By Andrew White
Colombian vice president Francisco Santos talks about tackling the drug barons, Gulf land grabs & the war in Afghanistan.
As Colombia prepares to open its first embassy in the GCC, the country's vice president Francisco Santos talks about tackling the drug barons, Gulf land grabs, and how to win the war in Afghanistan.
Nineteen years ago this month, Francisco Santos Calderon's life changed forever. As he was driving home one evening from his job as a columnist at a prominent Colombian newspaper, his Jeep was blocked off by an unmarked vehicle. Five men armed with Uzi submachine guns equipped with silencers dragged the terrified Santos from his car.
Rushing him into a dirty van, they bound and gagged him, and sped away from the scene.
Santos would spend nearly eight months in captivity, chained to a bed by gangsters working for drugs kingpin Pablo Escobar; meanwhile, the Medellin-based cocaine cartel tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Colombian government to alter its policy of extraditing drug lords to the US.
Santos' 263-day ordeal was later recounted in Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's bestselling journalistic study, ‘News of a Kidnapping'. However, such drama seems a world away when we meet in his smart new offices in the Colombian capital of Bogotá.
"Colombia has changed," Santos insists, taking a seat on a deep sofa in the centre of his office. "There has been eight years of very tough pressure, and the terrorists and illegal groups are struggling for oxygen."
Santos can take much of the credit for that asphyxiation. Now vice president of his country, he is a hugely popular figure and one admired for his quiet determination to apparently make every moment of hard-earned freedom count. What's more, having taken on the cartels, his focus right now is on the Gulf, and the opportunities that Colombia might offer the cash-rich region.
"Colombia is a country that has always looked inward; only in the last decade has it begun to open up," says Santos. "But from 2002 this government has had the idea of globalising our economy, of diversifying and making Colombia a world player in terms of market investment.
"That was a deliberate policy from the beginning and a very aggressive one - free trade treaties all over, bilateral trade agreements all over, the elimination of double taxation, reducing taxes, creating the tax structure to promote investment, and more," he adds.
It is this drive that has landed Colombia on the doorstep of the Gulf. This month, three of the country's leading ministers are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in preparation for the opening of Colombia's first embassy in the Gulf, to be based in the UAE capital. Santos hopes that the embassy's launch will act as a precursor to improved economic ties including the signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two states.
"I have pushed really hard to get the embassy open," reveals Santos. "It will be a very commercial embassy for all the countries in the Gulf and will be designed to get political and economic relations flowing.
"We're moving very, very quickly, but the embassy is a basic step," he continues. "If you don't have an embassy, if you don't have political relations, then it's very difficult to get anything done.
"The minute we start negotiating [the FTA] will be very quick. We don't have a timetable for negotiations, but I wouldn't be surprised if something was done before the end of 2010."
In order to smooth negotiations, Colombia has already eliminated visa restrictions on UAE nationals travelling to its shores. While the Gulf country has yet to reciprocate, Santos insists that the discrepancy will not prevent Colombia from building ties in the Middle East.
"We started eliminating visas and while I think that's very important, we understand it's difficult in the Gulf countries, and the Arab countries in general," he says. "We'll keep pushing for that, but that's not something that's going to make us lose interest in the Gulf."
In the meantime, the Colombian government has held a series of meetings with officials from the UAE's two largest carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, with a view to establishing passenger and cargo routes between the two countries. Currently, travellers face a gruelling journey via Paris or Madrid.
"We have an agreement which will allow Etihad or Emirates to fly Abu Dhabi or Dubai to Bogotá via Caracas," says Santos. "We're setting in place all the right mechanisms so that a commercial relationship that was negligible can become a strong relationship in the next five years. Passenger [flights] will come in 2012, and cargo I think will start in 2010."
Santos is adamant that improved air routes are crucial if Colombia is to attract significant investment in its private sector. And while he admits that it is rare for a Latin American government to champion the benefits of aggressive private sector growth, he insists that Colombian firms can power a new decade of prosperity.
"In this region, for us to say that we want the private sector to do well, is a heresy," he admits, perhaps with one eye on neighbours Venezuela, and its inimitable president, Hugo Chavez. "But we love the private sector and we want it to do very well - a strong private sector will produce more taxes and more jobs, and help develop the country."
As the nation with the fourth largest population in the Americas - behind the US, Brazil and Mexico - Colombia has a significant workforce that the government wants the private sector to put to good use. Across the border, Chavez can keep his 21st Century socialism.
