When Governor Deval Patrick announced a trade mission to Colombia in 2013, it may have taken some in Massachusetts by surprise. For those who think that Colombia — once synonymous with drug cartels and criminal networks — is still in a state of paralysis, the idea of a coalition of business, academic, and government leaders visiting my country likely came with consternation and skepticism. But the reality today is that Colombia is a different place than it was just 15 years ago.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia was considered to be on the brink of becoming a failed state. That conceptualization is now out of step with the realities of our vibrant economy, strong democracy, restored security and stability, and continued social progress. While work remains, Colombia has clearly turned the page.
With widespread and sustained economic, political, and social reforms, along with unwavering support and aid from the United States, Colombia has emerged anew — boasting GDP growth of 5 percent on average and creating nearly 2.5 million jobs over the past four years. Our middle class is growing, and we are taking bold steps to decrease poverty and increase investments in education and universal health coverage.
As evidence of our success, our bilateral agenda with the United States is diverse. Our cooperation on drug trafficking and security has evolved to include aid to third countries, and we are working together on a robust set of timely issues like advancing education, addressing climate change, protecting the environment and enhancing cooperation on technology and innovation.
A great example of how we are advancing this 21st century agenda at the state level was the “Massachusetts–Colombia Innovation Partnership Mission” that Patrick led last year; it has increased opportunities for entrepreneurship. For example, in partnership with Innpulsa Colombia, MassChallenge — a highly recognized accelerator — has run intensive boot camps for Colombian entrepreneurs annually. In 2013, judges accepted five Colombian startups into the MassChallenge accelerator.
On the national level, the US and Colombian governments last July launched the Executive Committee for Information Technologies and Communications. Together under this framework, our two governments have developed an action plan for the next four years that includes mutual investment promotion in the information and communications technology sector, creation of education opportunities, sharing best practices and experiences on e-government, and developing an agenda for cybersecurity.
In addition, the Colombian Ministry of ICT launched Colombia’s Vive Digital (Live Digital) II Plan — a $10 billion nationwide effort that has set two main objectives — for Colombia to become a world leader in the development of applications for lower income citizens in order to lift them out of poverty and improve their quality of life, and to become the most transparent and efficient government with the use of ICT. These objectives have been crystalized after developing the country’s industry and infrastructure and generating Internet usage nationwide, as research shows that as Internet use increases, poverty levels decline and new jobs are created.
Phase II of the Vive Digital Plan will build upon the successes of Phase I, and Colombians will continue to benefit by the most ambitious public policy ever implemented for the ICT sector, which will achieve goals such as tripling Internet connections from 8.8 million in 2014 to 27 million in 2018, providing Colombia with similar levels of Internet penetration as in countries like Belgium and Italy; boosting Internet penetration in households and small businesses from 45 to 63 percent, and 60 to 70 percent respectively; doubling the number of companies in the IT sector to 3,600; tripling IT sector revenues to $10.4 billion and the number of IT employees to 117,000 by 2018. In addition, the government will continue subsidizing low-income families’ purchase of PCs or tablets, and maintaining the lowest price for PCs throughout the region. I believe the above mentioned are a strong foundation for development.
Never before has Colombia been more attractive for investment. In the technology sector, companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are turning their eyes to Colombia to create innovation centers that will focus on developing applications for lower income populations. With all these initiatives and with increased cooperation not only between the United States and Colombia, but states like Massachusetts, I am confident that within a few years Colombia will emerge as a standout technology leader from the world’s emerging economies.
Luis Carlos Villegas is the Colombian ambassador to the United States.