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What drives Colombia's revival despite war?

Despite its long wars with drug barons and leftist rebels – or perhaps because of them – Colombia shows strong traits for reform. What lies behind Latin America's strongest economy?

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Medellín's Metrocable, which transports residents to hillside slums, is one project that has transformed the Colombian city, once wracked by drug violence but now undergoing massive social and economic transformation.

Photo by Sara Miller Llana/file

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If adversity is a great teacher, Colombia has been a great student.

A quarter century ago, the Latin American nation was nearly a failed state, overrun by drug lords. Even today, after the drug cartels have been largely suppressed, a war with leftist guerrillas has become the longest armed conflict in the world – lasting more than a half century. More than 220,000 people have been killed and more than a tenth of the population remains displaced.

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Such troubles, which include high corruption and a big gap between rich and poor, might have left an entire people feeling down. Not so in Colombia.

In 2012, the United Nations ranked it third on a “happiness” index. A Gallup poll last year put Colombia in the top 10 of countries in which people like what they do each day and have supportive relationships. And Forbes magazine cites it as one of “10 coolest places to visit in 2015.”

Yet coolness, love, and happiness might not be enough to explain Colombia’s recent successes and reform efforts. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center ranks it the highest country on a few key character traits. Colombians stand out in believing that “getting ahead” takes a combination of hard work and education.

Even more telling is that Colombians rank very high compared to other emerging economies in not believing that “success is determined by outside forces.”

These traits of resilience may help explain why Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group predicted last week that “the only good news” on the world state in 2015 may be a peace agreement in Colombia’s long war.

Talks between President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as FARC, began in 2012. The two sides have reached a couple key agreements. But the hardest parts – how to reintegrate militias and provide reparations to some 6 million victims – are not yet resolved. Even after an agreement, it might take years to reduce the poverty and injustices that first drove the rebellion.

Still, much of Colombia, especially the former drug-addled city of Medellín, is thriving despite the war. Instead of being home to drug barons like Pablo Escobar, Medellín now sports impressive infrastructure, such as a long escalator and cable cars up hillside slums to help connect the poor and rich. The city’s culture of entrepreneurship is creating a Silicon Valley of Latin America.

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“There’s a saying that adversity helps character,” said President Santos in a recent forum. “Well, I think adversity has helped Medellín to have the character to change. They have been able to use that adversity to their advantage and now they’re flourishing. We still have problems, of course. But Medellín’s an example of how you can change.”

Colombia has long stood out in Latin America. It was the region’s first democracy. Bogotá was once the “Athens of South America.” Now it has the strongest and fastest-growing economy, ranking in size behind Brazil and Mexico. With aid from the United States, it has curbed much of its major drug trafficking.

It still needs land reform and a better human rights record to uplift its most marginalized people. During his reelection campaign last year, Santos promised to move his country from a “culture of fear” toward a “culture of fair play, of decency, of respect towards institutions.”

A nation that has been at war for 50 years, he says, has to start early to heal the wounds of war. The victims of the conflict have a seat at the peace talks, as Santos has insisted, because they are more willing to forgive and more willing to be generous.

As Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” And sweet indeed is Colombia’s ability to bounce back from its woes.