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World Economic Forum comes to Colombia

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Bono once called the World Economic Forum in Davos a gathering of “fat cats in the snow.” But for the past three days, the fat cats have opted for palm trees and Caribbean breezes.

The forum held its Latin America regional meeting in the gorgeous colonial port city of Cartagena. In a way, it was a coming out party for Colombia, which thanks to improved security is now deemed safe enough to host the Davos crowd.

And there were some good reasons to raise a glass. Colombia and its neighbors crowed about weathering the 2008 world financial crisis without much contagion from the north. Usually it’s the other way around with Mexico or Brazil lurching into debt or currency crises and rich countries bailing them out.

“This time we were not part of the problem,” boasted one Colombian economist.

But it wasn’t all happy talk.

Latin American economies are expected to grow by 4 to 5 percent this year. That's not bad but not great either. Those rates will keep the region far behind Asia, where many economies are growing by 8 to 9 percent annually.

The sluggish U.S. economy will mean fewer exports to the north and dwindling remittances, which are key sources of income for Central American and Caribbean nations.

Trade ties to Asia are growing but so are trade disputes. China has been widely accused of dumping while its undervalued yuan makes Latin American exports less competitive. Meanwhile, poverty and wretched schools prevent the region from improving productivity and raising domestic demand.

At the meetings, there was a lot of earnest talk about addressing these problems. But there were also the usual excesses when the masters of the universe — or in this case the masters’ junior varsity squad — get together.

Millionaires did their casual Friday thing, wearing loafers without socks and open-neck guayaberas. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Cartagena convention center, there were pleasant views of the yachts floating by.

Some participants so fully embraced the laid-back setting that they skipped the proceedings altogether. At one luncheon meeting, only about 30 of the 200 invitees showed up. The result: 170 ceasar salads sat were tossed out — croutons and all.