Imagine a country plagued by extremely high murder rates, rampant violence, widespread smuggling and corruption, and organized crime networks that rival the government for authority in many regions of the country. The country is home to the most dangerous city in the world. And last but not least, the country is suffering a civil war that has been raging for decades. When I’ve described this scenario to friends and colleagues, the two most common guesses are Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.
Without revealing the country, I then go on to describe that in the last decade or so, the country has massively improved on virtually every metric. At this stage, most people are scratching their heads. When I reveal that the country I’m speaking about is Colombia, many are stunned.
Consider the following facts. In 1993, the world’s most dangerous city was Medellín and had a homicide rate that may have been as high as 820 per 100,000 people per year, almost double the national average of 420 (click HERE). Today, the national average is in the low 30s, implying a drop of 90%+ (click HERE). Global media outlets such as The New York Times are now featuring Medellín as a tourist destination (click HERE).
Separately, Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory estimates that guerilla groups kidnapped ~25,000 people between 1970 and 2010. In 2003 alone, more than 2100 people were kidnapped, roughly 6 per day. In 2013, approximately 300 kidnappings took place, a drop of ~85% (click HERE). In terms of global kidnapping “hot-spots,” Colombia has been displaced from the number one position to no longer being in the top ten. Mexico, India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria top the 2015 list (click HERE).
Further, Colombia has improved economic freedoms so rapidly that it now ranks ahead of South Korea, France, Italy, and China in global comparisons (click HERE). Bureaucracy has shrunk, and correspondingly, the World Bank’s 2015 “Doing Business” rankings placed Colombia above Brazil, Mexico, and Belgium (click HERE); Colombia’s rank is also improving faster than the other 188 countries (click HERE). Not surprisingly, Colombia’s debt was upgraded in 2011 from junk to investment grade (click HERE). In 2014, the country passed Chile to become Latin America’s third largest economy behind Brazil and Argentina (click HERE).
Amidst all the negative chatter relating to commodity prices and global economic headwinds, Colombian President Juan Miguel Santos is joining forces with the presidents of Chile, Mexico and Peru to launch the “Pacific Alliance” in an effort to help the country pivot towards Asia. One of the explicit goals of the economic bloc is to generate the most attractive gateway to Latin America for Asian capital and companies. Labeled by The Atlantic magazine as “The Most Important Alliance You’ve Never Heard Of,” the Pacific Alliance has already reduced tariffs between the countries and is, as a unit, the world’s eighth largest economy and seventh largest exporter (click HERE). More than 25 countries (including India, Finland and Israel) have applied for observer status in the alliance.
But the country is not resting on its economic laurels. On top of this ambitious economic agenda, President Santos and his team are also working on ending what has become the world’s longest running war (click HERE), an armed conflict between the Colombian military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (“FARC”) that has left more than 200,000 dead and millions displaced (Click HERE for detailed background). The peace negotiations, taking place in Havana, Cuba, have centered on five key topics: 1) land reform, 2) political participation, 3) drug trafficking, 4) disarmament, and 5) victim’s rights and post-war justice. Leaders have agreed on how to handle the first three topics. The last two remain open.
Earlier this year, the FARC even invited Miss Universe Pauline Vega, Colombian winner of the 2014 competition, to help in the peace negotiations (click HERE). Although it reminded me of the Hollywood-caricature of the peace-seeking beauty queen (click HERE), this situation is a real opportunity for Pauline to have a meaningful and positive impact. In April of this year, violence erupted and threatened the entire peace process (click HERE), resulting in a temporary escalation of hostilities. Despite this setback, informed commentators still believe the process is on track and that both sides are genuinely seeking peace (click HERE).
So what? Colombia’s remarkable turnaround is wonderful evidence that countries can and do change. Sadly, our perceptions often lag these underlying realities, as seen by my poll of colleagues and friends. As noted by many a commentator (click HERE), it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Despite this hazard, I’m ready to suggest that the outlook for peace in Colombia is improving as the country becomes an economic power.