"It's very important to be very aggressive commercially," says Santos. "We know that many of the Gulf countries are going to need many of the products that we are able to produce competitively, from minerals to foodstuffs.
"The Gulf countries are thinking 50 years ahead, when they have no more gas or oil, and they are asking where they want to have their investments," he continues.
"For that, they need good profits and predictability - and Colombia fits those conditions as a prime opportunity for long-term investment.
"Ours is a country that's right in the middle between Canada and Argentina and Japan and Europe, so for logistics it's a big opportunity," says Santos, pointing out that Dubai Government-owned DP World has already admitted it has explored investment opportunities in Colombian ports.
"We know that Dubai doesn't have the money it used to, but that just means it is becoming more selective," he insists. "Colombia will become a very important logistics operator, and to become something like that we need good ports - which will need alliances and partnership with private companies.
"For example, the Australians want to use a Colombian port on the Caribbean for the distribution of uranium. With Europe, the Gulf of Aden has become so conflicted with pirates, they need greater security, and the first country they have looked into is Colombia."
As well as trans-shipment, Colombia's ports will also play a key role in developing the country's export business. And in the future Santos hopes that Gulf-owned Colombian shipping terminals could be processing Gulf-owned foodstuffs grown inland.
"Land parcels are a big opportunity, and we have had several meetings with [UAE sovereign wealth funds] Mubadala and ADIA," Santos reveals. "In all that land you would not have to take down one tree or displace one indigenous person, and you would not have to destroy any species. So Colombia is very different from many of the other countries where the SWFs are looking to buy land."
"The opportunities for energy development and exploration are the best in the region - totally transparent and very competitive," claims Santos. "If you add knowledge and expertise and cash to that, then Colombia can become a hub for energy in the region.
"The UAE has such a well developed energy industry that we hope it can help us and become part of it," he adds. "It's just a matter of getting the right pieces in place, and that's why we're working with the Emirates. Mubadala was very impressed with what they saw."
Creating a favourable impression is high on Colombia's list of priorities for 2010 and beyond. After all the time it has taken to establish the country as a potential investment destination, it now needs to coax foreigners back to Bogotá, Medellin, Cartegena and other big cities with much to offer. And that means delivering security as well as opportunity.
"The first thing needed to change perception is to change reality, and so we implemented dramatic security measures in order to sort out the mess we inherited, and
now we're seen as an example in the region," says Santos.
These "dramatic security measures" included ‘Plan Colombia', a largely US-funded national security strategy that employs political, economic and military means to weaken illegal narco-terrorist groups. The results have been impressive: homicide and kidnapping rates have plummeted from their early-decade highs.
"Plan Colombia has helped us dramatically in improving our capacity to defeat criminal gangs, either guerilla groups or terrorist organisations that were financed by drug trafficking," says Santos. "But to look at Plan Colombia only in terms of drugs is to look at only a part of it, as it has given us a certain capacity, especially at intelligence levels, which we didn't have before. Security is much improved."
However, there remains a frustration that despite the great efforts made by Colombia's security forces, the country's international image has yet to escape the lengthy shadow of Escobar and his ilk. It doesn't help that recent movies, including the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-starring action flick ‘Mr & Mrs Smith', have portrayed Bogotá as a battleground for drugs cartels that makes Kabul look quiet by comparison.
"Perception always lags - it will take some time as people always find it easier to use a simple picture rather than break the paradigms and look at the reality," says Santos, rolling his eyes at the mere mention of Hollywood's excess.
It would be far fairer to compare the Kabul of 2009 to the Bogotá of 20 years ago: government forces struggling against violent and well-armed insurgents, across a vast and often impenetrable land area, and ravaged by an illegal narcotics industry worth billions of dollars a year.
"There are big parallels between the two and there are a lot of lessons Colombia could teach [coalition forces] in Afghanistan, in terms of do's and don'ts," says Santos.
"We are providing assistance and we will have troops there, because in fighting the opium trade one thing that is very important is strong commitment," he continues. "When you put political considerations into combating an illegal business like the opium trade you're just being self-defeating.
"You also have to think about incomes," he adds. "You can't provide the people with the same incomes [that they might earn in the narcotics trade] as nothing will match the income of an illegal business.
"But what type of income can you generate to supply at least part of what they get out of opium?"
For fear of landing himself in a diplomatic sandstorm, Santos does not suggest alternative income sources on the record.
The answers are for US and coalition strategists to discover for themselves, but Santos is clearly optimistic that a solution can be found.
After all, it would not be the first time that he has seen a seemingly intractable war turned, and won.