Colombia: a rediscovered country

For decades the rugged Andean landscape harboured crime and violence, but today regional pride is emerging in a revived economy.

Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died last year, had an abiding affection for South America. He first visited in the 1960s and returned often. “Nobody who discovers South America can resist the region,” he once wrote.

I first travelled to Colombia in the mid-1980s and, like Hobsbawm, could not resist what I saw. Two years later I returned to write a tourist guide, having persuaded a publisher of the brio of the Colombians and the remarkable biodiversity of their country, with its Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Amazon jungle, grassy plains and rolling, if often impenetrable, central mountains.

If it was a romantic vision, the honeymoon ended abruptly and on an exact date: August 18 1989, when the Medellín drug cartel killed presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations (especially of judges and journalists) were soon routine.

Writing a tourist guide became an anomaly. Surely I was CIA, many disbelieving Colombians asked. In those confusing, fear-filled days, everything often appeared to be something else, because nothing was necessarily what it seemed.

Still, as I learnt then and for ever remember, Colombia’s tortured topography explains much about the country. Often impassable terrain can lead to hugely different yet adjacent microclimates – be they ecological, social or political.

Thus, Paris Hilton, the American heiress, has opened a boutique in Bogotá selling accessories (modernity has it pluses and minuses). Meanwhile, 150km away in Boyacá, campesinos, peasants seemingly drawn from medieval times, use the archaic if charming address of “su merced”, meaning “your mercy”.

Indeed, for much of the country, Bogotá remains a remote and distant capital. And if the state’s reach has failed to penetrate some regions, that has often been simply because it could not get there.

That is partly why Colombia has hosted one of the world’s oldest guerrilla insurgencies. Geography is a veil that has left much of the country out of sight, out of reach and out of mind.

How the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking nation, after Mexico, evolved from nearly failed state in the 1980s into the can-do emerging power of today is more or less well known, even if its costs are not always fully appreciated. Successive governments attacked and balkanised the drug cartels into smaller criminal groups. These no longer pose a systemic threat and violence has dropped sharply, even if narco-trafficking persists and will continue to do so while illegal drugs remain highly profitable.

In the 2000s, Álvaro Uribe, then-president, launched an all-out offensive on the guerrillas, supported by Washington – a rare example of a US foreign-policy success in the region. The state’s expanding presence opened up previously closed areas to mining and oil exploration. It also launched a boom that brought wealth, especially to shareholders of companies such as Ecopetrol and Pacific Rubiales, but also “Dutch disease” – commodity-driven currency appreciation that hurts local manufacturing.

Still, with the guerrillas demoralised and backed into a corner, Juan Manuel Santos, the president, has launched a peace process. Doubtless, Colombia will never achieve the peace of an Eden, but that the process exists is a symptom of success. Colombia has even become an exporter of the security expertise it accrued so painfully.

The effects of Colombia’s geography are now felt more sharply in economics than in politics. They explain a proud and continuing regionalism – perhaps comparable with that of Italy, another nation of rival city states.

This regional pride is embodied especially in the industriousness of the Antioqueños. Their leading local companies – banks such as Grupo Sura and Nutresa, the food producer – have expanded abroad and become true multilatinas, with market capitalisations to match.

Topography also explains the persistent difficulties of moving around the country. Businesses complain that it costs as much to truck goods to the Pacific coast as it does to ship them on to Asia.

Most of Colombia’s roads remain little better than 30 years ago, and distances are always greater than a bird flying between two points. This, though, may be changing – albeit slowly – under the government’s infrastructure programme.

Alfonso López Michelsen, another former president, once described Colombia as “the Tibet of South America”. He was referring to its isolation, but also to its exceptionalism.

Colombia has never defaulted on its foreign debt and has an unusually long democratic tradition – competitive elections have been held on and off since the 1820s. Uniquely and remarkably, it has suffered only one recession in nearly a century (despite near-constant internal conflict).

It is, perhaps, the most “Anglo-Saxon” country in Latin America – as can be seen, trivially, in the red-brick and mock-Tudor architecture of Bogotá. But it is also a country of extreme and frustrating legalism (and, perhaps because of that, occasional extreme lawlessness).

Trade liberalisation has since broached the isolation López Michelsen referred to.Colombia’s economy is now larger than South Africa’s and, by some measures, bigger than Argentina’s, a G20 member.

Nonetheless, it is striking that foreigners are often more optimistic about the country than many nationals. This may be because Colombians, self-protectively, take the cynical view (and perhaps because their traditional trade partner, troubled Venezuela, is no longer the market it used to be). But it may also be because the country’s latest challenges, such as extreme inequality, can seem as intractable as the former ones.

Either way, the New Colombia is undeniably a better country than the old one, in the sense of being more secure, more prosperous and better known. The enthusiastic guide book I planned 25 years ago was not wrong, just premature.


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