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When Air Force One and a succession of presidential planes descended on the colonial coastal city of Cartagena during a sultry afternoon in April, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos had good reason to feel victorious. Casually dressed and with a constant beaming smile, Santos laid on the hospitality for US president Barack Obama and 30 other heads of state gathered for the Summit of the Americas meeting watched by 1,420 journalists.

It was arguably the most important international event hosted by Colombia in recent history. Within Cartagena’s coral ramparts and on top of its 17th century stone fortress, Santos wined and dined his illustrious guests with carefully orchestrated pomp and fanfare. Not that any corners were cut when it came to security. Helicopters circled above, snipers perched on terracotta rooftops and hundreds of US secret service agents and 20,000 Colombian police stood guard on street corners, in hotel lobbies and along the city’s main coastal road.

Apart from presidential motorcades flanked by police motorbike escorts shuttling dignitaries from their hotels to air-conditioned conference halls, there were few cars on the city’s roads, which had been shut off to local traffic. The cobbled narrow streets of Cartagena’s historic quarter – normally bustling with street vendors, tropical fruit sellers and locals drinking coffee – were eerily quiet.

For Santos, this was Colombia’s coming out party and a chance to make its presence felt on the world stage. The Summit provided Santos with the perfect opportunity to showcase the nation’s transformation from near narco-state to a rising regional power and new economic player in Latin America. It also symbolised the reorientation of Colombia’s foreign policy since Santos came to power in August 2010. Under him, Colombia has shifted away from a US-centric foreign policy to playing a more active role in the region and beyond.

“We have been known as the Tibet of South America. We have decided to get down from the mountains. We are no longer isolated,” says María Teresa Aya, who is in charge of training Colombia’s diplomats at the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry. This descent from the Andes, to borrow Aya’s metaphor, is largely due to a waning guerrilla insurgency and a fast-growing economy. Both have given the nation of nearly 46 million people – Latin America’s third most populous – a newfound confidence that is driving it to flex its diplomatic muscles.

Over the past decade, a US-backed military offensive against Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), has seen the left-wing group placed on the back foot, its ranks reduced by half to around 9,000 fighters and government forces regain control of some guerrilla strongholds.

Francisco Coy, a former ambassador who now heads the exquisitely named “territorial sovereignty and border development division” at Colombia’s Ministry of External Relations, says improved security has allowed the country to revise its traditionally insular outlook and position in the world.

“Colombia went through some periods when the security issue was an obvious overriding priority; it almost monopolised policy,” says Coy in measured tones. “There’s been a historical tendency for us to look inwards. But today, there’s a much more diverse foreign policy agenda. I think for the first time there’s a growing awareness that Colombia is a bigger country in all senses than was previously thought.”

Economics is driving the changes in Colombia’s foreign policy as much as politics. Its more assertive role in regional affairs and its desire to forge new trade ties, in particular with Asia, is also a reflection of its booming economy and an aim to become the region’s leading provider of electricity. Colombia’s underexploited oil and mineral reserves, coupled with its business-friendly climate and stable government, make the country a magnet for overseas backers. Over the last eight years, foreign direct investment has risen almost tenfold to €10bn. And with Colombia’s robust growth – the economy grew nearly 6 per cent last year – some are betting that Colombia could soon overtake Argentina to become South America’s second-largest economy.

José Fernández, US assistant secretary for economic and business affairs, has witnessed Colombia’s transformation in recent decades. He remembers coming to Cartagena on a business trip 25 years ago that required using “all sorts of precautions” from bodyguards to cars travelling in convoy. Today, he says, he can walk around Cartagena on his own.

“Colombia is now a partner of ours. That was unheard of 15 years ago, when Colombia was having trouble surviving. They [the government] took very difficult steps,” says Fernández, sitting in the courtyard of the chic Santa Teresa Hotel, while sniffer dogs patrol the lobby. “They had some help from the US but for the most part they did it on their own. They went after the guerrillas, they went after the narco-traffickers, they did their best to attract foreign investment to improve their relations with the neighbours.”

In stark contrast to the hawkish and parochial mindset of his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, Santos sees himself as a regional interlocutor who is able to mend and create bridges between nations, while boosting his stature in Latin America and globally. Santos often cites his patching up of relations with Ecuador and Colombia’s longtime foe, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, as an example that nations can overcome seemingly intractable differences. Last year, Colombia even had a go at encouraging peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

“The timing is good for Santos,” says Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington. “Chávez’s health and influence is in decline, Dilma [Brazil’s president] doesn’t seek the international limelight and acclaim like Lula did. Santos is only too happy to fill that spot.” Still, while few doubt Colombia’s recent political and economic rise in the region, Latin American commentators, along with the Colombian press, say it cannot yet claim the title of regional leader. “Brazil still leads the way as a regional and global player but Colombia is on its footsteps,” says Shifter. Some find it hard to view Colombia as a supreme regional leader while it still grapples with drug-fuelled violence in its major cities such as Cali and Medellín, a guerrilla insurgency spanning nearly five decades that continues to cause havoc in a country where one in three is poor.

