Spirng Break in Bogota

“Fourteen future business leaders from the United States and Europe will be guided today by city council member Dav¡d Luna around the major recent development programs in the city, starting with the Transmilenio, followed by a visit to the Tintal library and culminating in a tour of the presidential palace and an audience with our president Alvaro Uribe Velez”

-El Tiempo, March 26th, 2004

So ran a small story on the sixth page of the main daily newspaper in Colombia. We had interviews scheduled with the two national television stations and the local Bogot  news slot. We were making our mark on Bogot !

Perched on top of the Andes, which can be seen at the end of every street, the city is refreshingly clean, with modern infrastructure as well as friendly (and to quote John Kent (OA) “gorgeous looking”) people. Our day started with a trip on the Transmilenio – Bogot ‘s brand new mass-transit system, which is reliable, cheap and clean. We traveled to the Tintal, a poorer quarter of the city in the Kennedy region, named in honor of JFK’s visit to Bogot  in the early 1960s. Here we visited a library which had been converted from a garbage dump, using funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In an area where monthly income per person averages $100, this and four other nearby facilities provides free library and internet access and associated training to over 150,000 people of all ages.

Our return journey to the Presidential Palace took us through the Cartoucho, a park that was formerly a wasteland populated by drug abusers and prostitutes. However, two years ago the city launched a recovery and rehabilitation program, reclaiming the park for its citizens.

After thorough security checks, especially for us Irish, and a fascinating tour of the Palace, I had my first face-to-face meeting with a Head of State. President Uribe was accompanied by his Vice-Minister for International Affairs and Vice-Minister for Security. Having just returned from a fruitful visit with another HBS alum at Camp David, President Uribe was particularly interested in our views on foreign direct investment in Colombia. He believed strongly that with large external debt and an impoverished population, foreign direct investment would be the key to prosperous development. However, in order to create the environment for more significant investment, the rule of law and increased security need to be established. This, he admits, is not an easy task. In pursuit of this end, the Uribe administration has taken a tough stance on terrorism. The drive for improved security has been coupled with socio-economic investment. As an example, former cacao farmers are now paid by the government to replant areas of rainforest and work as foresters. The success of these programs has required a strong military presence to safeguard against the drug barons, but has cost only a few thousand dollars per farmer per annum. Sadly, cost limits the extent of the program.

As a result of initiatives such as this, Uribe is the most popular president in Colombian history, with approval ratings exceeding 80%. However, current Colombian law makes it impossible for him to stand for a second four-year term.