Not all its problems are solved, but Colombia is a much safer — and happier — place than it was just a few years ago. Here’s how it has changed.
Toronto Star – When North Americans hear the word Colombia, they might think of the former drug lord Pablo Escobar, or the Nobel-prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or possibly a character wearing a serape and leading a burro, a fictional coffee-grower who goes by the name Juan Valdez.
They do not think of David Lightle.
Lightle, 55, isn’t even Colombian. He’s an American from Tipp City, Ohio, who seems to spend most of his time these days in China or Taiwan.
“I’m a marketing consultant,” he says, on the phone from Beijing.
Lightle is also the man who helped oversee perhaps the most ambitious public-relations campaign of the last two decades.
Or, how did war-stricken Colombia transform itself from a pariah state haunted by narcotics gangs, Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary death squads into a vigorous and largely peaceful land that attracts growing numbers of foreign investors, not to mention roughly 2 million international tourists a year?
Well, it wasn’t easy — and it wasn’t David Lightle’s doing, either.
What the American did was help spread news about the country’s transformation to the outside world.
“Our program doesn’t take credit for Colombia’s growth,” says Lightle. “We take credit for communicating that growth.”
Either way, the project represented about as daunting an exercise in “national rebranding” as has ever been undertaken — the metamorphosis of South America’s second most populous country from a narco-state riven by war into the sort of place that a perfectly ordinary family from the GTA might reasonably choose as the destination for their next holiday.
Numbers tell a story
Merely consider the numbers.
The bad statistical indices — those for extortion, kidnapping and murder — are way down, while the good indicators are sharply up, including employment, tourist arrivals, foreign direct investment and economic growth.
Savvy outsiders now consider Colombia a safe place to invest their money and a great country to visit, a land where personal security no longer needs to be a major concern, at least not for those who stay clear of drugs and politics.
In the words of Colombia’s official tourist slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
As for Colombians themselves, a worldwide poll conducted late last year by WIN/Gallup International Association found they are not just in passably good spirits. They are the most contented people on the planet, with a “happiness score” of 75 — almost double the global average. (Canadians were No. 18 with a score of 48.)
Meanwhile, Colombian government officials have been talking peace with the main militant rebel group, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Better known by their Spanish acronym — the FARC — the rebels have been waging a guerrilla-style military campaign since the mid-1960s. Nowadays, they are a depleted and unregenerate force with minimal public support.
“The government is talking to the guerrillas,” says Álvaro Concha, Colombia’s trade commissioner in Toronto. “Hopefully, we will have good news pretty soon.”
Reputation in tatters
The modern history of Colombian conflict dates back to 1948, when the country was convulsed by internecine fighting between liberals and conservatives, heralding an 18-year period of soul-rattling horror known as La Violencia, which claimed upwards of 200,000 lives.
Then things got worse.
By the time David Lightle’s career path intersected with Colombia, the country and its reputation were close to bottoming out.
That was in 1995, and Lightle was busily working on a marketing contract in Taipei. It so happened that Colombia had a trade representative in the Asian capital, an up-and-coming official named Luis Guillermo Plata. He wondered if Lightle might not be able to apply some PR magic to his country.
The following year, Lightle paid his first visit to Colombia. He was not impressed.
“It was still the old Colombia,” he recalls. “It was basically in lockdown. You couldn’t do much for them. It was a mess.”
There’s a saying in Spanish: “You have to prepare your lunchbox before you can enjoy your lunch break.” In other words, before buffing its image, Colombia was going to have to brighten its reality.
Plata was soon named to head the Colombian government agency Proexport, which is responsible for promoting tourism, foreign investment and exports. In 2002, he invited Lightle back.
“I saw a big change in Colombia,” Lightle recalls. “But it wasn’t enough.”
The large cities — Bogota, Medellin, Cali — were still mostly shuttered at night, and inter-city roads were frequently impassable owing to the threat of robbery or kidnap. Meanwhile, the drug gangs were flourishing, and vast swathes of the countryside were controlled by armed rebels.
Still, the overall dynamic of the place was changing.
At the time, a hard-line politician named Alvaro Uribe had just taken over the Colombian presidency. He would go on to rule the country for eight years, until 2010, scoring major victories against violent groups on the left and right.
