doesn't mean you should ignore these important facts. The reality, as usual, is much more complex.

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