Steering Colombia’s new diplomatic course at the Ministry of External Relations in Bogotá’s colonial district of La Candelaria, is María Ángela Holguín, the country’s foreign minister. The neo-classical ministry building, with its sweeping red-carpeted staircases and labyrinth of corridors adorned with crystal chandeliers, religious art and black and white photographs of lost Amazon tribes, surrounded by inner courtyards, give it a palatial yet homely feel.

In her stately office lined with tall wooden bookcases filled with leather- bound tomes, Holguín and her two female vice ministers have a clear vision about where Colombia needs to be. Colombia is still the US’s main ally in Latin America, but with the declining influence of the latter – both economically and politically – in its backyard, Colombia, like its Latin neighbours, is looking east.

“Due to our conflict and the violence Colombia has lived through, we’ve been a country that has been much more self-involved, with relations centred towards the US and Europe,” says Holguín. “What was lacking was a look at the rest of the world. The aim of this foreign policy is to continue with the traditional relations we’ve had with Europe and the US, which are very important. But the world is very much bigger than just that and we want to have a bigger interaction with the whole world.”

That bigger world includes Asia and Africa. Over the past two years, Holguín has been circling the globe seeking new bilateral trade ties to ensure foreign investment keeps flowing in. “One of our main aims is to enter Asia. We want to increase and improve our relations with Asia. In comparison with our neighbours, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Ecuador, who have very good relations with Asia, we have, let’s say, a very precarious one.” She adds that Colombia recently opened an embassy in Indonesia and a commercial office in Singapore. A new Colombian consulate in Shanghai is also set to open this year, while new bonds will no doubt be forged in China following Santos’s trip there later during this year.

Colombia is also promoting itself as a nation that can put its bitter experience of the drug trade to use by helping others, such as its Central American neighbours, struggling to contain spiralling drug violence. Central Asia is on the minister’s wishlist too. “These days it’s a question of financial resources. But I’d like to have a Colombian embassy that’s in Euro-Asia, for example in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – in those countries where there is very big growth today and where Colombia could have important trade relations,” adds the softly-spoken Holguín.

Underpinning Colombia’s new pragmatic foreign policy is the emphatic belief that the country is stronger and better off clubbing together with other Latin American nations. This approach, says Holguín, allows Colombia an effective platform from which to assert its foreign policy aims and ensure the country is not marginalised as in the past. It’s the reason behind the so-called new Pacific Alliance, made up of Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Peru, which aims to boost trade links with the Asia-Pacific region.

“The global world of today is a world of interactions between regions. Regions that are unified can do much more than countries acting individually,” says Holguín. “That’s part of what we’ve been doing with the Pacific Alliance. It means we can be unified with more than 200 million inhabitants and have a bigger gdp than that of Brazil. We can show that together we can go to other parts of the world, for example Asia.”

Nurturing the next generation of Colombia’s diplomats who will be putting this foreign policy into practice is María Teresa Aya, who heads the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry, which is just next door to the main foreign ministry building. With new Colombian embassies and consulates sprouting up, Aya is tasked with producing more diplomats, while making the selection process more rigorous and inclusive.

“We need at least 600 diplomats for the ministry to function day to day,” she says. “At the moment we have 250 career diplomats. So we need to fill that gap. Two hundred and fifty diplomats is a very small number in comparison to Chile which has 700 for a population of 17 million and Peru, which has three times the amount we have. A lot of people think they can close embassies and work virtually. We don’t.”

To address the shortfall, the academy has been on a recruitment drive. Over the past two years, Aya has been organising recruitment fairs in six major cities across Colombia, taking the diplomatic career, as she puts it, “to the provinces”. For years, it’s been reputed that joining Colombia’s diplomatic service and being appointed ambassador is based less on merit and more on being a permanent fixture on Bogotá’s cocktail circuit and having contacts among the country’s elite. All that is changing, says Aya.

“We’re sending the message that joining the foreign ministry is open to all and is not based on who you know,” she says. The recruitment drive is paying off. Last year, the number of people sitting the entrance exam for the academy more than doubled from 400 to 900 candidates. Over the next few years, it’s likely that this generation of young diplomats will help ensure that the next series of presidential planes landing in Colombia will be packed with trade delegations from China and beyond.

A new breed of diplomat

Getting into Colombia’s diplomatic service recently got tougher. Only 53 of the 900 hopefuls who took the entry exam were selected to make up the class of 2012 at the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry. After 10 months of training, the top 35 students will be offered a job, with a monthly starting salary of €855. María Teresa Aya, who heads the academy, is pushing to attract candidates from across the country by making it easier for them to take the written entry exam. Before candidates living outside of the capital had to travel to Bogotá but now most can sit the exam in their home towns. It will be soon possible to take the exam over the internet. “We have a lot of candidates from the rising middle class who want to get ahead and contribute to their country,” says Aya. Above all, today’s diplomat must have emotional intelligence and be an executive. “To be a diplomat in Colombia you need to love your country; you are going to sell that love. We are also looking for people who are like CEOs, who are able to make decisions and be entrepreneurs.”

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