Latin America's Latest Miracle: The Comeback Of Colombia

Over the past 10 years, Colombia has enjoyed a huge change in fortunes. The economy is humming, drug-related violence is down and security forces have corralled the rebel FARC guerillas. From infrastructure to corruption, however, some serious problems pe

Workers prepare to demolish buildings in downtown Bogota in 2016.
Cartagena, Colombia (szeke)
Jhon Heaver Paz/Xinhua/ZUMA
Yves Bourdillon

LES ÉCHOS/Worldcrunch

BOGOTA -- What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, Colombia was the Greece of Latin America in the eyes of investors. Young people were desperate to emigrate. The well-off, afraid they'd be kidnapped, avoided traveling between Bogota and Medellin. When they did, it was best to travel the 240 kilometers that separate the two cities in a convoy, escorted by armed guards. And, oh yes: Colombia's murder rate was the highest on the planet: 76 per 100,000 inhabitants.

But that was before the turnaround. This country of 45 million residents, thanks to its booming annual GDP growth of 5.5%, has recently passed Chile to boast South America's third largest economy – after Brazil and Argentina. No one would compare it with Greece now. Colombian bonds have recently been upgraded to "investment-grade." A decade ago they were classified as "junk." Another positive sign is the free trade agreement (FTA) Colombia has finally managed to seal with the United States. The U.S. Congress approved the FTA a month ago, after five years of deliberations.

Colombia's rapid growth has had positive social effects as well. Ten years ago, 50% of the country lived on less than $2 per day. Today it's down to 37%, and unemployment, which once affected a fifth of the population, has been halved. Colombia's infamous murder rate, furthermore, is now a third of what it was, and kidnappings are down by a factor of 12.

Perhaps nowhere is the transformation more evident than in Medellin's Communa 13 neighborhood. A decade ago, no police officer in his right mind would dare venture into the ultra-violent neighborhood. Now, people walk around freely. It was there, in the city's hillside barrios, that Colombian authorities first began trying to reestablish the rule of law. In October 2002, soon after President Alvaro Uribe's arrival to power, some 3,000 soldiers – backed by tanks and helicopters – seized control of Communa 13 after five days of combat. "It's like we took back our own country," says one Colombian man.

A majority of Colombians credit Mr. Uribe for the turnaround. In 2006, the popular conservative was reelected. He was succeeded four years later by his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who is remembered in France for receiving French-Colombian hostage and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt on the military tarmac after the 2008 commando raid that freed her from her guerilla captors, the FARC.

Today, the much-diminished guerrilla army is down to about 8,000 soldiers – a fifth of what it boasted a decade ago. Earlier this month, the FARC's top commander, Alfonso Cano, was killed. The FARC has succumbed to a Colombia army that is now much more professional thanks to the $6 billion funneled its way from the United States to fund the Plan Colombia program.

All in favor of free markets

In the meantime, Colombia – long known as a "narco-state" – has succeeded in greatly reducing its cocaine commerce. Based on satellite images, authorities estimate that coca production has been cut by nearly two-thirds since 2001, from 163,000 to 59,000 hectares. Instead of cocaine, Colombia's star exports are now exotic fruits, flowers, nickel, coffee, textiles and chemical products, according to Maria Claudia Lacouture, president of Proexport, Colombia's investment and tourism promotion agency.

What's the secret to Colombia's success? According to Standard & Poor's, the country has benefited greatly from a general consensus that's developed between the population and its leaders about the importance of unbridled private investment. To that, Gonzalo Restrepo, head of the local subsidiary of the Casino super market chain, adds: "the return of security, an openness to foreigners, a legal framework and fiscal stability, and guarantees provided by an independent judiciary."

Demographics play a role as well. Roughly half the population is less than 30 years old, and they're not only eager to leave the dark years behind, but willing to work hard to make sure that happens. Many of them are part of a new middle class that is largely driven by a desire for consumer goods. According to Restrepo, the market for products such as electronics and autos is growing by as much as 40% annually. Indeed, over the past decade, Colombia's per capita GDP has grown from $2,000 to $6,500, allowing the country to apply for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

More so than its South American neighbors, Colombia is very much in tune with the United States and has few qualms about embracing a free-market economic system. Here there are no unemployment benefits. Health insurance and pensions are obligatory, but privately run. And except for certain agricultural sectors, Colombia does little to protect its local industries, opting instead for fair trade deals. Besides its recently approved trade agreement with the United States, it also has one pending with the European Union. "Colombia plays the economic integration card," says Edima Pereira Romero of the newspaper Dineiro.

In need of a few good highways

Colombia is failing, however, when it comes to equally distributing its newfound earnings. Evidence of that are the "recyclers' – people who eke out a living by scavenging in garbage cans, and the "red light" workers – street peddlers who sell to commuters held up by stoplights. On the other end of the spectrum are the 15% of Colombians who are considered rich or super-rich.

And violence, while it has greatly diminished, is still a problem. Foreigners who live here are encouraged to check the crime "forecast" before venturing into certain areas. They're also encouraged to avoid certain neighborhoods in Bogota, which is nevertheless a safer city than Washington D.C.

Infrastructure is a problem as well. Colombia has neither expressways nor trains, and its only Pacific port, Buonaventura, lies in an almost lawless zone. It costs more to transport a container between Bogota and Cartagena, on the Atlantic coast, than to ship it to China or France.

Read the original article in French

Photo - szeke

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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