Will Colombia’s Journey to Peace Lead to a New Prosperity? 

Colombia reached a major milestone in its journey toward peace with this week’s first major disarmament by its principal rebel group.

But the 7,000-plus weapons laid down by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, are personal weapons and a fraction of what remains stashed around the country. 

Perhaps more importantly, political uncertainty looms large over the contentious agreement to reached last year to end a half-century conflict that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced tens of thousands more.

The Colombian public is divided over the balance between retribution and reconciliation. A referendum on the first peace deal failed by a razor-thin vote last October. A revised version took into account those objections and went straight to the legislature, passing narrowly in December amid stiff opposition.  

The peace process has become a lightning rod in presidential elections scheduled for next year. Ultimately, Colombians must decide if they can stomach the idea of a Marxist terrorist group morphing into a mainline political party — a key provision of the peace accord that won President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. 

A Global Atlanta event June 27 explored these issues and how they’ll affect the business climate in Colombia. It was the first in the year-long Latin American Crossroads series of events and reports exploring Atlanta’s role as a hub for the Americas.  The event was titled, “A Changing Colombia: Peace, Progress and Prosperity” and was held at the law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP.   

Now the Work Begins

Getting to a peace deal is unquestionably a historic moment and a significant achievement, but questions remain, said Jennie Lincoln, head of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at The Carter Center, which has played a role in the negotiations.

“I thought that was really hard, and that’s not the hard part. The hard part now is the implementation,” said Dr. Lincoln, who is also a Georgia Tech international affairs professor.

She was cautiously optimistic about the implementation of the accords, which have many prominent opponents including former President Alvaro Uribe, who is leading an opposition coalition into next year’s elections.  

Many also question what they see as leniency in the “transitional justice” mechanisms put in place to hold fighters (on both sides) accountable for war crimes. And a deal hasn’t yet been reached with the second largest armed group, the National Liberation Army, or the ELN. 

Colombians have already shown astounding resilience in getting to this point, but the jubilation Dr. Lincoln saw after last year’s accord has given way to questions about reconciliation. 

“The question is how to craft the peace, and it’s also psychologically extremely difficult for some people to forgive and let go, and to ask for perdón and give perdón,” she said.    

“The question is how to craft the peace, and it’s also psychologically extremely difficult for some people to forgive and let go, and to ask for perdón and give perdón.”

Already, though, Dr. Lincoln has seen first hand evidence of the trust the pact has engendered. 

The Carter Center was appointed to assist in the demobilization of the FARC’s child soldiers, helping them reintegrate into society. 

The problem was that when Dr. Lincoln went to Bogota, the FARC had refused to release these under-18-year-olds to the government. She was told she’d have to go and locate the FARC members responsible and initiate discussions herself. 

She recounted a story seemingly straight out of a spy novel, of hushed phone conversations and a clandestine rendezvous at a hotel. When the FARC commanders arrived with their entourage, it took five trips up the elevator to get everyone in the conference room. 

Afterward, with the lobby cleared, a hotel staffer came up to her asking if that was indeed the infamous rebel group.

“I never thought I would see them here,’” she recalled him saying, though she wasn’t sure whether he meant the city or the hotel. Either way, he saw it as a sign of progress: “This is the peace.” 

From Security to Investment

These kinds of contacts were unthinkable just a few years ago, and they were made possible partly by military gains, backed by the U.S.-funded arms and training in Plan Colombia, which helped bring the group to the negotiating table. 

With these improvements, the country had begun to enjoy a marked shift in reputation, its relatively large market of 50 million attracting companies from all over the world. 

Georgia firms were no different, and some have entered areas considered almost no-go zones for foreigners not too long ago. The state’s economic development department put an office in Bogota in 2013 as it began to see an uptick in interest there. Machine makers and food providers have sought Colombian buyers. ProColombia, the government’s trade arm, has been aggressively wooing the sourcing arms of major manufacturers from its Atlanta office. Delta Air Lines Inc. started flights to Medellin and Cartagena, a tourist hub, complementing its existing service to Bogota (though it quickly pulled back on the Medellin flight). 

Medellin itself has seen one of the largest transformations. Formerly the murder capital of the world, a key nexus of the country’s organized crime syndicates and the headquarters of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, has been transformed into a model city for urban inclusion, with cable cars integrated into the subway system and even some escalators that take poorer residents up to their hillside homes. 

It’s also the home of many of Colombia’s largest and most socially responsible corporations and the commercial center of a key coffee-growing state, Antioquia. 

Since the late 1970s, Japanese zipper giant YKK has had a factory there. That presence is now managed out of Marietta, where YKK Corp. of America has a headquarters overseeing the Western Hemisphere. 

Jim Reed, the company’s new president, said the Colombian zipper plant has maintained the close-knit feel of the family company it was when YKK bought it. 

About 80 percent of workers are women, including the gregarious plant manager, Maria Sanchez, who maintains an intimate knowledge of the lives of those working on the factory floor. 

