Latin America
3:15 am
Thu April 12, 2012

After Taint Of Drugs, Colombia Reinvents Itself

Originally published on Fri April 13, 2012 10:22 am

Colombia was once associated with cocaine trafficking and powerful drug lords, but today's reality is different: It's stable, a magnet for foreign investment and diplomatically engaged — and this weekend hosts the Summit of the Americas. Increasingly, Colombia is seen as South America's rising star.

A factory in a middle-class neighborhood in the capital is symbolic of this new Colombia. The Nutresa factory in Bogota churns out countless chocolate bars and containers of ice cream. But Nutresa produces much more: It has grown into a food conglomerate — a $3 billion company with international affiliates and 30,000 workers.

Mario Nino, Nutresa's vice president for innovation, says Colombia is experiencing strong growth and low inflation.

"All that means confidence for investors," he says in Spanish, "and the arrival of capital that is extremely positive."

Foreign investment has quadrupled over the past decade, and Colombia was recently awarded investment grade status. It also has a new free-trade agreement with the U.S.

It's a new reality sharply at odds with the past — a past that many outsiders still have in mind when they think about the country: drugs and the powerful drug lord Pablo Escobar.

'Colombia As A Promised Land'

Juan Carlos Echeverry, who studied in the U.S. and Europe, says that's all people knew of Colombia — even years after Escobar was killed by police.

"Ten to 15 years ago, I studied in NYU in New York City, and I studied in Germany, I studied in Spain, and every beer with friends from those countries, we spent hours speaking about Pablo Escobar and narco-trafficking," he recalls.

Echeverry says it was tiresome.

Now, he's Colombia's finance minister. At the Summit of the Americas in the coastal city of Cartagena, he'll give his side of the story to heads of state — including President Obama — and CEOs from some of the biggest companies around. He says many people are already getting the message.

"People are talking about this, infrastructure and oil and tourism," he says. "And people want to come to Colombia, and this humongous, tectonic change of stereotype, Colombia as a promised land."

Echeverry even predicts that Colombia, with a population approaching 50 million, will in a few years surpass Argentina to become South America's second-biggest economy after Brazil.

Signs Of Change

Despite the rosy outlook, no one is saying Colombia doesn't face a range of deep-seated problems.

A guerrilla conflict that is now simmering in remote rural areas remains a challenge for the state and for the U.S., which provides military aid.

Colombians also suffer from severe income inequality. Economic figures, though, show a shift that is gathering momentum — falling poverty levels, a bigger middle class.

Purchases of big-ticket items — like cars and appliances — are at record highs.

Luis Carlos Villegas, who directs the National Association of Entrepreneurs, says nearly 12 million people have joined the middle class since the 1990s.

"We have to feel very proud about that," he says. "The consequence of that is we have a large internal market."

In Colombia's big cities, the sounds of change seem to be everywhere.

In the heart of Bogota, malls, apartment blocks and office buildings are going up — including a 66-story tower. The developer, B.D. Promoters, is from Spain and invests in several countries, says Emilio Borrella, who runs operations in the country.

"It was like an incredible sense of deja vu, coming to Colombia," says Borrella, who is from Barcelona.

He says the country feels a lot like Spain did when it started to modernize and grow fast a generation ago.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama travels to a summit of political and business leaders from across the Americas. The host nation is Colombia, a country many people still associate with drug lords.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today's reality is different. The country is seen as a rising star in South America - stable, diplomatically engaged, and a magnet for foreign investment.

INSKEEP: Some of the credit goes to Colombia's economic and military ties to the United States. NPR's Juan Forero reports from the capital, Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: The Nutresa factory in a middleclass neighborhood here in Colombia's capital churns it out: countless chocolate bars and containers of ice cream. But Nutresa produces much more. It's grown into a food conglomerate, a $3 billion company with international affiliates and 30,000 workers. It's a Colombian company that is, in many ways, symbolic of the new Colombia.

Mario Nino, Nutresa's vice president for innovation, says Colombia is experiencing strong growth and low inflation.

MARIO NINO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: All that means confidence for investors, he says, and the arrival of capital that's extremely positive. Foreign investment has quadrupled over the last decade, and Colombia was recently awarded investment-grade status. It also has a new free-trade agreement with the U.S. It's a new reality sharply at odds with the past, the past many outsiders still have in mind when they think about the Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KILLING PABLO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They terrorize the nation of Colombia and made an enemy of the most powerful nation on earth.

FORERO: That was the world Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar, as laid out in the documentary "Killing Pablo." Juan Carlos Echeverry, who studied in the U.S. and Europe, says that's all people knew of Colombia, even years after Escobar was killed by police.

JUAN CARLOS ECHEVERRY: Ten to 15 years ago, I studied at NYU in New York City, and I studied in Germany. I studied in Spain. And at every beer with friends from those countries, we spent hours speaking about Pablo Escobar and narco-trafficking.

FORERO: Echeverry says it was tiresome. Now, he's Colombia's finance minister, and at the Americas Summit in the coastal city of Cartagena, he'll be giving his side of the story to CEOs from some of the biggest companies around. He says many people are already getting the message.

ECHEVERRY: People are talking about this, it's like infrastructure and oil and tourism. And people want to come to Colombia, and this is this humongous, tectonic change of stereotype, Colombia as a promised land.

FORERO: Echeverry even predicts that Colombia, with a population approaching 50 million, will, in a few years, surpass Argentina to become South America's second-biggest economy, after Brazil. Despite the rosy outlook, no one is saying Colombia doesn't face a range of deep-seated problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FORERO: There's a guerrilla conflict captured in this home video of a 2008 firefight posted on YouTube. The conflict's now simmering in remote rural areas, but remains a challenge for the state and the U.S., which provides military aid. Colombians also suffer from severe income inequality. Economic figures, though, show a shift that is gathering momentum: falling poverty levels, a bigger middle class. The purchases of big-ticket items, like cars and appliances, is at record highs. Luis Carlos Villegas, who directs the National Association of Entrepreneurs, says nearly 12 million people have joined the middle class since the 1990s.

LUIS CARLOS VILLEGAS: And we have to feel very proud about that. The consequence of that is that we have a large internal market.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

FORERO: In Colombia's big cities, the sounds of change seem to be everywhere. Here in the heart of the capital, malls, apartment blocks and office buildings are going up, including this 66-story tower. The developer, B.D. Promoters, is from Spain and invests in several countries, says Emilio Borrella, who runs operations here.

EMILIO BORRELLA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: It was like an incredible sense of deja vu, coming to Colombia, says Borrella, who's from Barcelona. He says that the country feels a lot like Spain did when it started to modernize and grow fast a generation ago. Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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