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Can Colombia Finally Fix Its Split Personality?

A mural in the town of Toribio, Colombia, displays an idyllic rural scene. But the reality is that many rural parts of the country are desperately poor and lawless.

Can a country have a split personality?

When it comes to Colombia, there's the upper-middle-income nation of gorgeous cities: Think gleaming skyscrapers, landscaped parks and smooth bike lanes all set against stunning mountains.

Then there's the other Colombia, a vast stretch of rural territory that's desperately poor and at best, effectively lawless. At worst, many of these areas are still dominated by some combination of guerrilla forces, paramilitary groups and drug-trafficking gangs that have flourished over 50-plus years of civil war.

"I always have trouble explaining to people just how quickly you jump from the edge of the Colombia where there's government into an area where the government just disappears," says Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. "In some cases, even just a few miles outside a major city, you'll find yourself in a place where there's no police, no paved roads, where electricity is gotten by generator, if at all, and where almost nobody has land titles for the land they're farming."

The vast gulf between Colombia's dual identities has taken on new importance in light of a new peace deal aimed at finally ending the civil war. The agreement — which must be ratified in a referendum Oct. 2 — calls for the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, to completely disband. In exchange, the government would launch a major investment effort that's supposed to raise the income of the rural poor — essentially, to close the gap between the two Colombias.

The challenge has parallels with the one Germany faced after its West and East were reunified, says Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution. Except that Colombia doesn't have anywhere near the wealth West Germany was able to draw on.

The United States and other donors have committed to helping out with aid. Even so, says Schechter, "This is a huge endeavor, and it's an endeavor a developing nation simply hasn't done."

Still, he is optimistic that Colombia can succeed, in part because of its recent history. Back in the late 1980s, Schechter notes, the civil war and related rise in drug trafficking had produced a level of corruption, crime, kidnappings and terrorism that appeared to threaten the nation's very existence.

"This was a country on the abyss of becoming a failed state," says Schechter. "Then Colombians decided, 'That's it. We're done.' And they turned it around."

Specifically, with the help of a military aid package from the United States dubbed "Plan Colombia" in 1990, the government combined an intense military crackdown on guerrilla and drug-trafficking groups with a major effort to revamp the economy and boost incomes. This included significant spending on health, education and infrastructure in urban zones, as well as savvy management of national trade, monetary and tax and spending policies.

The result: Over the next 25 years, Colombia's cities steadily became secure again. A flood of foreign investment rushed in. And urban poverty was substantially reduced.

"What happened in Colombia is an amazing story," says Schechter. "Now with the pending peace agreement, they have the opportunity to write the next chapter."

"Sure, the discipline and focus and resources required will be immense," he adds. "But listen, they're pretty determined."

Other analysts look at that same history and find reasons for concern. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C ., says the country's recent progress underscores a long-standing inclination by Colombia's governing elites to favor urban development while ignoring the rural population.

"The differences in wealth were always there," he says. "And they just became accentuated in the 1990s when Colombia began to have a more modern economy and open up to the world."

Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, says the government's long-standing disregard for rural areas was palpable on a trip he took just a few a weeks ago to an area near Colombia's border with Venezuela. The only road was built by an oil company decades ago. "By now it has completely fallen apart," he says. "So to go about 90 miles takes more than seven hours. And this is the main thoroughfare of a region with a population of about 50,000 people."

This neglect of Colombia's rural population by successive governments has created a vicious cycle, says Shifter. Initially, it helped fuel the rise of rebel groups in rural areas during the early years of the civil war — which began in the late 1940s. Then the consequent lack of security in those parts made it difficult for the government to bring economic aid to rural populations even as it began its push to improve life in Colombia's urban centers.

"You couldn't invest [in many rural areas] because it was too dangerous," says Shifter. And this, in turn, kept those areas economically depressed, further intensifying anti-government sentiment and violence.

In theory, the peace deal could end the cycle by finally bringing security to the countryside. But there's a possible paradox, says Isacson: The government's effectiveness at stamping out violence in urban Colombia could make the large share of voters there reluctant to ratify the peace deal.

They are the least likely to feel the immediate benefits of the deal because for them, the war has long been over, he explains. "They only see it on television. They don't live it in urban areas," he says.

And it's these same urban voters who would likely bear the costs of the agreement — including any tax hikes the government might need to impose to raise money for the aid package to rural areas.

So, says Shifter, "that is a base of people who will be really unwilling to make the concessions the peace deal will require."

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