Learning from Colombia
President confronted the guerrilas, dismantled the paramilitaries and fought corruption
Mention the South American country Colombia and it evokes images of paramilitary convoys headed by open jeeps carrying nasty looking druglords dressed in combat fatigues and fashionable shades, barking orders at groups of quivering farm hands.
That's a caricature of the past. And 10 days ago at a conference at the St Regis Hotel in Monarch Beach, California, I was fortunate to meet the man who was largely responsible for transforming Colombia from a country torn apart by armed conflict into a secure and stable nation with attractive investment opportunities.
Colombia is the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico and Spain, with a population of 46 million.
In terms of economic output it is probably on a par with South Africa. Alvaro Uribe Vélez, 59, was the president of Colombia from 2002 to last year.
In his address, the former leader confessed that, since the nation declared independence from Spain in 1810, its liberty had been undermined by murders, massacres, terrorist attacks and civil strife.
In Colombia's 200-year history, only 47 had been lived in relative peace. Up until the time he took office he could not recall a single year of his life that was free of violence and unrest, perpetrated mostly by either pro-Marxist groups on the left or paramilitary troops, with close links to narcotic traders, on the right.
His father was killed in a kidnapping attempt in 1983 and he, personally, had experienced the cruelty of terrorism. Unacceptably high levels of crime and corruption were destroying hope in Colombia, scaring investors, raising unemployment and driving out skills. The country was on the path of becoming a failed state.
Naturally, Uribe's presentation resonated loudly in my brain.
Colombia in 2002 seemed strikingly familiar to South Africa at present; a nation low on confidence, polarised by political discord and frustrated by a lack of investment, jobs, talent and rule.
What enthralled me, though, was how Uribe and his administration, working tirelessly and courageously, with astounding success, confronted the guerrillas, dismantled the paramilitaries and fought corruption. Their agenda was clear-cut. First tackle crime because without peace and security there would be no investment, and without fiscal resources the government could not advance the state's social wellbeing.
Uribe fervently believed that all citizens should participate in the administration's decision-making process and, accordingly, set up agencies in every region to promote dialogue, exchange ideas, discuss policies and build trust.
The hearings were open and publicly televised, often continuing for hours. He referred to this concept as "The Communitary State": a participative government with no division between left and right, no leanings towards liberalism, socialism or bureaucracy, no promises without solutions - chiefly, a country in which confidence was the cornerstone.
His biggest challenge was to enforce law and order and demonstrate military superiority, principally against the guerrillas and drug traffickers, without creating the notion that he was applying the pressure of a strong-arm dictator.
His policies were far-reaching but included reducing human rights violations, increasing judicial action against crimes with a high social impact and restoring a visible police presence at all municipalities and at important traffic junctures.
By engaging civilians more actively, gaining the support of the military and increasing intelligence efforts, government reinstated control over national roads, dismantled paramilitary structures, extradited more than 2000 criminals, hacked the cultivation of illicit crops, cut the crime rate in half and virtually eliminated kidnappings.
The president was not only victorious against crime. He told the audience that the greater the number of bureaucrats, the poorer the country. He restructured more than 400 government departments, decreasing payrolls and improving efficiencies, along the way slashing the number of official motor vehicles by a third.
As crime levels diminished, his attention turned to reforming the economy. He secured loans from the IMF and World Bank on assurances that he would eliminate excessive government expenditure, open access to markets and introduce sound macroeconomic policies. He provided tax incentives to investors and encouraged private participation in a number of important development projects, providing certainty by pledging not to alter any terms in the future.
In the eight years under Uribe's leadership, average annual economic growth of Colombia doubled from 2.1% to 4.3%, exports rose fourfold, fixed direct investment trebled, inflation fell from 6.9% in 2002 to 2.5% last year, unemployment declined from 16.2% to 11.6%, while cellphone users climbed from 4.6 million to 41million.
On his triumphant journey, 17 attempts were made on his life, cities were bombed and senators, judges and other officials were murdered.
But his efforts did not escape the rest of the world. In 2009 Uribe was awarded America's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian decoration, for his work to improve the lives of his citizens and efforts to promote democracy and human rights.
Before the start of the conference, Uribe's aides beckoned me to join his breakfast table.
I extended my hand in greeting: "I'm David Shapiro from Sasfin in Johannesburg."
"Alvaro Uribe," he smiled while warmly shaking my hand.
"So what do you do, Alvaro?" I asked inquisitively.