It_s time for Colombia to think big: Oppenheimer

After a five-day visit to Colombia, during which I interviewed President Juan Manuel Santos and several other key fig...

After a five-day visit to Colombia, during which I interviewed President Juan Manuel Santos and several other key figures, I came to the following conclusion: The country is doing much better but perhaps not as well as it thinks.

There is no question that Colombia has become a more stable, safer and promising country over the past decade.

While only 10 years ago there was a serious discussion among international academics about whether Colombia was a failed state _ a country whose very existence was threatened by political and drug-related violence _ it is now on the verge of getting an investment grade rating by Standard & Poor_s and other international credit rating agencies.

Homicide rates have fallen to their lowest levels in 32 years and overall crime rates dropped by 6 percent last year, government figures show. While Colombia was seen as a security nightmare a few years ago, it is now giving security advice to 14 countries. Santos also has been invited to speak to the G-8 meeting of the world_s most developed nations on security issues in May.

In an interview at the presidential palace, Santos told me that although Colombia still has security problems, _we have made a lot of progress_ both on crime reduction and respect for human rights. He added that _there are many lessons that we can share with other countries_ on intelligence and crime-fighting strategies.

Santos confessed that he is _somewhat frustrated, somewhat tired_ of the four-year-old diplomatic battle to get U.S. congressional approval of the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. But following recent talks with the Obama administration and U.S. congressional leaders, he added, _I am quite optimistic that this agreement will be finally approved this year._

But while Santos often reminds his country that Colombia should start measuring its progress against that of the world_s most successful developing countries _ and not just against its own troubled past _ many Colombians seem happy with the status quo. There is an air of triumphalism in the Colombian media that makes one wonder whether Colombia will make much-needed educational and economic changes, or whether it will be paralyzed by complacency.

Colombia_s radio and television stations, as well as much of the print media, constantly trumpet this country_s success stories, such as world-famous singer Shakira, artist Fernando Botero, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and other Colombians of international stature. There is indeed plenty of talent here, perhaps more than in many other countries.

Noting Colombia_s steady economic growth, many journalists asked me whether this will be _Latin America_s decade,_ and _ more specifically _ whether Colombia is already seen abroad as Latin America_s new success story.

What I didn_t see much of in the media, or hear in private conversations, were discussions about the fact that Colombia is dangerously dependent on world prices of raw materials and that it still ranks below many Latin American countries in competitiveness, education, science and technology.

Colombia ranked 68th in the recently released World Economic Forum_s _Global Competitiveness Index 2010-2011__ of 139 nations, almost 40 places behind Chile.

While Colombia_s exports reached a record $40 billion last year, much of the increase was due to a rise in world prices for the country_s oil and other raw materials, according to the business daily Portafolio. Nontraditional exports _ mostly manufactured goods _ actually fell by nearly 8 percent last year.

And while Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, launched much-needed education and innovation reforms, Colombia is starting from way behind. While South Korea registered 8,800 patents in the United States in 2009, Colombia registered only seven.

My opinion: Colombia is on the right track on virtually every front, but it may be time for the country to think more ambitiously _ and move to the next level.

The rosy picture painted by Colombia_s media may have been a good way to prop up the country_s self-esteem 20 years ago, when it was on the verge of becoming a _failed state,_ but it may be keeping the country from feeling a sense of urgency to become more competitive in the global economy.

Colombia would benefit from a more realistic view of itself _ including the bad news _ so that it can better address its remaining problems and reduce poverty faster. A little self-flagellation by the country_s media would certainly help.

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