A hard-won peace, falling crime and growing foreign investment are reasons to be optimistic about Colombia – but the age-old problems of inequality, corruption and coca production refuse to go away.
On the face of it, Colombia has a lot to celebrate. In 2016 it ended five decades of civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which is now a political party. Two years later, ex-guerrilla commanders took their seats as lawmakers in congress for the first time in Colombia’s history. Overall murder rates are at a record four-decade low, while most of Colombia’s cities have never been safer.
Yet across swathes of rural Colombia, poor farming communities have yet to experience the benefits of peace. While former guerrilla strongholds have been vacated under the peace deal they have left behind a vacuum of power, which drug traffickers have been only too eager to fill.
As Colombia embarks on its precarious transition from decades of war to peace, now comes the hardest part: implementing an unpopular peace accord that was pushed through congress despite being rejected in a 2016 referendum. The result is a highly polarised political landscape with a society torn between left and right and centrists hoping to stake their ground.
Tasked with steering Colombia in peacetime is president Iván Duque. A political newcomer, conservative Duque has promised to change parts of the peace deal, raising questions about its legacy.
Yet despite the turmoil – and the recent influx of about one million Venezuelans fleeing an economic and humanitarian crisis in their homeland – Colombia has enjoyed robust economic growth and record tourism over the past decade. And compared to some of its neighbours, the country boasts an independent judiciary and isn’t prone to having contested elections.
Colombia is opening up to the world. This year it became a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) and Nato’s first Latin American global partner. It’s another sign that Colombia has come a long way from the pariah and “narco-state” it was dubbed just two decades ago.
Historically Colombia has always considered the US to be its most important ally and has looked toward Washington for reassurance and finance. Over the decades the US has pumped billions of dollars into Colombia to pay for anti-drug and anti-insurgency operations and has equipped its large military. It’s something Duque, who feels at home in the US, continues to nurture. But Colombia has also forged new diplomatic and trade ties in recent years, with Chile, Peru and Mexico through the Pacific Alliance bloc and with parts of Asia, notably Turkey, India and China. Duque has promised a hardline approach to the government of Venezuela, which he calls a dictatorship.
Oil and offshore gas account for 3.3 per cent of Colombia’s gdp. The country is also the world’s fifth-largest exporter of coal and boasts huge gold and emerald deposits. Successive governments have failed to steer Colombia away from its reliance on fossil fuels but that could start to change. Duque is also a staunch advocate of the so-called “orange economy”, which includes the cultural and creative industries, from fashion and design to film and software.
An inexperienced politician, 42-year-old Iván Duque has yet to carve out his own identity. Some say he’s merely a puppet of Álvaro Uribe, the former hardline president who handpicked his protégé for the presidency. Duque is on message for his conservative base: he presents himself as a family man who’s tough on crime while being discreet about lgbt rights. His 16-strong cabinet is made up of equal numbers of men and women.
Booming film industry
Colombia’s famed soap operas and “narco novelas” are watched worldwide. Now the country is drawing on its production know-how and technical expertise and is positioning itself as a cheap film location. Colombia’s varied backdrops – colonial towns, mountain ranges, deserts and rainforests – have drawn both Netflix and Hollywood studios to film here. The country is also making more of its own films, up from the seven titles produced in 2002 to 41 in 2016.
The production of coca – the raw ingredient for cocaine – shows no signs of abating. Coca cultivation rose by 11 per cent to 209,000 hectares last year. Colombia and the US have agreed to reduce cocaine production and coca cultivation by half by 2023. But it continues to be an uphill battle: years of crop-substitution programmes that offer farmers money to help them turn away from coca and grow food crops instead hasn’t worked.
Corruption: This often tops polls as the problem Colombians are most concerned about. From the siphoning off of state funds and bribery to cronyism and white elephants, rarely a day goes by without another corruption scandal exploding. The practice costs Colombia about €14.5bn a year according to Edgardo Maya, the country’s outgoing comptroller general.
Poor infrastructure: Too often, getting around Colombia means meandering through potholed single-lane roads. Bogotá is one of the few big capital cities in the world without a metro system, though a one-line, 15-station project has been mooted
Inequality: Millions of Colombians have been lifted out of poverty in the past decade but gaps between rich and poor, and urban and rural communities, remain entrenched and stark.
Sport: Colombia has pedal power. Its Andean mountains are prime training ground for some of the world’s leading cyclists, including its own Nairo Quintana.
Music: Whether it’s Shakira’s latest pop hit, J Balvin’s reggaeton, salsa or vallenato folk music, Colombian music regularly tops the Latin Billboard charts.
Biodiversity: With the Amazon rainforest, Colombia bills itself as one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. It is home to more species of birds than any other country in the world.
“The mountains of Colombia are teeming with guerrillas who have gone back to fighting. Paramilitary groups still organise hits in villages. Coca production is at record highs. What peace? That’s the questions most Colombians ask now.”
Andes bureau chief at ‘The New York Times’
“Certain areas of the country are areas that have had zero government presence for decades. You are going from the people carrying guns [being] Farc to people carrying guns being the Colombian military – but that doesn’t necessarily put the local population at ease.”
Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
“Few would argue with President Duque’s priorities over the next four years: to combat corruption and organised crime, reduce inequality, improve the justice system and jumpstart the economy. Unless he begins to reach out in an attempt to bridge the country’s sharp political divide, however, Duque will have trouble achieving these laudable objectives.”
President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington
With the peace deal and abundant natural resources, Colombia is resilient enough to make a successful transition to lasting peace. But corruption, inequality and drug trafficking continue to stifle development.