In the late 1990s, Foreign Policy – the publication and think tank – classified Colombia as a ‘failing state’. Recently, Newsweek – as well as several other publications – described Colombia as a ‘rising star’. How did my country go from the brink of collapse to becoming one of the world’s most attractive emerging economies?
Colombia’s presidents since the late 1990s – Andrés Pastrana, Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos – have led with courage, intelligence and perseverance. As a result, the nation has taken great strides in security, economic performance and social prosperity. Let’s take a closer look at each of these crucial areas.
In terms of security, over the past decade the murder rate has been reduced by over 50 per cent, kidnappings have fallen by 92 per cent and coca cultivation has decreased – as per UN figures – by close to 60 per cent. More than 52,000 members of guerrilla and paramilitary groups have demobilised and reintegrated into society. The FARC’s top three leaders have been killed in combat by the army and now their terrorist activities are significantly lower.
In relation to economic performance, Colombia’s economy is doing quite well. Last year, GDP growth was close to six per cent, inflation is just three per cent (it was above 30 per cent 20 years ago), annual foreign investment has grown eightfold in the past decade, the Stock Exchange Index also grew by over 30 per cent per year in the past 12 years, and total external debt – as a percentage of GDP – is below 40 per cent (considered to be a healthy level by experts). Last year, Colombia was awarded investment grade status by the three major credit rating agencies – a fact that truly reflects the current strength and positive outlook of our economy.
Following thorough research, the Economist Intelligence Unit established that after the famous BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) there are now six countries that are going to perform better in GDP growth than other nations. The chosen acronym to reflect these countries is the CIVETS – which is also the name of a small tiger. The Civets are: Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa. This selection was also supported by the former Chief Executive of HSBC, Michael Geoghan. These six – expected to grow three times faster than OECD countries – share some key characteristics: a large and young population, macroeconomic stability, a diversified economy (not dependant on a few products or sectors), a solid financial system, low inflation, sound fiscal policies, and political stability.
We are very happy and proud to be seen with such well-founded optimism. I firmly believe that all these facts indicate that there are excellent opportunities for UK businesses in my country; opportunities that can generate employment, exports and tax revenues for the British economy. To give you an idea of the business potential for UK entrepreneurs in my country, let me give you an example borrowed from the FCO Minister of State Jeremy Browne, who has visited Colombia on several occasions: South Africa’s economy is similar in size to that of Colombia, but UK exports to South Africa are 12 times greater than those to Colombia. At the Colombian Embassy in London we are ready to provide assistance and information to all the British companies interested in exporting to and investing in my country.
With regards to social prosperity – which is the ultimate goal of improving security and economic performance – there is also good news. Basic education coverage is now universal. And health coverage increased from 59.5 per cent in 2002 to 92.7 per cent recently (and will be universal in the next two years). Poverty levels have been reduced by ten per cent and 2.7 million families now receive cash transfers conditional upon the compliance with health and education services provided by the government. Unemployment, which was close to 20 per cent at the turn of the century, is now 9 per cent – and expected to continue to fall in the coming years.
President Santos, who came to London last November at the invitation of Prime Minister David Cameron, has embarked on a series of very ambitious reforms (judicial, fiscal, health, labour, royalties) to further improve Colombia’s situation and perspectives. One of the most important pieces of legislation is the Victims’ and Land Restitution Act – approved by Congress last year and effective as of 1 January 2012 – which will return two million hectares to 350,000 families who were illegally dispossessed of their land in the past 30 years, and will also provide compensation to all the victims of violence during the same period. This very special initiative, that will have an estimated cost of US$20 billion in the next 10 years, will pave the way towards complete and sustainable peace in Colombia.
In referring to the conflict with the FARC guerrilla group, President Santos has repeatedly offered a negotiated solution on the condition they agree to stop terrorist acts against innocent civilians, end narcotraffic, no longer recruit minors or use landmines, and release those they have kidnapped (some of which have been held captive for over 10 years in the jungle).
Another important issue not only for Colombia but also for several other countries in Latin America is the drug problem. President Santos has insisted on the need for a global high-level discussion on the costs and benefits of all the options to deal with this cancer that is causing so much harm in both producer and consumer countries. This debate should be led by experts and scientists who present the facts and their recommendations for how to successfully face the immense challenges of the various alternatives. In the meantime, Colombia will continue fighting the war on drugs in which we have made good progress. But the production and trade of narcotics has moved to other nations, so we all need to discuss better solutions.
Before concluding, I would like to highlight a very special feature of Colombia, which will have a growing importance in the role that my country plays on the international stage. I refer to our biodiversity, the richest per square kilometre in the world. Let me give you some examples of this wonderful asset that will be critical to combating climate change and for future scientific discoveries:
• Colombia is a bio-diverse paradise due to its strategic location – with coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; the Andean mountain range running through the country; and access to the Amazon and Orinoco river basins
• Colombia has the greatest number of bird species (1885) – equivalent to 19 per cent of the entire world’s species and 60 per cent in South America – and the largest number of amphibian species (750)
• Colombia has the largest variety of butterflies (3,500 species) and plants (41,000), the third largest number of reptiles (524) and fifth largest number of mammals (471) and is third in the world in hydro-resources
• 56 per cent of the country is rainforest, equivalent to 2.6 times the total area of the UK
• Colombia has 257 protected natural areas (110,976 square kilometres – 10 per cent of the national territory); more than the aggregate size of the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark
After many difficult years, Colombia is finally taking off. We still have problems and we face the challenges every developing nation has, but we have made huge progress over the past 10 to 15 years in every single aspect of life, particularly in the critical issues.
I firmly believe this will be the decade of Latin America, and Colombia will shine particularly bright. The evidence described in this article proves this is not just wishful thinking. However, if you still have any doubts, please visit Colombia to see for yourselves.