From a business perspective, Colombia differs from YKK’s other Latin American operations in significant ways. For one, YKK Colombia produces for its own domestic market, as the fashion-conscious country has a large population and its own special styles of jeans. 

Doing business is also simple — sometimes simpler than the U.S., said the self-proclaimed “recovering attorney” who once headed up the company’s legal compliance across the region. Workforce training hadn’t really been a problem.  Neither has the conflict. 

“The exchange rate? Yes. That’s a much more impactful issue,” he said. 

Moving product through the supply chain has also been relatively easy. 

“Our biggest challenge has been global perception of Colombia as a safe place that permits our global headquarters to allow for sufficient investment so that you can have more of that manufacturing in Colombia,” Mr. Reed said. 

Many parents want their kids to learn Chinese, Mr. Reed added. But he would love his children of ages 11, 13 and 15 to spend some significant time mastering Spanish in Medellin. 

Michael Nilan, CEO of TreeZero Paper Co., had similarly positive things to say about his interaction with his Colombian partners, the Carvajal conglomerate. 

On its quest to create a tree-free paper brand six years ago, the company first went to China but found uneven quality of the paper made from sugarcane stalks. He and his co-founder, Ed Kennedy, were introduced offhand to a relative of an Emory University student in Cali, another city with a rough reputation. 

The company was already making a 95 percent sugar cane, 5 percent pine blended paper.

“Of course we had already named the company TreeZero, not Tree … little bit of pine,” Mr. Nilan said. 

TreeZero worked closely with Carvajal engineers to shake out the last bit of pine from the process. Since then, it has sourced its products exclusively from Colombia, a relationship that has underpinned rapid growth in sales to U.S. companies and universities with sustainability plans. 

The only hiccups have come on the American side: U.S. Customs once was wary about the reams of white paper the company was trying to bring across the border, ripping apart one of its early loads of paper during an inspection. 

“Of course, they were looking for the other kind of white stuff,” he said. 

Misperceptions almost kept TreeZero’s founders from pursuing the Colombian deal. Indeed, when they arrived in Cali, an old sign in the hotel said in English: “For your convenience we offer bulletproof rooms,” Mr. Nilan said. 

“We risked it, and it turned out to be the start of a wonderful relationship,” he said. 

Future Aspirations

While companies have found fertile ground, not all Colombians have felt the benefits of the country’s turnaround. 

Mr. Grostephan, an author and Agnes Scott College assistant professor, worked in Cazuca, a Bogota slum, helping create a nonprofit that taught kids to write. It was a place for the disenfranchised, a mix of people from around a diverse country where about a quarter of the population is descended from Africans. When he published an edited complication of their work, he thought his writing contribution to the area was over. 

But while studying for a master’s back in the U.S., he wrote a piece about a man he’d met on a recent trip who was struggling to find work and peace. Mr. Grostephan’s wife encouraged him to turn it into a book. 

“People arrived in Bogota hoping to find work and safety. Particularly in Cazuca, they don’t find either of those things,” he said before reading a passage about a panguero, or boatman, who found himself providing transport for paramilitary groups.

Before the panel began, the Colombian consul general in Atlanta thanked Global Atlanta for focusing on the country at an important time in its transition. Five years since the implementation of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, more than 30,000 jobs have been created by more than 120 U.S.-backed investment projects, Bladimiro Cuello told attendees in Spanish. 

“We have advantages that make us attractive for investors because we have political stability, and when businesspeople set up in Colombia, they’re treated just like a domestic company,” he said. 

But more important than that, Colombia has the human capital to serve a variety of sectors, he added. 

That’s one reason the Emory Law decided to sponsor the event, said Jessica Dworkin, assistant dean of graduate programs. 

“You may wonder why a law school based in Atlanta is interested in the economic development of Latin America, but it’s really become central to what Emory Law School is,” she said in welcoming remarks. “We have 11,000 alumni working around the world in multinational companies headquartered in Atlanta and elsewhere, so it’s not very hard to see why this is our interest.” 

Emory Law had 200 international students last year from 36 countries, including the Western Hemisphere countries of Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Trinidad, Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia. They pursued degrees like the one-year Master of Laws (LLM), a two-year accelerated JD program, a traditional JD and the PhD equivalent in law, the SJD. New online programs are also in the works. 

Also last year, Emory Law hosted a speech by then-ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzon, who outlined the country’s progress toward peace. He faced a daunting challenge, as the referendum had just failed and the prospects for the peace deal were up in the air. A former defense minister much like the current president, Mr. Pinzon spent much of his time discussing the humanitarian justification for military action to create conditions for negotiation. 

Delta Air Lines was also a partner of the Global Atlanta event, promoting its flights to Colombia and the SkyBonus program that allows companies to accrue rewards for their corporate travel spend without requiring individuals to give up their SkyMiles. 

Trevor Williams

Author: Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams is the managing editor of Global Atlanta.

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