After Taint Of Drugs, Colombia Reinvents Itself

The Nutresa factory, in a middle class neighborhood in Colombia’s capital, churns it out: countless chocolate bars and containers of ice cream.

But Nutresa produces much more: It’s grown into a food conglomerate – a $3 billion company with international affiliates and 30,000 workers.

It’s a Colombian company that is, in many ways, symbolic of the new Colombia.

Mario Niño, Nutresa’s vice president for innovation, says Colombia is experiencing strong growth and low inflation.

“All that means confidence for investors,” he says in Spanish, “and the arrival of capital that’s extremely positive.”

Foreign investment has quadrupled over the past decade, and Colombia was recently awarded investment grade status. It also has a new free-trade agreement with the U.S.

It’s a new reality sharply at odds with the past – the past many outsiders still have in mind when they think about the country: drugs and Pablo Escobar.

Juan Carlos Echeverry, who studied in the U.S. and Europe, says that’s all people knew of Colombia – even years after Escobar was killed by police.

“Ten to 15 years ago, I studied in NYU in New York City and I studied in Germany, I studied in Spain, and every beer with friends from those countries, we spent hours speaking about Pablo Escobar and narco-trafficking,” he recalls.

Echeverry says it was tiresome.

Now, he’s Colombia’s finance minister – and at the Summit of the Americas in the coastal city of Cartagena, he’ll be giving his side of the story to CEOs from some of the biggest companies around. He says many people are already getting the message.

“People are talking about this, infrastructure and oil and tourism,” he says. “And people want to come to Colombia, and this humongous, tectonic change of stereotype, Colombia as a promised land.”

Echeverry even predicts that Colombia, with a population approaching 50 million, will in a few years surpass Argentina to become South America’s second-biggest economy, after Brazil.

Despite the rosy outlook, no one is saying Colombia doesn’t face a range of deep-seated problems.

There’s a guerrilla conflict that’s now simmering in remote rural areas, but remains a challenge for the state and the U.S., which provides military aid.

Colombians also suffers from severe income inequality. Economic figures, though, show a shift that is gathering momentum – falling poverty levels, a bigger middle class.

The purchases of big ticket items – like cars and appliances – is at record highs.

Luis Carlos Villegas, who directs the National Association of Entrepreneurs, says nearly 12 million people have joined the middle class since the 1990s.

“We have to feel very proud about that,” he says. “The consequence of that is we have a large internal market.”

In Colombia’s big cities, the sounds of change seem to be everywhere.

In the heart of Bogota, malls, apartment blocks and office buildings are going up – including a 66-story tower. The developer, B.D. Promoters, is from Spain and invests in several countries, says Emilio Borrella, who runs operations in the country.

“It was like an incredible sense of deja vu, coming to Colombia,” says Borrella, who’s from Barcelona.

He says that the country feels a lot like Spain did when it started to modernize and grow fast a generation ago.

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