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Colombia's economic growth good for residents, investors

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January 23, 2014

Orlando Sentinel

Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombian Ambassador to the United States

Imagine waking up in a Marriott or a Decameron hotel, opening the curtains to a modern city skyline, stepping outside your door for breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts or Juan Valdez, taking a rapid-transit bus to your meeting, grabbing a burger at Johnny Rockets or El Corral, and picking up a new scarf at Gap or Arturo Calle.

This sounds like a typical day for an American business traveler, but this isn't a story about America. This happens every day in today's Colombia. Just a decade ago, few would have believed that Colombia would become one of the most dynamic economies in the world. But, what seemed improbable then is now a reality.

Colombia is the third-largest economy in the region, home to nearly 50 million consumers and a rising middle class with significant economic mobility. With gross-domestic product growth over the past four years estimated at close to 5 percent and the lowest inflation in decades, Colombia — soon to become a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — has fast become a major regional power.

During the third quarter of 2013, the Colombian economy grew 5.1 percent, fueled by the dynamism of construction and agriculture. The implementation of the largest infrastructure plan in our country's history will increase the potential growth of our economy.

Our economic growth, coupled with a progressive policy agenda, has increased the well-being of our citizens and created a more inclusive society. Health-care coverage is universal, and life expectancy has dramatically moved up. Between 2010 and 2013, Colombia had a significant reduction in poverty rates, lifting around three million citizens to the middle class.

Unemployment has been continuously decreasing during the past 40 months, reaching a record low of 8.5 percent last November. Over the past three years, the Colombian economy has raised the real minimum wage, while creating nearly 2.5 million jobs, expanding a dynamic middle class that offers enormous opportunities for companies around the world.

A simple example illustrates the vibrancy of our market. As a result of rising available income, more than a third of Colombian households own a pet. The pet-care market is estimated to grow at 13 percent per year; according to industry data, the market for pet foods grew from $68 million in 2008 to $400 million in 2013.

Since 2003, foreign direct investment in Colombia has increased sevenfold, and investment responds for about 30 percent of GDP. Our market is increasingly attractive to investors because of our strong adherence to the rule of law and our independent institutions that guarantee a stable macroeconomic environment within a framework of fiscal sustainability.

As a result, leading U.S. companies such as Starbucks, Hyatt Corp., IBM, Google, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, JW Marriott, Gap and others are investing in our country. Colombian investment abroad is also growing rapidly.

Strengthening international trade has been important for growth. Last year, we signed trade agreements with three new countries and concluded negotiations on a regional pact with Chile, Peru and Mexico — the Pacific Alliance, an integrated market of 210 million consumers and a GDP of nearly $2 trillion.

The Free Trade Agreement with the United States, implemented only one year ago, has already created significant opportunities for U.S. and Colombian businesses to reach both markets. Colombia is Florida's second-largest trade partner globally; last year, exports from Florida to Colombia exceeded $3 billion, a 50 percent increase over the past five years.

Colombia has come a long way. However, significant work remains to be done in order to become a developed country in the next generation. President Juan Manuel Santos is creating a substantial package of reforms in the judicial, political and rural sectors, which will accompany a peace negotiation with illegal groups in order to achieve the long-lasting peace that our country needs to reach its full potential.

Colombia is firmly on the path to sustained progress and prosperity. I invite Florida businesses to seize the new opportunities in Colombia and continue playing a key role in this shared success story.