By JOHN CHERIAN
THE Colombian elite, like their counterparts in India, are proud of the special relationship their government has forged with the United States. When most other countries in the region are railing against the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S., the Colombian government is looking forward to its ratification. It is another matter that the Obama administration is taking its time to do so. A few Democratic Party lawmakers have raised objections to it, citing cases of repression against trade unions and violation of human rights. But following the initialing of the new military cooperation agreement with the U.S. on October 30, the Colombian government expects the U.S. Congress to ratify the FTA.
Bogota is a modern city with all the amenities of a First-World metropolis. The crime rate is negligible and the security presence in the capital is conspicuous.
The Alvaro Uribe government has an ambitious blueprint for incorporating Colombia into the world economy. The nation of 44 million people is the third biggest economy in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. Nearly 35 per cent of its exports go to Venezuela. But recent events have seriously disrupted the relations between the two countries. Venezuela has temporarily barred all imports from Colombia. Trade with its other neighbour, Ecuador, was derailed following a cross-border raid by the Colombian military last year.
One of the priorities of the government is to rectify the negative image of the country. Bogota is a modern city with all the amenities of a First-World metropolis. The crime rate is negligible and the security presence in the capital is conspicuous. Private security guards with guard dogs are posted at the entrances of government buildings and commercial offices. Fingerprinting and profiling is routine for outsiders who want to enter them. The city’s residents proudly say that it is safer than New York. The other major cities, Medellin and Cali, are much safer than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, when drug cartels ruled the roost and the crime rate was at astronomical levels.
One of the major reasons for the popularity of Uribe domestically is his ability to restore order in the major cities and industrial hubs of the country. Earlier, people were afraid to travel out of Bogota, fearing kidnappings and hold-ups.
The President currently has an approval rating of around 70 per cent. Efforts are on to get the Constitutional Court to ratify amendments to the law so that Uribe can seek an unprecedented third term. But the talk in Bogota is that he will bow out for former Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos is close to Washington’s security establishment. As Defense Minister, he supervised many of the headline-grabbing operations against FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas. “At this moment of time, I am the person who interprets better what President Uribe wants for this country in the future,” Santos said early this year.
The influential business sector feels that Uribe’s focus was on counter-insurgency, and the candidacy of Santos will give a boost to the private sector. Santos, who held the portfolio of finance and industry under Uribe, is the scion of one of the richest families in Colombia.
Alberto Pradilla, the president of Fedesoft, representing Colombia’s information technology (IT) sector, said the government’s foreign policy was good for the country. Echoing the views of the business community, he said that U.S. help was crucial to the country to overcome its problems, including those concerning Venezuela and insurgency. He said “Plan Colombia”, the U.S.-financed counter-insurgency programme, was essential to thwart the left-wing rebels and stop money laundering by the drug cartels. During the Uribe presidency, Colombia got more than $5 billion in military aid from the U.S.
Pradilla admitted that the presence of right-wing paramilitaries and the killings of trade union activists had not helped the country’s image. Colombians are particularly riled by the depiction of their country in Hollywood films. But if there were 3,572 kidnappings in 2000, there have been fewer than 500 this year. Drug-fueled gang wars do erupt from time to time, though. Colombia’s Deputy Health Minister Blanca Elvira Cajlga de Acosta said violence accounted for a large number of deaths in the country.
The government is keen to ensure that FARC is kept out of major cities. Senior officials and business people, however, concede that a military solution to the insurgency is not achievable despite all the help from the U.S., the increase in the military budget and the strengthening of the armed forces. The guerilla presence in around half of the country, especially in the thickly forested and lightly populated southern and northern parts of the country where coca is grown, makes it really difficult.
The government has in place an amnesty plan for the guerillas, but there are few takers for it. Previous experience has made them cautious. The M-19 guerilla group, which was the second largest until the 1980s, voluntarily disbanded after the government of the day offered it amnesty and integration into the political mainstream. But there were targeted killings of its leaders once they laid down their arms.
