To put the situation here into context, Colombia is the second poorest country in South America, after Bolivia and, in 2009, 32.7% of Cali's population was officially classed as poor. In Cali, 5.4% of the land area is occupied by slums and which officially house over 40,000 people. The International Labor Organization (ILO) highlights that among salaried workers, Colombia has one of the worst rates of poverty in the entire world (measured as $1.25 and $2 per day), with similar rates as Bhutan, Niger and Burkina Fasso, meaning that even the tiny minimum wage ($616.000) is not enforced. My boyfriend's parent's cleaner, for example, told them that her husband earns the minimum wage and is considered very lucky.
To top this off, Colombia does not have a social welfare system or safety nets for the poor and has a well known history of corruption, human rights abuses and armed conflict, which have all contributed to and exacerbated conditions of poverty for large portions of the population. Many of these problems were fueled by the previous government under right-winged Uribe, who followed a strict neoliberal development model which was not pro-poor. Over 10% of Colombia's entire population, more than 5.7 million people, have been displaced, giving it the second highest rate of forced migration in the world, after Sudan. The majority of this displacement is due to violent right-winged paramilitary groups who, some suggest, were the unofficial arm of Uribe's government, and have continued to exert power after his presidency. They are infamous for mass murders, chainsaw attacks, torture and rape in order to acquire land and power and, although statistics vary greatly, a conservative estimate states that they have murdered around 400,000 people, with over a quarter of a million people being murdered under Uribe's rule.
This displacement is highly visible in urban areas such as Cali, with many of the homeless or slum-dwellers originating from the surrounding rural areas and being pushed into the city to live a life of despair and prejudice. A moment I will simply never forget from my time in Colombia is when I was in Cali a couple of years ago and a homeless man at a traffic light begged my boyfriend and I to adopt his twin babies as he had been displaced from the countryside where his wife had been raped and murdered by paramilitaries. It is a disgrace that people are living in such conditions and I often wonder what happened to his children and wish I could have done something to help.
I recently started taking a different bus route back from work and it takes me off the comfortable expat trail through the east of the city, where I really see the 'real' Cali, where the majority of the population live and work. It is an incredible expanse of destitution and confirms to me that the Cali that most expats experience is not at all representative of real life here and is really quite artificial, catering for the 6% in strata 5 and 6, ensuring they are separate from the lower classes.
The thing about poverty here is that people, including the poor themselves, tend to massively underestimate it and try to cover it up. Such sentiment in the upper classes is encouraged by the high levels of inequality and social segregation here. For example, in the interviews I carried out for my dissertation, there was a huge sense that poverty here was normal and was nothing to complain about. A common saying here exemplifies the difficulty of gaining an accurate perspective on poverty and inequality here, 'you have to eat cassava and burp chicken' ('hay que comer yuca y eructar pollo') - you must always give the impression you are better off than you are. There is a culture of denial and effort to portray that you belong to an upper class due to a sense of pride. Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves and I hope that this post has helped to explain the situation here, as it is not useful to anyone to downplay the problems and exacerbate the myth that plays into the elite's hands and prevents meaningful change.