Would you believe that Colombia is the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world? Trailing only Mexico and the United States, Colombia now boasts a population that will soon top 50 million, and an economy that has done nothing in the past decade but outperform and modernize, surprising observers from around the world.
The OECD has taken notice, and last week the Paris-based body announced that, along with Latvia, Colombia would begin accession talks to join what the Economist likes to call “club of rich, industrialized nations”. Colombia would by no means be the first Latin American country to join the body, Chile and Mexico stole that honor away long ago, but it would be an important stamp of merit for a place that has registered one of the most dramatic turnarounds the world has seen in its economic, political and security situation. While Mexico’s accession can principally be attributed to its unbreakable ties to its northern club-member neighbors, and Chile can be chalked up to an exceptional, but controlled economic environment, Colombia is a large, diverse nation that has worked very hard to become the serious country it is today.
To spend time in places like Bogotá and Medellín, like I am this week, is to see a country in transition, with new construction everywhere, new businesses thriving, and a national confidence without arrogance (ahem, Chile) that charms everyone that experiences it. Indeed, the country’s two latest slogans reflect what those who have been here for a while know, that “la respuesta es Colombia – the answer is Colombia” and “el riesgo es que te quieras quedar – the only risk is wanting to stay”. The FARC’s influence is increasingly looking like a problem of the past. And the violence that plagued its large cities, and spawned infamous industries like bullet-proof suit makers, has dropped to its lowest levels in years.
But even the buoyant talk around possible OECD accession can’t hide the serious challenges that the country faces, including tottering infrastructure (it costs three times more to ship a container from Bogotá to the Caribbean coast than from Cartagena to Shenzhen), important social divisions (see OECD chart below), and a basketcase neighbor like Venezuela. I’m convinced, however, that attitude matters and el “compromiso – commitment” and enthusiasm that all types of Colombians have for their country’s future is not only infectious, it is increasingly rare.
With one of the most diversified economies in Latin America, the promise of South America’s largest Spanish-speaking country is beginning to be fulfilled. I’ll be excited to watch it happen.