The Greatest Disparities In Wealth In Cartagena

Impoverished slum dwellers living cheek-by-jowl next to the wealthy population. No city illustrates this more clearly than Colombia's colonial jewel, Cartagena.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Much further south of our border with Mexico in Colombia is a tourist hot spot. Cartagena is an old Spanish city on the Caribbean. The Colombian government sees it as a symbol of revival after years of guerilla war; others see it as a symbol of class warfare. NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO: Inside 400-year-old Spanish ramparts that once repelled Francis Drake, the sounds of change can be found on every block: workers building and renovating everything from new boutique hotels to homes for the very rich.

(Soundbite of construction site)

FORERO: Welcome to Cartagena's old colonial city, with its baroque churches and sun-splashed plazas. Cartagena is now one of Latin America's top destinations and not just for tourists. In a tour, sales rep Vicky Donoller(ph) shows off a new apartment worth well over a million dollars.

Ms. VICKY DONOLLER (Real Estate Sales Representative): It's a 400-square-meter apartment with three levels. And the first level is - you will find a kitchen. The second level is a studio, a bedside Jacuzzi, too...

FORERO: People here credit President Alvaro Uribe and the U.S. government for the renewal. Washington has provided $7 billion in mostly military aid this decade, and Uribe has used it to roll back Marxist guerrillas. The result is that homicides in Colombia dropped by more 40 percent in seven years, and the economy has become one of Latin America's strongest. Colombia boosters, say Cartagena, is among the big winners. To visitors and investors, this city is all old-world charm, down to the horse-drawn carriages plying cobblestoned streets.

(Soundbite of horse-drawn carriage)

FORERO: Juan Lopez(ph) came from California. He delighted in the feel of the old city, but also marveled at the growing skyline.

Mr. JUAN LOPEZ (Tourist, Cartagena, Colombia): While waiting in the dark, I thought I was in Chicago with all the beautiful skyscrapers.

FORERO: But there is another story outside the old city, outside the 12-foot-high walls. In neighborhoods that might as well be a world away, there is misery, malnourishment and disease.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

FORERO: There is raw sewage flowing down unpaved streets, conditions public-health workers liken to that of sub-Saharan Africa. Danilo Ruiz(ph) is an activist in one poor barrio.

Mr. DANILO RUIZ (Activist, Cartagena, Colombia): (Spanish spoken).

FORERO: He says the opulence of the old city doesn't trickle down to the poor barrios, that there is no sense of equality, not even access to basic services. Statistics bear him out. Six-hundred thousand of Cartagena's million people are poor, a rate far higher than the rest of Colombia. In sharp contrast to those who live in the old city, the people in those barrios are black. Jesus Verdeza(ph) is one of them. Verdeza fled the conflict in Colombia's countryside, finding relative safety in the slums.

Mr. JESUS VERDEZA (Resident, Cartagena, Colombia): (Spanish spoken).

FORERO: But he says he needs work, and only when he finds an odd job is he able to eat. Cynthia Arnson is director of the Woodrow Wilson Center on Latin America.

Dr. CYNTHIA J. ARNSON (Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): Colombia is very high in its levels of any inequality, even within Latin America, which is the most unequal region in the entire world.

FORERO: She says that means that despite advances on the security front, the government has not been able to significantly chip away at the great gulf between rich and poor. One of the biggest critics of the disparity is Cartagena's new reformist mayor, Judith Pinedo. She says the city is a symbol of inequality. Her government is now working to identify the needs of the poor in different districts and address the problems with emergency assistance and then work to improve education and health care.

Mayor JUDITH PINEDO (Cartagena, Colombia): (Spanish spoken).

FORERO: She said the city is not viable if so many of its people live in misery. Juan Forero, NPR News, Cartagena, Colombia.

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BRAND: There's more to come on Day to Day from NPR News.

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