A new president, a peace accord and a tourism boom signal a bright future for Colombia. But Bogotanos are not ready to party just yet, says Chris Moss.
The Andean sun, veiled by passing clouds but deceptively strong, shines down on Plaza Bolivar. As ever, the square is thronging with tourists, SIM-card vendors, presidential guards in ceremonial uniform and children chasing pigeons. On one side, the magnificent neoclassical cathedral. Opposite is the town hall. A third building houses the Capitolio Nacional, seat of the national congress. The fourth is occupied by the Palace of Justice which, in November 1985, was attacked by members of the M-19 Marxist guerrilla group. They took 300 people hostage. A hapless military raid followed, during which 11 Supreme Court justices, 49 Colombian soldiers, 35 M-19 guerrillas and 11 ancillary staff and civilians died or disappeared.
Whether here in La Candelaria – the cobblestoned historic centre – or in its skyscraper-strewn sprawl, Colombia’s past horrors are easily unearthed. Historians usually trace the origins of the nation’s well-reported woes to a ten-year civil war known as La Violencia, sparked by the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948. But the armed conflict that generated the image of a pariah nation – in thrall to drug lords, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups – probably peaked in the 1990s, when two-thirds of the world’s kidnappings occurred here, and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) controlled up to a third of Colombia’s territory.
Dealing with the past
From 2002, the government of Alvaro Uribe gave the army greater powers to undermine the military strength of the guerrillas. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, kept up the pressure and invited FARC to peace negotiations. The twin-pronged approach worked. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2016. On September 1, 2017, FARC became a political party, parading through Plaza Bolivar.
In tandem with these changes are dramatically improved economic prospects. Since 2011, direct foreign investment into Colombia has more than doubled and, according to the Ministry of Commerce, more than 1,100 foreign firms have set up operations in the country. In May, Colombia was invited to join Mexico and Chile as the third Latin American member of the OECD, the select club of 36 wealthy, stable democracies.
But South America’s third largest economy, behind Brazil and Argentina, relies heavily on global commodity prices. Inevitably, Colombia reels whenever there is a downturn – as at present – in the value of petroleum, coal, bananas, cut flowers or coffee. It’s the world’s largest producer of mild, washed Arabica coffee; in 2017, production was 14.2 million bags, mainly for export.
Economic growth slowed to 1.8 per cent in 2017 – down from 2 per cent the previous year (and way down from the 5-6 per cent notched up before the crude oil crash of 2014). But the World Bank noted an upturn in financial services. As the climatic effects of the El Nino phenomenon dissipated and the livestock sector expanded, agriculture expanded 4.95 per cent last year.
“The agricultural sector has immense potential now rural areas have seen the end of the war,” says Mauricio Rodriguez, formerly Colombia’s ambassador to the UK, and currently an advisor to Bogota’s mayor, Enrique Penalosa. “Even though peace is not fully consolidated, we are starting to enjoy the dividends, such as a boom in tourism and record high investment levels.”
Most observers concur that Colombia needs to turn its fragile peace into a comprehensive social contract that tackles crime, widespread corruption and social inequality. Reforms across business and banking are also needed to steer the country away from “cartelisation”, a common trait in Latin American economies exacerbated by Colombia’s particularly problematic history.
“The Colombian economy faces a number of structural challenges,” says Luis Carlos Reyes, assistant professor of economics at Bogota’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and co-founder of the Observatorio Fiscal, an ethics-focused think tank.” Oligopolies in several industries tend to run the show. This is an issue of particular importance in the financial sector: it is difficult for entrepreneurs to find capital to fund new businesses, unless they get it from the established banks at rates that are not competitive.”
Reyes also points to difficulties entering the local stock market. Leading glassmaker Tecnoglass claimed that it was easier to join Nasdaq than the Colombian Stock Exchange.
“Issuing bonds is complicated because of regulation. Some large firms resort to borrowing abroad, which is risky because of fluctuations in the exchange rate. It would be good to have a more stable exchange rate – it’s currently favourable to exporters – and a more stable tax system – there’s a major tax reform every other year or so, and businesses don’t know what to expect in terms of their tax burden in the long run. In sum, investing is harder than it should be unless you are a big player, and that is not good for the economy. We need more competitive financial markets.”
In May, Colombia elected a new president. Ivan Duque, 42, a member of the right-wing Democratic Centre party and former ally of Uribe, was widely viewed as the business-friendly choice. He assumed office on August 7 pledging to boost investment, cut taxes and shrink the state.
