In December of 1993, Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who, at the height of his career, supplied about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S., was finally brought down. After his long reign as the world’s most notorious drug dealer, the South American powerhouse of almost 50 million could breathe again. And with today’s peace talks with the FARC (and others) under way, Colombia might finally be able to tap its immense economic and political potential. The country is trying to leave its disturbing past behind and become a modern nation in a globalised world. Major steps have been taken, but Colombia still needs to climb out of its shell – rather quickly.
Many years ago, when I first hopped off a plane in Colombia’s capital Bogotá I was not too impressed about what I saw. A run-down airport, unfriendly cab drivers, and the social consequences of an appallingly high unemployment rate. My latest visit this year was more pleasant: I arrived at a modernised El Dorado, had an inspiring chat with my taxi driver (about South American football, obviously), and later enjoyed my tasty latté on the street corner in a safe and fairly gentrified Bogotano neighbourhood. All of which would have been almost impossible only ten years ago. Still, a glance beneath the surface reveals the structural flaws of the Colombian system.
Congested traffic and no foreign beer in Colombia
For a country that big it still is surprisingly difficult to buy many common consumer products, from international craft beer to high-end electronics, at reasonable prices. Mostly cheaper, locally manufactured versions are available (i.e. bad beer). Importing is traditionally tricky due to Colombia’s complicated and inefficient taxation system. A friend of mine is shipping over craft beer from Europe and constantly has his nerves tested over the paperwork to obtain licences for every single brand of beer (not product category).
And while industry grew up fast around the big cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Calí, even vast public infrastructure programmes have failed to provide a reliable road network for importing and exporting businesses. Taking a container from Bogotá in the Colombian heartland to the Caribbean port of Barranquilla costs around 2,000 US$ – double the price exporters pay in Perú or Chile. The time I took a bus from Medellín to the country’s capital (420 km), it was a seemingly endless 12-hour ride on windy roads. We (aka the bus company) did not even take the fasted motorway in order to avoid paying toll on one of the many privatised interstate highways.
Which brings me to the single biggest issue facing Colombian public policy: traffic. Bogotá, the capital, but also the other major cities are completely congested. For Bogotans, the traffic forecast is as important as the weather forecast in countries (on the other hand, weather forecasts are negligible as it always rains). Since ancient times, it is standard procedure for every newly elected mayor of Bogotá to promise the building of an underground transport system (Metro), only to never come through on it. Latest projections say the Metro might be in operation in 2021- you wish. Many people do not even care what city leaders do to address the traffic issue, they just want them to do something.
Don’t call me “petrol state”
All in all, Colombia has changed for the better throughout the past decades: As part of the state’s response to the drug cartels operating within its borders, the national police force was profoundly reformed in the 1990s, which, together with military operations against the leftist rebel groups, lead to a significant increase in public security. Socially, these advancements have come at the price of a militarised society with army bases in every city and military personnel on every street corner.
For Latin American standards, Colombia’s political elite has used its power rather productively in the last decades, providing a certain level of public security and economic stability. Having opened the road to peace in a (civil) war-ridden country has to be considered the one major achievement of past governments.
The impressive growth that Colombia has witnessed over the last decade has been due to a combination of three factors: commodity exports (oil and coal), construction and domestic consumption. Being able to rely on a vast domestic market for consumption is one of its key economic advantages. Also, Colombia managed to react well to falling oil prices, showing the world that it is not yet another petrol state. It is well known in the region for its high-tech and creative industry, a great deal of which is located in Medellín, maybe Colombia’s best known turn-around story.
Open up, Colombia
Yet, Colombia needs structural change in the face of economic slowdown. When you walk around central Bogotá after 11 p.m., you still feel like you are in a sleepy, mid-sized Mexican town. Bars close, people go home early, public life comes to an early standstill even on weekends.
The country’s introverted nature is one of its characteristics. It is a “mentality thing” that derives from the fact that a country of 50 million inhabitants used to be consumed by its own internal conflicts for so long. Being surrounded by closed economies, Venezuela and Ecuador, also did not help. The labour market is still dominated by professionals without any foreign experience, although they are utterly needed in order to internationalise and professionalise the economy. The level of English is poor even amongst university students.
Having said that, Colombia’s potential remains mostly untapped. European states and regions should be quick to establish political, economic and cultural bonds with the soon-to-be regional power. The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is currently sending a high-level delegation, including the minister president, to Bogotá and Medellín in order to foster a bilateral dialogue. That’s the way to go!
NRW (and others) should be in for the long haul and really aim at building lasting relationships with Colombian regional governments, its universities and key industries. Just don’t leave the bar at 11 p.m.!