Greeting delegates at the World Free Zones Organization conference in Cartagena on May 4, Colombian president Manuel Santos – tieless and relaxed – was in a mood as sunny as the weather in the Caribbean coastal city.
Earlier that day, the US Congress had approved a budget that increases aid to Colombia – a steadfast US ally – by 25%. This followed an announcement the previous day by Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol that it had discovered a huge natural gas reservoir off the Colombian coast – the country’s largest gas find in nearly 30 years.
But the most important piece of news was the reason for the president’s delayed arrival in Cartagena. The recent Nobel Peace Prize winner apologised for his delay saying proudly that he had been playing host to the UN Security Council in Bogotá earlier that day.
“It is the first time the whole council came to Latin America because Colombia is the only successful case [of conflict resolution] and positive example they have to show at the moment. We received unanimous support from the council to move forward with the next step in our peace process,” he told the hundreds-strong audience.
“Our country has been in conflict for 50 years but the fact we are now creating peace shows that history is being reset. The conflict has been an impediment to our development, like having the handbrake down in a car, always slowing its progress.”
After Colombian voters rejected an initial deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in a public referendum in October 2016, Mr Santos took a revised accord to the Colombian congress instead, where it received approval in December 2016. Meanwhile, talks are ongoing with another guerrilla group, the left-wing National Liberation Army, which is seeking to strike an agreement of its own with the government and proposed a bilateral ceasefire ahead of a September 2017 visit by Pope Francis.
The president is anticipating a peace dividend to follow. In an interview following his speech, he told fDi: “First of all, tourism is growing very fast; that usually happens after a country has been in conflict and the war stops. Economic growth will be higher, between 1% and 2%, and that is a tremendous attraction for any investor. And of course half of the country [the former conflict area] is going to be developed now and there are huge opportunities related to that. We expect foreign investment that has been growing a lot to grow even more."
The OECD expects the Colombian economy to grow by 2.2% in 2017, a more optimistic estimate than the 1.8% predicted by the country’s central bank. Headline FDI flows into Colombia increased in 2016 to $13.6bn, according to the central bank, up from $11.7bn in 2015. This is nearly double the levels recorded in 2010 and five times those in 2000.
The stigma of conflict can linger long after a conflict ends, however, and the president admits that changing Colombia’s risk profile in the minds of investors “is a very long-term job”.
“To change perceptions is very difficult but we’re doing it,” he said. “The best way is to invite people to see for themselves what is happening here. And after that they will go back and say ‘the perception I had of Colombia was completely different than what I experienced’.”