“The new president was the candidate of the status quo,” says Reyes. “He had the backing of the large conglomerates that run the country’s economy. While the business environment may not improve dramatically, his being elected avoided a number of risky economic experiments that could have come under his opponent, Gustavo Petro, who is ideologically close to the old-guard, anti-free-trade Latin American left.
“It was a choice between a candidate who was suspected of being anti-business and anti-market, and one who is at best pro-business but not really pro-market. In this sense, Duque may be better for the economy.”
From gold to gigabytes
The original pre-Colombian inhabitants of Bogota, the Muisca, were master goldsmiths, and the city’s Gold Museum is a world-class showcase of precious metalwork. Gold mining and other extraction industries have played a major part in the nation’s economic history. While the Colombian capital is often dubbed “the Athens of South America” (a nickname given by Prussian explorer Alexander Von Humboldt in the 19th century) for its cultural riches, Bogotanos tend to be business-minded and entrepreneurial in spirit.
With a population in excess of eight million, Bogota is recognised as one of Latin America’s key business centres. A new terminal at El Dorado International airport opened in 2012. Recent hotel openings include a 297-room Grand Hyatt, a sleek W, two Four Seasons properties and the uber-cool BOG boutique hotel. It has a modern CBD in the Chapinero district, well away from traffic-hogged La Candelaria. In January, the glass-walled 4,000-delegate capacity Agora convention centre opened. In a bid to keep ahead of upstart smaller rival cities, Bogota styles itself as the tech and coworking capital: HubBOG, a “start-up campus” set up a decade ago, claims to have mentored more than 200 countries.
Two miles north of Chapinero are several contiguous dining and drinking quarters, including the Zona T aka Zona Rosa, Zona G (for “gourmet”) and Parque de la 93. While still chasing Peru as a gastronomic centre, Bogota chefs Harry Sasson and Leonor Espinosa are making waves, while out-of-town eatery Andres Carne de Res (and its in-town branch Andres DC) combines fun, dancing and great food in an effervescent Colombian manner; branches of Lima’s Astrid y Gaston and Rafael are also found in the city.
Becoming a business hub
Behind the vivacious veneer, the city has some way to go to establish itself as a premier business hub.
“Bogota has gone through a couple of difficult mayoral administrations, involving corruption scandals and a lack of efficiency in public finance,” says Juan Guillermo Moncada, a researcher at Bogota-based think tank Instituto de Ciencia Política (ICP).
“It faces transit and public transport challenges, and security problems as well. Nevertheless, Bogota has positioned itself as a major Latin American capital for its strategic geographical position and diverse population.
“It’s an attractive city not only to Colombians but to other Latin American travellers, who come seeking improved job opportunities, better quality of life and education, knowing that Bogota’s universities are the best in Colombia and among the best in Latin America.”
Transport is a major bugbear at national level. Unlike most other Latin American nations, Colombia’s economy is not totally centralised. More than ten cities have populations in excess of 500,000 inhabitants. Medellin is known for its textile, pharmaceutical (ironic jokes probably unwelcome) and service industries. Barranquilla is another industrial hub – and chief Caribbean port. Cartagena de Indias, a sultry colonial jewel on the same coast, is the tourism honeypot. The three cities of Armenia, Pereira and Manizales constitute the “Coffee Triangle”.
While the even distribution of population and economic power is largely a positive, connecting up the cities of South America’s fourth-largest nation remains a challenge. Bogota lies atop a 2,640m (8,600 feet) plateau known as the sabana (savannah), bordered by the eastern Andean cordillera (chain of mountain ranges). Two further densely forested Andean ranges run north-south. The roads, considered dangerous in the dark days of guerrilla warfare, are in a terrible state of repair. Business people and tourists fly, even for relatively short distances.
Six years ago, President Santos inaugurated the US$70 billion Vias 4G infrastructure programme. Latin America’s largest road-building scheme, it involves 47 projects spanning 8,000km of roads and 3,500km of four-lane highways as well as expansion of ports and railways, all to be completed by the end of the decade.
Duque has signalled his support for the 4G programme, progress of which was delayed by Brazil’s Odebrecht scandal. If he keeps his word and speeds up the implementation, and oil prices stabilise and private sector demand increases, growth – according to the World Bank – is expected to strengthen gradually over the 2018-2020 period, accelerating to 2.7 percent this year, and 3.6 per cent by 2020.
Juan Guillermo Moncada of the Instituto de Ciencia Politica (ICP) believes megaprojects could play a key role in Colombia’s future prospects. “4G will reduce transportation and connectivity costs, and probably make Colombia a more attractive investment destination.
