Reinventing Colombia

When he arrives in Colombia in April to participate in the Sixth Summit of the Americas, President Obama will be welcomed to a country that has changed dramatically since his predecessor visited just five years ago. Long known for an array of woes mostly associated with a four decade-long civil war, Latin America’s third most populous nation has made significant strides to overcome the debilitating effects of civic strife and endemic poverty.

Those looking for a striking metaphor to symbolize what has transpired in Colombia in will find it in an unlikely place: Bogotá’s largest and most fashionable shopping mall. It’s a given that security is a top concern in the marble-encased splendor of Gran Estación, where the well-to-do browse in exclusive boutiques for the latest luxury imports from the U.S. and Europe. What is surprising, however, is how the security is carried out.

At this glitzy symbol of upper class extravagance, half of the security detail of close to 50 uniformed agents is wheelchair-bound. Some were born with physical disabilities, while others were the victims of accidents or suffered wounds in combat while serving in the armed forces. Not long ago, such disabilities would have doomed these Colombians to a life on the extreme margins of society. But today, thanks to this successful experiment in corporate social responsibility, they have meaningful employment and the dignity that comes with it, a regular paycheck, and the ability to live independently. “No somos diferentes” (We aren’t different), the mall proclaims in a poster featuring a photo of paraplegic employees and a stylized wheelchair logo. “Somos lo que somos” (We are who we are).

And there are other signs that Colombia’s transformation is on the right track. Gustavo Petro, the former anti-government guerrilla who is today the mayor of Bogotá, recently enacted a ban on guns in Colombia’s capital city. President Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who continues to emphasize internal security, likes to trumpet the country’s plunging homicide rate, which is at its lowest since 1984. Foreign investments are up and growth in the country’s petroleum and mining sectors is particularly robust. And after much foot-dragging, the passage last fall by the U.S. Congress of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement is expected to create jobs in both countries and increase trade, which last year accounted for $14 billion in exports to Colombia and imports to the U.S. totaling $23 billion.

“Colombia can sell us more cut flowers, coffee, bananas and oil, among other things,” Stephen Johnson, Senior Fellow and Director Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told LATINO. “We can sell them wheat, chemicals and heavy machinery, and all without the heavy tax burdens that we euphemistically refer to as tariffs. As a Free Trade Agreement is more or less permanent, it lends predictability to markets that helps sustain growth. The downside is that such a hard-fought agreement might inspire expectations of instant prosperity. FTAs take years to implement as old barriers are lowered and certain laws and product standards are harmonized.”

Johnson adds that Colombia, with a high literacy rate and a skilled workforce, is the kind of country that can “reinvent” itself. “Colombia was on a fast-track to failed state status in the late 1990s,” he adds, “but owing in part to an entrepreneurial culture and a generous endowment of native talent, it has turned that around. In almost every measure, Colombia is better off than it was before. Murders down. Kidnapping down. Massacres way down. Inter-city tourism is way up. Having resolved much of its security challenges, it can now devote more attention to some of the social and rule of law issues that originally gave rise to a rural insurgency.”

The lack of adequate transportation infrastructure continues to be a problem that won’t be solved anytime soon, though. The country’s three largest population centers---Bogotá, Medellín and Cali---are all inland cities, separated from each other and coastal ports by hundreds of miles of rugged mountainous terrain and overstressed highways. Lacking rail transportation, goods are moved by trucks which grind their way, bumper-to-bumper, through the corkscrew turns of narrow, two lane roadways. Although these transportation corridors no longer face serious threats from guerrilla forces, during the long rainy season bad road conditions and washouts can turn routine six hour trips into 18 hour ordeals. Currently, new bridges and tunnels under construction are part of a long term solution to this commerce bottleneck.

The good news, however, outweighs the bad. International tourism is growing steadily and the country is exporting the solutions it has developed to combat some of its toughest problems. The mayor of Medellín has gone on the road to share his city’s successful urban planning schemes with other Latin American cities and the government has consulted on successful security strategies with its counterparts in Mexico, Panama and Afghanistan. From lemons to lemonade, Colombia style.


Mark Holston