Watching political and investment advisors call countries “The Next Brazil” is like watching Tyra Banks hound women for their flaws on “America’s Next Top Model”. The analysis is superficial, it’s hard to watch, and sometimes you wonder if the pundits are operating with a full deck.
If you’ll suffer me another brief piece on Colombia, I have four reasons why I think it’s simplistic to call Colombia the next Brazil or even “The Next Indonesia” as it has been referenced of late.
1) Unlike Brazil, Colombia came from rock bottom. The transformation evident in the Colombian economy, its security situation, its society and its place in the region in the world in less than 15 years is truly astonishing. Back in 1999, when Washington’s echo chamber was calling Colombia a “failed state”, paramilitary (non-state) groups controlled more than 40% of the country’s territory. Medellín, it’s second city, a few years before boasted the highest murder rate in the world. Fast-forward to 2013, and murders in that city have gone down by 80%, Brazil has its problems, but the territorial integrity of the Brazilian state, or the legitimacy of the elected or unelected governments, has not been in a serious dispute in decades. And unlike Brazil, where infrastructure is in a sorry state as well, the biggest threat to investment in roads, bridges and ports in Colombia for many years wasn’t underinvestment, but rather terrorist attacks and lack of control due to the lack of territorial integrity. With this situation constantly improving, expect the money to rush in. Brazil, meanwhile, can’t even get roofs for Olympic stadiums to stop leaking.
2) Unlike Colombia, Brazil is a gigantic, unified country. Most people don’t recognize this but Brazil’s land mass is equal to the continental United States, and its population, young and vibrant, just ticked over 200 million people. While Colombia is growing quickly, and at nearly 50 million is South America’s second-largest country (tchau Argentina), comparing the opportunity inherent and the global weight of Colombia to Brazil would be like calling Indonesia “The Next China”. Flattering, but completely unrealistic. Indeed, it was only towards the end of the last decade that the government began to reassert meaningful control over national territory.
3) Colombia, for better or worse, is best friends with the United States. A cooperation that has had huge benefits for the country through military spending, direct post-conflict aid, and a nascent free trade agreement, the U.S. has every incentive to help Colombia modernize and grow. This isn’t to say that Bogotá is in hock to Washington (although on my last visit to the capital city there was a strangely prominent flag flying high above the main road from the airport), but there are a lot of common goals that have evolved to be good for both countries. Brazil’s status is much more complicated, and it still can’t figure out if the U.S. just wants an open relationship or if China wants to go steady. And being the next biggest economy and population in the Americas, it can take as long as it likes.
4) Without pomp (Unasur) or circumstance (the decaying grandeur of Mercosur/l), Colombia has made excellent allies out of its Andean neighbors Chile and Peru, integrating their stock exchanges, making serious macroeconomic reforms, and promoting free trade both inside the region and with the rest of the world. Brazil on the other hand has worked for more than a decade to create the institutional framework behind the tottering Mercosur/l alliance before actually constructing the policy necessary to make alliances work. (It doesn’t help that they were dealt a bad hand with partners that don’t cooperate (Argentina), ones that are too small to be effective (Paraguay and Uruguay), and ones that butt in late in the game (Venezuela – a country not even in the Southern Hemisphere).
Simply put, Brazil, who has quickly departed its halcyon days in the international press, has a lot to fall back on in times of trouble. A large country with a large internal market has more leverage to make its own rules when times are tough, and the question in Brazil of how to divide the country’s riches competes head to head with how to grow them.
Colombia, as they say in Spanish, “tiene todo por delante – has everything ahead of it”. It can’t go back to the way things were done before, and it can’t rest and enjoy the fruits of a tenuous, if impressive, economic transformation. This excitement and enthusiasm, in my mind, puts the country in a much better position than Brazil to sustain growth and create lasting change based on Colombia’s own strengths.
Brazil has an economic alternative that looks a lot like the state-led boom and bust cycles that led to devaluations and inflation. Brazilians remember this reality, and although they don’t like it, it isn’t catastrophic. Colombia’s only alternative in recent memory, however, is one nobody would like to remember.
The same way Tyra Banks, in her last foray into Latin America, tried to pass a Portuguese model off as Brazilian, observers are trying to make Colombia into something it isn’t (and shouldn’t be). The Americas’ Next Top Model, in my mind, is likely to be Colombia.