Elephants in the Room

Here’s How the United States Can Help Colombia Thrive

As an era of peace approaches, both countries should take practical steps to strengthen the relationship.

A voter casts her ballot in the referendum to end the guerrilla war between the FARC and the Colombian government in Bogotá on Oct. 2, 2016. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A voter casts her ballot in the referendum to end the guerrilla war between the FARC and the Colombian government in Bogotá on Oct. 2, 2016. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence set off for Lima, Peru, on Friday, to stand in for President Donald Trump — who stayed home to focus on Syria — at the Summit of the Americas.

On Saturday, Pence is set to meet with regional leaders, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

The vice president’s conversation with Santos comes as Colombia is on the verge of achieving a state of normalcy, thanks in many ways to decades of partnership with the United States. While dealing with the short-term issues in Colombia, the United States should get ready to find ways to reap the benefits of this transformed relationship. Three to five years from now, it will be reasonable to talk about a post-peace partnership between the United States and Colombia. The two countries could see the opening of a new, deep, durable phase in their friendship. What might that phase look like?

Twenty years ago, Colombia was on the cusp of becoming a failed state. De facto civil war between the Colombian government and various guerrilla groups — most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — fueled by illegal drug production, had mired the country in underdevelopment for decades.

Even in the wake of the government’s peace agreement with the FARC, first approved in 2016, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, has not yet signed a peace agreement and still has between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers in the field. The challenge for the next president of Colombia will be the implementation of the existing peace accord and getting the ELN to disarm. Currently, Colombia allocates around $30 billion to defense, more than any other country in the hemisphere, and has enjoyed increasing amounts of security and peace. But drug production is not going away anytime soon, and the country’s social, political, and economic challenges are going to take decades to overcome.

But Colombia has made unbelievable progress in the last 20 years, and the country’s progress is irreversible. The United States has supplemented Colombia’s efforts through Plan Colombia and Peace Colombia. Colombia is on the verge of becoming a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, proving its social and economic mobility. In 2000, Colombia’s population living below the national poverty line was approximately 50 percent. Today, it is 28 percent. In 2000, Colombia’s gross national product was $100 billion. Today, it’s more than $275 billion. The country has emerged as a regional leader. Beyond its role as the new Latin American power, Colombia is also a key trading partner for the United States. In an age where the U.S. government wants to increase exports, Colombia is a promising market as it is already the third-largest export market for the United States, after Mexico and Brazil.

Looking ahead, one can see the contours of what post-peace partnership between the United States and Colombia could look like. The United States should:

Realize the promise of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. The United States has become Colombia’s largest trading partner. The two countries signed a free trade agreement in 2006 and implemented it in 2012. However, it has been largely a disappointment: In 2007, the United States traded a modest $18 billion or so in combined imports and exports with Colombia, and in 2017, that figure reached $22 billion. China is growing as a Colombian trading partner.

Help Colombia become a mini-Brazil in terms of agriculture. In a state of peace, Colombia could make full use of its land, the soil, and climate, which is similar to that of the famous Cerrado region of Brazil. Colombia’s vast agricultural landscape is underutilized, with approximately 35 percent of its agricultural land in use. Transforming it into a Brazil-style breadbasket would require a revolution in Colombia’s road networks.

Focus on oil and energy. Oil production is falling in Colombia. Colombia needs to reform its energy sector and create rules to make fracking possible. Colombia has significant offshore gas, but the rules make it difficult to access. The current regulations deter investment in Colombia’s energy sector. Localities have the ability to challenge permits on investments, even once they have started, as demonstrated in a recent scandal that halted a 14-year-long project.

Focus on infrastructure. One of Colombia’s more important initiatives is $70 billion worth of infrastructure projects, focused on a range of transportation improvements. The cost of transport has been one of the most problematic factors for doing business in Colombia, and its quality of domestic transport was ranked 103 out of 122, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Human Capital Index. Accomplishing the so-called 4G infrastructure initiative, which aims to improve some 5,000 miles of roads, will be one of the pillars to peace and transforming Colombia’s economy as it promises to connect cities across the country, which hold 77 percent of the total population. It would be good if U.S. companies won some of the contracts or U.S. banks helped finance much of this work.

Help Colombia become a mini-Mexico in terms of U.S. tourism. Bogotá is not much further from Miami than Mexico City is. Yet U.S. tourists continue to favor Mexico. Last year, Mexico received around 40 million tourists, and more than half were from the United States, while Colombia received about half a million U.S. tourists. Tourism accounted for 5.8 percent of Colombian GDP in 2016, compared with 7.4 percent in Mexico.

Teach English. The lingua franca of this age is English. Colombia’s English-speaking population accounts for less than 10 percent of the total population and is among the lowest in the world. It needs to increase that number if it wants to move up the development curve further. Colombia should do more in education to promote learning English because it will be an important asset as the country emerges in the global market.

Share regional burdens. Colombia is going to carry a heavy load from Venezuela’s ongoing crisis. It currently hosts more than 550,000 Venezuelans, who mostly arrived over the past several years. This figure is comparable to the 530,000 Syrians who have arrived in Germany and the well over 680,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who arrived in Bangladesh since 2017. Colombia will likely need international assistance to deal with the overspill that could impact stabilization efforts within Colombia.

Deepen science and technology partnerships. Colombia’s science and technology industries will be an important component to economic growth and competition. The country has increased its capacity for information technology companies to lay roots in recent years and has made efforts to improve university programs in the technology and innovation sectors.

Create an endowed U.S.-Colombia foundation. The United States and Colombia ought to jointly fund a permanent foundation similar to the Luso-American Development Foundation or the German Marshall Fund of the United States, both set up by governments to deepen the partnership between America and another country. A U.S.-Colombia foundation would enable interpersonal ties and fund projects that deepen the U.S.-Colombia relationship. 

Americans needs to consider what kind of partnership they will have with Colombia in the future. Even as the Unites States helps Colombia with its current struggles, Washington should prepare for an era of peace and prosperity.

Daniel Runde served in the George W. Bush administration at USAID. He also worked at the World Bank Group (IFC). He currently holds the William A. Schreyer Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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