Colombia has much to brag about — cutting poverty by half, doubling international air connections and quadrupling the size of its economy since 2000 — but these are just byproducts of its crowning achievement over the last two decades: defeating organized crime with the help of the United States, the country’s ambassador said in Atlanta.
“For my taste, the worst threat for democracies in the future is not terrorism; it’s organized crime. Organized crime is going to use terrorism to organize themselves in countries where chaos is brought by terrorism,” Luis Carlos Villegas told a breakfast crowd of about 200 people.
Speaking about the “The New Colombia,” Mr. Villegas sought to show its transformation from a country riddled with drug-fueled violence to a modern, open economy brimming with opportunity for American investors in infrastructure, technology and tourism.
For years, Colombian diplomats have been “trained to explain tragedy, to give an explanation to something terrible that has happened, was happening or was going to happen,” he said, setting up the punchline: “Now we find ourselves without training for being a permanent source of good news. We don’t know how to deal with it.”
The U.S. has been a key player in this story, providing more than a billion dollars in military aid and training that gave heft to leaders’ “collective convictions” to reduce the stranglehold the drug trade forced on its economy and society, Mr. Villegas said.
Not only did rampant murders mar the country’s international reputation, but drug profits also helped fuel armed insurgencies including that undertaken by Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group with which the government is currently working to negotiate a landmark deal for political inclusion.
U.S. legislators like Gov. Nathan Deal, who voted for Plan Colombia as a congressman at the time, were right not to listen to those who called it a “lost country,” Mr. Villegas said.
“Fifteen years later, I can come to the United States and say, ‘Thank you, you were right,’” he added, noting that he did just that during his meeting with Mr. Deal.
Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said the ambassador’s speech subtitle – “A successful case of U.S. foreign policy” — may give the U.S. too much credit for an effort that took the firm Colombian resolve and sacrifice to achieve.
Whoever is to thank, both sides now benefit from Colombia’s more open and prosperous economy. The two countries enacted a free-trade agreement in 2012, meaning U.S. firms face no tariffs in the country, which is spending $27 billion on roads and more than $10 billion to modernize Internet infrastructure in rural areas, the ambassador said.
Colombia’s economy has averaged more than 4 percent growth in the last five years, fueled in large part by increased production of commodities like oil and coal. But diversification and cautious fiscal reforms have prepared it for today’s falling oil prices and an elevated dollar versus the Colombian peso, Mr. Villegas said. Now, large drivers of growth are construction and infrastructure, with manufacturing coming on strong as well.
Colombia is also a founding member of the Pacific Alliance, a four-nation bloc also including Mexico, Peru and Chile, which Mr. Villegas stressed in a later interview with Global Atlanta at the headquarters of Home Depot Inc. before heading to a meeting at Coca-Cola. Co.
“We’re four big economies that are like-minded, that have common policies on macroeconomics, that have common policies on international trade, that welcome investment domestic nationally and internationally, that think capital markets are the best suppliers of cash flow to the country and to the private sector, that think flexibility with social responsibility in the labor markets is not only possible but necessary, that think that the partnership for design in public policy between the government and the private sector — things like that,” he said.
This integration is paying off. Colombian foreign investment shot from $2 billion in 2000 to $15 billion in 2014, and in a sign of the times, the country’s national airline, Avianca, announced this week that it would buy 100 Airbus A320neo jets worth $10.6 billion to meet passenger demand that has quadrupled since 2006.
In other words, good things are happening. Both the big business community and U.S. policy makers in Washington know it, he said. Now, it’s time to let the rest of the world in on what should no longer be a secret.
“There you have to really bring the gospel, evangelize and repeat it and say it, and the event with the chamber this morning was very useful for that,” he said.
In both the speech and the interview, he pointed out that Colombia still has a long way to go in tackling inequality, but he told Global Atlanta that there is a consensus about the remedy: open markets.
“Growth is the raw material for prosperity. You can’t prosper in economies that don’t grow. Once you have growth, then the debate is how you spread it among the population and the territory,” he said in the interview.
He also clarified earlier statements about organized crime being worse than terrorism.
“Terror is something that cannot last forever. You have to invent new causes for terror,” he said, noting that organized crime is more endemic and harder to clear out. “We defeated organized crime. I think that is the biggest achievement of Colombia. We were … infiltrated – politics, judiciary, media, regions — to take that organized crime out of there was a huge, huge challenge, but we made it.”
Mr. Villegas was pleased with the turnout at the breakfast event organized by the Latin American Chamber of Commerce Southeast, World Affairs Council of Atlanta and hosted by the World Trade Center Atlanta at the City Club of Buckhead. He hadn’t seen that many people attend a speech since he visited Cincinnati, where 700 people came to hear him.
Note: Global Atlanta is working on a special report on Colombia based on an on-the-ground visit in October. Stay tuned for an article about the transformation of the city of Medellin.