Cartagena Diary, Pt. IV: 19 Years Too Many

By Marc Hanson

Editor's Note: RI Senior Advocate Marc Hanson has been in Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas. This is his final diary entry from the trip, but do check out his first, second, and third entries as well.

The streets of Cartagena have now been cleared of barricades. People are moving freely through the city’s small historic quarter, where heads-of-state walked the red carpet and convened meetings during the 6th Summit of the Americas.

On the Summit’s final day, President Obama visited the historic Walled City of Cartagena. In front of the church named after Jesuit priest San Pedro Claver, famous for his struggle to end slavery, Obama gave a collective land title to the Afro-Colombian Community Counsel of San Basilio de Palenque. Meaningful as the land title is for the Palenque community – who have long worked the land without any legal right to it – and poignant though the event was, resolving the needs of one community when a sea of suffering surrounds it is a symbolic gesture at best.

The land was transferred under Law 70 of 1993, which allows Afro-Colombian communities with historic ties to land to apply for collective titles. A cynical interpretation of Sunday’s event is that the land titling was completed expressly to give President Obama something to celebrate while in Colombia. But irrespective of motive, the process took an unacceptable 19 years to complete. And unfortunately, Colombia has a long history of failing to translate good laws into genuine social or economic change.

In a way, Obama’s visit to San Pedro church stands as a cautionary tale of the difficulties Colombia will encounter implementing its new Victim’s Law. As a party to the conflict in Colombia, the U.S. has a special responsibility to ensure the Victim’s Law lives up to its promise and helps Colombia heal its deep societal wounds. In particular, the U.S. has to help strengthen Colombia’s weak local institutions, which have impeded the country’s response to devastating floods and now threatens to derail implementation of the Victim’s Law.

“In Colombia, there are a bunch of laws,” one Cartagena sub-municipal official said dismissively when asked about the importance of the new Victim’s Law. Indeed, despite the new law’s attempt to create an integrated and comprehensive system for helping displaced families, at the local level the response remains fractured. A complicated web of local offices with overlapping mandates and incomplete authorities channel IDPs to the Unidad de Atención y Orientación a población desplazada, or UAO, which provides assistance. However, the confused constellation of agencies at both the local and national levels frustrates the hopes many IPDs trying to restart their lives, leaving countless people without any assistance whatsoever.

Those fortunate enough to qualify for help must return to UAO several times before being registered to receive aid, with each visit taking hours if not an entire day. It then takes months for local employees to get individual declarations of displacement approved by officials in Bogota. And once the whole process has ended, qualified families only receive minimal support for a short period of time – enough to alleviate immediate suffering, but a far cry from the comprehensive assistance that moves people from crisis to self-sufficiency.

The Victim’s Law seeks to remedy such coordination problems and provide permanent solutions for displaced people. Ensuring that the law extends beyond resource-rich urban centers and into the most deprived communities is essential. And making sure it doesn’t take 19 years to implement should be a top priority – both for Colombia, and the U.S.