Upon first glance, it seemed Colombia was cruising down the development fast track, but by the end of our time here we see speedy development does not translate to the high life for all Colombians: the fancy cars, upscale malls and flashy architecture that characterize metropolitan areas belie the story of the rest of the population. Like most every rapidly developing or developed nation these days, Colombians speak openly of increasing inequality. The Gini coefficient here, the index used to measure inequality, is 0.587 (considered high- this is a bad thing) and one of the highest in Latin America. Although Colombia has the fourth largest economy in Latin America, the income ratio between the richest and poorest 10% surges over 80-to-1. The poverty rate here is at 46 percent.
The cost of living, especially in major cities, is very high. In fact, we have been surprised to find that prices for food, alcohol and clothing rival or surpass those in the United States. Beyond cost of living, travel through Colombia is relatively very expensive. Gas runs around $5/gallon, so even bus travel is far from affordable. Travel between major cities is considered a real luxury for most of the population.
While it is expensive to live, workers often make 12-13 mil pesos daily, an equivalent of 7 U.S. dollars. Naturally, the Colombians with whom we have worked are curious about the costs of our trip and how we were able to save enough to travel. A few farm workers inquired about T.L.’s hourly wage in Maine for work similar to their own. We told them around $20/hr before taxes. Of course, it seemed a lot, but they concluded that they weren’t too far behind because their employers often supplied lunch- I was embarrassed to correct them that $20 was not what he made in a day, but in an hour. That he might make in a day what they would make in a month was nearly incomprehensible, to all of us.
A recent “development” in Colombia is the TLC or Colombia Trade Promotion (free trade) agreement with the United States, “won” just a few months ago under the Obama administration. The TLC is modeled after most other Latin American free trade agreements with the U.S. – the basic tenet being to open up markets to competition, to introduce new goods and to promote duty-free trade between the two countries. The reality of such agreements, however, has usually meant the livelihoods of small farmers and business people being crushed under a market flooded by cheaper American goods and produce.
This is exactly what Edimer, a small coffee and pig farmer with whom we had been working, worries for his future. Will the largest Colombian coffee coop with the United States become the only coop here? Will this mean the farm which has supported his family for generations will no longer be able to compete? “We can only wait and see what the free trade agreement means for the people”, is the response I have received from most.
In terms of education, affluent students studying in Bogota boasted that la Universidad Nacional and Universidad de los Andes are stellar universities, among the top three in Colombia. Meanwhile, Edimer, who grew up in the campo, has a different take on education here. Edimer studied engineering and industrial planning at a rural university, but has chosen life as a farmer. He suggests that Colombians make lazy students, and that in general people here are more interested in television than reading. He was unique in his community, as many people never finish school and have no interest in university. He recounts the saying “Hay diez policia por cada estudiante y un estudiante por mil ignorantes” or For every 10 police, there is one student and for every student there are 1,000 ignorant people. Edimer suggests that the people are brainwashed by what they watch on television and that media is largely controlled by the government (he deduces that former president Uribe’s wide support was due to biased media).
Edimer also speaks of corruption, especially among the police here: the fatal mix of drugs and very wealthy, influential criminals has resulted in their perpetuating crime. More than anything, he suggested that money buys the government’s permission to be involved in whatever illegal activity one pleases. Meanwhile, the rest of the population pays steep taxes for a huge security force and military to keep crime down. At lunch one day, he described the “prisons” in which many of the country’s superrich criminals are incarcerated… they sounded more like penthouses. Later that day, an exposé on the news showed the suites the “prisoners” lived in. The criminals dined at fancy tables, while watching movies on flat screens. They might exercise at the Gold’s Gym or lounge in their building to pass their hard time.
Edimer calls it a system of “ricos por ricos”, or rich for the rich. Meanwhile, “vivimos en otro cuento” we, the rest of Colombians, live in another story.