On the morning of 3 November, Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW president Richard Broinowski and vice president Ian Lincoln received a call at Glover Cottages from Sergio Escobar, executive director of the Agency of Cooperation and Investment of Medellin (MCI in Spanish), and Maria Luisa Zapata Trujillo, deputy director for Management and Cooperation.
Sergio explained that he was on attachment from the Colombian Foreign Ministry to the MCI and was seeking to strengthen links with the countries of Asia and the Pacific; he and Maria had just arrived from Auckland (via a brief visit to Melbourne). They would be conducting a trade and cooperation seminar with Australian business leaders on 4 November at the Hotel Intercontinental, Sydney. Their travel had been organised in consultation with the Colombian Embassy in Canberra and Columbian Consulates-General.
Medellin was Colombia’s third largest city (at two and a half million) and second most important economic centre, after the capital Bogotá. The region had long been Colombia’s agricultural powerhouse and was increasingly a centre for manufacturing and service industries. Its reputation for the illicit drug trade was far behind it.
Australian business was already present in Colombia, including Medellin, in the mining and services sectors (with BHP Billiton a major player) and there was growing cooperation on the economic possibilities arising from environmental challenges. The regional economic growth rate was 4.7 per cent, compared to 3.2 percent for the country as a whole and 1.7 per cent for South America.
Issues of interest for Medellin included “social inclusion” – an example was the problem of people moving to the city from the surrounding region. Major debates were under way, as in Australia, on urban infrastructure, including housing and the balance between road-based transportation and alternatives such as light rail.
Broader discussion covered the recent referendum narrowly rejecting the peace settlement with FARC (Spanish for the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia). FARC had disrupted Colombian life for 30 years; those opposed to the settlement considered that it was too generous to FARC. Next step would probably be for the agreement to be re-negotiated. Much would depend on the extent of Cuba’s continuing support, in the context of its evolving regional relationships.
AIIA were encouraged to “spread the word” about the opportunities for Australia offered by Medellin. We mentioned as possibilities an AIIA familiarisation visit to Colombia and addresses to the AIIA on Medellin and its prospects.
Report by Ian Lincoln