When trade barriers between the South American country of Colombia and the EU and the UK fell away on August 1, to many observers it was yet another sign that Colombia, for too long evocative of images of drug trafficking and civil war, had taken yet another step toward a robust renaissance that has been under way for several years.
The EU has been Colombia’s third largest source of imports (chiefly machinery and transport equipment) in recent years while also serving as the country's second largest export market, mostly in the areas of agricultural products, fuel and mining. For its part, the US has had a free-trade agreement – at first delayed because of the record of violence against union leaders in the country – in effect with Colombia since May 2012.
“By establishing clear rules through the framework of the free-trade agreement, the environment for doing business looks encouraging and as a result, the change will be reflected in more and better trade relations between both Colombian and European businesses,” says Maria Claudia Lacouture, the president of Proexport, a Colombian governmental agency that promotes exports, international tourism and foreign investment in the country. The Bogotá-based entity has 18 offices around the world.
“Colombia offers more security to its investors as it grants equal treatment for foreign and national investors. The agreement also provides the adequate framework to allow investors to have transparent and non-discriminatory hiring processes in public entities, goods and services such as construction,” she adds.
On the up
The free-trade agreement marks a high point for Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, in office since August 2010 following the 2002 to 2010 government of Álvaro Uribe, a period that saw dramatic gains against leftist rebels in the country, but which came at the price of widespread right-wing paramilitary violence.
Though Colombia is still dealing with two stubborn insurgencies in the form of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (the National Liberation Army, or ELN) rebel groups, as well as the replicating, drug-trafficking spawn of right-wing paramilitary organisations, the image of the country has improved in recent years as a sentiment among investors towards the country has softened.
In May, Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín, which witnessed a 24.4% decrease in homicides during 2012 from the previous year, and was crowned as the most innovative city in the world for 2012 by the Wall Street Journal and Citi, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. The trio said the distinction was a recognition that the city, once home to the dreaded Medellín Cartel drug trafficking organisation, had gone “from pain and fear to hope, and now from hope to be a place filled with life" and that the city "has known how to innovate in every step, both in social programmes, urban developments or the combination of both, and this has been key in the success of this process”.
Medellín, a lush mountain city boasting a wide array of impressive modern architecture, has made its mark in recent years in the areas of medicine and technology in particular.
In response to Colombia’s long-term challenges, the Santos government has been undertaking negotiations with the Farc (which has seen many of its main leaders killed or dying of natural causes in recent years), first in Norway and then in Cuba, since November of last year. The negotiations are ongoing, but their very existence, and the widespread hope that they will offer yet another step to a more peaceful Colombia, shows what strides the country has made over the past decade.