With FARC now more or less confined to the jungles, the focus of the government is on converting Colombia into an economic powerhouse of the region. India’s success in the IT sector is admired much in Colombia. Indian companies have started taking advantage of the Colombian expertise in the sector. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for instance, has set up offices in Colombia; they are fully staffed by Colombian professionals. It has successfully bid for a major contract from the Ministry of Finance.
Most of the young professionals in the country are bilingual and many of them were educated in U.S. universities. As many as 15,000 people graduate every year, with 5,000 specialising in IT alone. One of the advantages of investing in Colombia is that the country is in the same time zone as many parts of the U.S. The flying time to major U.S. cities is also comparatively short.
Officials at Proexport, a public-private apex body set up by the government to promote investment and trade, said the country received $10 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) last year. Colombia, described as the most “business friendly” state in the region, is also the least impacted by the global recession. More than 50 free-trade zones have been approved since the Uribe government came to power. The country, officials claim, has the cheapest and best skilled force in the region.
Indian companies are actively engaged also in the oil and gas sector. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Reliance have invested in Colombian oil and gas fields. ONGC is in partnership with the Chinese company Sinopec in Colombia.
China is today Colombia’s fourth biggest trading partner. Though the hydrocarbon deposits in the country are not as vast as those in neighbouring Venezuela, new oil and gas deposits are being discovered on a regular basis along the coastline. Fernando Bastos, International Trade Manager of EcoPetrol, the state-owned oil company, which is one of the biggest in the region, said the country hoped to triple its oil production to one million barrels a day by 2015. Half of the oil produced in the country is used for domestic consumption and the rest is exported.
Minister of Mines and Energy Hernan Martinez said Colombia had a surplus of hydel power. Electricity is exported to neighbouring countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela. The goal, according to him, is to forge energy integration with the rest of the region by the end of 2012.
The government is also encouraging the production of biofuel. It has earmarked three million hectares of land to produce ethanol, the aim being to ensure that 10 per cent of the ethanol produced is used in gasoline. Ethanol production is expected to help farmers gain productive employment and at the same time compete with illegal crops such as coca. The Minister said Indian technology was being used to produce ethanol in Colombia.
The development of Bogota is attributed mainly to the initiatives of its dynamic Mayor, Samuel Moreno, and the left-wing Polo Democratico (Democratic Pole) party which rules it. President Uribe once described the party as “disguised communists”. The city administration, which has powers similar to that of a State government in India, is striving to make Bogota a world-class city while ensuring that the poor are not marginalised. Half the number of Colombians live on less than $4 a day. According to the Deputy Health Minister, 8 per cent of Colombians suffer from malnutrition.
Education is one of the key sectors that the city administration is trying to reform. The District of Colombia’s Education Secretary, Marta Lucia Vega Cardenas, said the priority of the city administration was to ensure that every child had access to school. The city administration has built 40 new public schools, which offer free primary and secondary education. Mayor Moreno said the city administration was seeing to it that the “fundamental right” to education was implemented. The administration also offers financial incentives to poor families to send their children to school.
Other incentives being provided are free transportation to school and midday meals. Attendance in schools is monitored strictly. Up to grade 2, children get educational material free.
The rigorous education imparted in the public schools in Bogota has made them role models for the rest of the country. According to Cardenas, middle-class families, which previously sent their children to expensive private schools, are now gravitating towards public schools. Before 2002, private schools dominated the scene; today 70 per cent of the schools in Bogota are public schools.
Bogota’s residents are proud of their rapid transit system, called the TransMilenio. The rapid transit system in Delhi was inspired by the successful experiment in Bogota. The TransMilenio has reduced travelling time for the ordinary citizen by 32 per cent, gas emissions by 40 per cent, and accident rates substantially. A large number of those who use the system are white-collar employees. But traffic jams are still common. This has forced the city administration to impose curbs on the use of private vehicles.
The aim of Polo Democratico, said Cardenas, was to make the city administration a model for the rest of Latin America. “It is a left-wing model that we hope will radicalise society,” he said.