Lightle visited again in 2004 and he could barely believe the difference. The cities were bustling with legitimate commerce by day, and prosperous urbanites were flocking into the streets at night, going to movies, nightclubs, chic restaurants. Much of the countryside was now safely accessible. He decided to get involved.
Lightle and his Colombian counterparts began inviting influential foreigners to visit the country, people such as Harvard University economist Michael Porter. Like others, Porter went home impressed by what he’d seen and eager to spread the word about the “new” Colombia.
As a central part of its rebranding, the country adopted what Lightle calls an “umbrella” icon and slogan — catchy touchstones that would define the country’s new reality and ideally “soften” its image. He and his Colombian colleagues came up with a stylized heart topped by what appeared to be the steaming vapours from a cup of coffee, accompanied by the slogan “Colombia es pasion!”
“Not Colombia has passion,” says Lightle. “Colombia is passion.”
The campaign was a major success.
It was around this time that a Bogota businessman named Pedro Medina — the former head of the Colombian subsidiary of McDonald’s Restaurants — experienced a powerful patriotic calling. He quit his day job and started travelling the world, extolling the wonders and virtues of his long-maligned homeland.
Colombia, he crowed, has the world’s largest assortment of palm trees and its second-largest selection of butterflies, not to mention a huge variety of frogs. It is home to the planet’s largest gold museum, has 80 indigenous tribes and boasts 1,025 different folk rhythms. The list of distinctions and superlatives was practically endless.
Medina’s unabashed enthusiasm seemed to embody a new spirit of national pride among Colombians generally — and with good reason. Not only did things seem better. They were better.
“The situation in Colombia has improved a huge amount in the last 10 years,” says Daniel Mejia, director of the Security and Drugs Study Centre at the University of the Andes in Bogota. “Among well-travelled people, everyone knows about the advances in Colombia.”
According to Concha at the Colombian trade office in Toronto, tourism has roughly quintupled since the launch of the “Colombia is passion” campaign. Foreign visitors are especially drawn to the cobbled streets and burnt-orange and ochre facades of Cartagena, a splendid, sun-baked colonial city on the Caribbean coast.
Meanwhile, he says, the economy is growing at a sustained annual rate of about 4 per cent.
Granted, Colombia’s renewal is still a work in progress, and not everyone agrees the country has entirely transformed itself from the tortured land of old.
Take Canadian Gernot Wober.
Vice president of exploration for Toronto-based Braeval Mining Corp., Wober, 47, was released late in August after more than 200 days of captivity at the hands of the National Liberation Army, another rebel group.
Troubling murder rate
On the other hand, kidnappings in Colombia are much less frequent nowadays, falling from 2,122 reported incidents in 2003 to 305 last year, according to Colombian NGO País Libre.
The murder rate remains troubling by most standards — 33.2 deliberate homicides per 100,000 population in 2011 — but that figure represents a sharp decline since Uribe took power in 2002, when the rate was more than twice as high, at 70.2.
“The country still has a lot of challenges, but the government is working on them,” says Concha. “Colombia today is actually a safe country where you can invest.”
Because of Colombia’s term limits for politicians, Uribe was unable to run for re-election in 2010, and his anointed successor, Juan Manuel Santos, was elected in his place.
Santos abandoned the “Colombia es pasion” mantra, replacing it with a somewhat more prosaic slogan — “La respuesta es Colombia,” which means “The answer is Colombia” — with a logo that highlights the country’s internet suffix, CO.
Not everyone is impressed.
“I don’t mind that they want something more corporate,” says Lightle. “But what they came up with is meaningless.”
Gimena Sanchez, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank, says many unresolved problems lurk behind Colombia’s new and improved facade, including some 3,000 extra-judicial killings committed by the armed forces during Uribe’s two terms.
“Now we’re seeing an increase in killings of human-rights defenders,” she says. “The conflict has shifted, but the perception that everything is great and there are no problems isn’t true. It’s not the full picture.”
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, Concha rhymes off a list of positive economic statistics about Colombia: the third-largest economy in Latin America (after Brazil and Mexico); a 9.2 per cent unemployment rate; $15.8 billion in foreign investment last year; an annual inflation rate of just 2 per cent.
But the bare numbers tell you only so much. Concha’s advice to Canadians: hop on a plane.
“If you go to the country, you will see for yourself,” he says. “Once I have you on the plane, my job is done. The country will do its job.”