“There are other big projects in line, including seven new airports, a new port in the Uraba Gulf and various fluvial ports along the Magdalena River that will improve its navigability.”
Tourism is, arguably, less an indicator of economic health than of good PR. But Colombia has some desirable USPs. It’s within easy reach of all the countries of the Americas: five hours from Atlanta, and 6.5 hours from Buenos Aires. It’s the only South American nation with Pacific and Caribbean coasts. It has several well-preserved colonial cities, the three Andean ranges, the Amazon river as well as Magdale – the region to the west of the river of the same name that was the inspiration and backdrop for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism. It’s also one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, according to Conservation International, and is a favourite for intrepid birdwatchers.
ProColombia – the government body that promotes invisible exports – claims that, between 2010 and 2017, visitor numbers increased by
13.5 per cent, almost three times the global average. International flights have grown accordingly, with Colombian flag-carrier Avianca – Latin America’s second biggest airline by fleet size and revenue – leading the way. A recent tourism campaign assured visitors, “The only risk is you’ll want to stay”. But it’s not all a bed of hand-picked exportable roses.
US government observers claimed Colombia’s coca cultivation had increased 11 per cent to 209,000 hectares (516,450 acres) in 2017, and potential cocaine output rose 19 per cent to 921 metric tons in the same year. In June, president Santos authorised the use of low-flying drones spraying controversial herbicide glyphosate – linked by the World Health Organisation to cancer.
Meanwhile, Duque’s past links with right-wing paramilitaries has raised questions about the future of the current detente. In the March elections, FARC candidates polled less than 1 per cent. Colombia’s second-largest left-wing guerrilla force, the ELN (National Liberation Army), is still officially active. In June 2017, three people died when a bomb exploded in a shopping centre in Bogota’s Zona Rosa; a fringe group called the People’s Revolutionary Movement (MRP) was held responsible.
Floods, landslides, earthquakes and other natural disasters routinely blight Colombia; infrastructure problems are by no means limited to the roads, and the poor always suffer disproportionately. It remains to be seen if Duque will balance advancing the economy with tackling long-standing challenges such as income inequality and economic efficiency.
Then there is the Venezuela problem. According to the Red Cross, more than one million refugees have arrived since 2017; while declaring solidarity with the needy, Santos put more troops at the border to deter them. If anything, Duque is likely to tighten immigration controls.
By any standards, these are massive challenges. But consider Colombia’s point of departure. In the late Eighties, if Bogota wasn’t the global media’s “most dangerous city on earth”, then Medellin was, or else Cali. Over the past decade I’ve been to Bogota five times, and once each to the infamous “cartel” cities. In the capital, I was seduced by the sophistication of the Bogotanos, the bicycle-only Sundays, the energy of its young workforce. In Medellin – drug lord Escobar’s old fiefdom – it was the public art, eco-minded civic spaces and new cable-car network. In Cali, it was the petrol-grade firewater and the scintillating salsa dancing – which is everywhere, and always was, even when times were really tough.
You’ve got to admire Colombia, but to really know its people you also have to enjoy yourself. If you go there on business, set aside time for pleasure – because there’s heaps of it on offer.
WHERE TO STAY
This ultra-contemporary tower hotel opened in 2014 and looms over the Santa Barbara business district. Celebrating Bogota’s mythical links with the fictitious El Dorado, public spaces glow with bold golden art and sculpture. Rooms are funky and spacious and there’s an excellent spa. From £214 per night. marriott.com
Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina
In a characterful 1946 building (below top) in the buzzing Zona G, this boutique-style property has elegant rooms with beamed ceilings, hand-carved wooden furnishings and fireplaces. The financial district and myriad food options are close by. From around £256 per night. fourseasons.com/bogotacm
Opened in 2012 in trendy Zona T in the La Cabrera district – which comes alive after office hours – this is one of the city’s few truly upscale boutique properties. Design is minimalist, and the atmosphere is somewhat corporate – but a big draw is the rooftop swimming pool. From £130 per night. boghotel.com
Hotel de la Opera
If you want to be base yourself in historic La Candelaria, this very good-value hotel – housed in a Republican-style landmark building – has lofty, graciously appointed rooms overlooking the pedestrianised streets below. There’s good Italian food served here, with hearty traditional eateries nearby just off the plaza. From £93 per night. hotelopera.com.co
Sofitel Bogota Victoria Regia
Contemporary, comfortable and filled with light, the name of this Accor property (left) honours the Amazonian giant waterlily. It has a good informal French restaurant and bar and is five minutes’ walk from dining hub Parque 93. From £125 a night. sofitel.com