A decade ago, Colombia was best known for violence and its lucrative, if illegal export, cocaine.
Today, Colombia boasts the region’s third-largest economy and a growing middle class. While security challenges remain, including from anti-government FARC rebels, Colombia has become Florida’s No. 2 trading partner and a potential investment hot spot for Metro Orlando, home to nearly 38,000 Colombians.
Luis Carlos Villegas, ambassador of the Republic of Colombia, recently spoke to the Sentinel Editorial Board about Colombia’s overhaul and the trade prospects. Here are excerpts.
Q: Can you summarize Colombia’s renewal?
A: We have to thank the United States for its timely and generous support for 13 years. What we have done together is very good news for the international community — to have a country that was isolated and close to implosion 15 years ago [become] a regional power. That’s good news, not only for Colombians — for Colombians that live in Colombia and those who live outside Colombia — but the whole Latin America region.
Q: Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham was a major player behind “Plan Colombia.” How important has that been to Colombia’s revival?
A: Very much. The Plan Colombia was … really a commitment of public and international policy of the United States in agreement with the interests of Colombia. Interests that went from fighting against organized crime and also to recover for democracy a country that was threatened by almost all the threats a democracy can face — terrorism, drugs, organized crime, poverty and isolation. Plan Colombia was key to awaking Colombians’ interest in their own country.
Q: How can Colombians and expats rest assured that after the government’s negotiations with the FARC, they — or another faction — won’t resume the terror?
A: The [security] balance is definitely, inexorably, in favor of the Colombian state today, and they know it. Second, internationally, they don’t have the room they had [before] — the support politically and the material support they used to have. And the other difference is the social agenda is very different now. The FARC has to recognize the country has changed for the better. But the thing is, we all know who we are dealing with. Every Columbian has a friend or a relative that has been a victim of the FARC. But if the opportunity for ending the conflict is open, I think the ethical duty of any government is to take it.
Q: Critics of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement cited violence against trade union leaders. Is that still a problem?
A: When I arrived in Geneva in June ’96, we were very close to an international embargo for that kind of accusation. Two years ago, we had a candidate to be director of the International Labour Organization. What did we do? We signed a tripartite agreement with international support for two things: build a program of physical security for union members and union leaders that is still working; and modernize our legislation. We finally signed the FTA. We modified our labor procedures. What has that produced? Not only the biggest reduction in crime against union leaders and members, but also for the first time, the economy of Colombia is producing more formal jobs than informal jobs.
Q: What kind of economic opportunities exist between Colombia and Central Florida?
A: I think Central Florida is really the heart of our bilateral economic relations. We have a service sector in Colombia that is [needing] U.S. investment, including call centers, client services and under-contracting. I would highly recommend Florida enterprises go there and compare costs and see opportunities with growth with Colombia companies. We have in the middle an asset — the Spanish language — that is more needed in the world. Second, we will see more and more investment in manufacturing. I hope Florida will take more energy in finding that.
Source: Orlando Sentinel