The Sixth Summit of the Americas, which was held in Cartagena, Colombia last weekend, highlighted the growing spotlight on Latin America and the importance of harnessing diplomatic, trade and cultural ties with that region. T&T’s presence at the summit followed the re-opening of a Colombian Embassy in T&T in January. The new Colombian ambassador to T&T, Alfredo Riasgos, spoke to the Business Guardian at the envoy’s temporary office on Fitt Street, Woodbrook, on Monday about growing diplomatic and business ties between the two countries and the greater influence T&T and Caricom are enjoying as part of Colombia’s foreign policy. Colombia, with a population of 46 million, is one of Latin America’s major economies and is widely regarded as the main ally of the United States in the region. Colombia just concluded hammering out its free trade agreement with the US and at the summit US President Barack Obama said it would take effect on May 15. Riasgos, with typical Latin flair and charisma, gave an account of Colombia’s growing interest in the Caribbean region. “In the past, we did not give enough attention to the Caribbean, but now we know the importance of the region and recognise T&T as the Caribbean’s leader. Before our country looked only at North America, but now we are looking at the Latin and Caribbean regions,” he said.
Cheaper, direct flights
One way Riasgos hopes to bring greater ties between the two countries is by making it easier to fly between them. At the moment, passengers travelling to Colombia must fly to Panama by Copa Airlines and then to Colombia. “I want to meet with the chief executive officer of Caribbean Airlines to see how we can make it easier to fly directly between our countries. I also brought up the issue with the Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. With the present routes, businesses cannot be competitive.” He said it is amazing that flying to Europe from Colombia is cheaper than from Colombia to Trinidad. “From Bogota to Europe, you pay US$800 for a round trip. From Trinidad to Bogota is US$1,250. So if you are Colombian, would you go to Europe or to T&T? Based on those fares, the answer is simple,” Riasgos said. He said easier, direct and cheaper flights would allow greater tourist arrivals between both countries.
Exports to Colombia
Fifty minutes into the interview, an animated Riasgos whipped out his cellphone and called Richard Wong, the CEO of Angostura Holdings Ltd, to ask him how the company ships its rum and bitters to Colombia. When he got Wong on the line, Riasgos handed the phone to this Business Guardian reporter to get details about its business relationship with Colombia and the possibility of more direct shipments between the two countries.
Riasgos also gave the example of healthcare and how Colombia can help T&T. “Health tourism is something that we offer in a professional way.” He spoke of the astronomical cost of sending T&T patients to the US for surgery. “You can spend around US$80,000 and more to do surgery in the US. To do the same surgery in Colombia at one of our excellent hospitals in Barranquilla, Cali or Bogota, it is 20 per cent to 50 per cent cheaper. This is an example of how we can help T&T. The most important thing is our quality healthcare is comparable with anything else in the world.”
Riasgos would also like to see a free trade agreement between Colombia and T&T and the rest of Caricom. Asked if T&T is interested in a such an agreement, he said that is why he is in T&T. “T&T has one of the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Latin America and the Caribbean, well over US$20,000. That is one of the reasons I am in T&T, to start the work for a free trade agreement with the region.”
“These are offshore petroleum workers and now they are coming to contribute to Colombia’s petroleum sector. Colombia produces about one million barrels of oil day.”
In the area of energy, Colombia has proposed a number of initiatives for Central America and the Caribbean:
• exporting gas to Jamaica and Panama
• facilitating improved electricity connection throughout Central America
• the possibility of an electric submarine connection with the Dominican Republic
• and, the production of biofuels with Caribbean countries
He said Colombia currently sends petroleum products to T&T to be refined and exported to Colombia. He said many of the products that T&T imports from the US can be had from Colombia. “T&T can import more coffee from Colombia. We are well known for our meat and beef products. T&T, which imports a lot of its meats, should start importing from my country.” He spoke about the strong macroeconomic indicators of the high-growth Colombian economy. “We have been experiencing six per cent growth in the economy annually. The agriculture sector is strong as we exports products like coffee. We export bananas. We export oil and some gas. We spent over six years negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States which has just been concluded.”
In a globalised world, Riasgos noted the importance of T&T nationals learning Spanish to effectively do business effectively with Colombia and Latin America. “Your second language is Spanish. I am happy to drive along the highways in T&T and see signs in English and Spanish. However, you do not find too many people who speak Spanish.” He has begun discussions with schools, including the principal of Queen’s Royal College on student exchange programmes that would assist both countries learning each other’s language. In typical Colombian style, he boasted that Colombians speak the best Spanish in Latin America and has quality schools and universities at which T&T nationals can study. “I have suggested summer camps that students from here can come to Colombia to study in. I have even suggested citizens of T&T come to teach English in Colombia. Bilingualism is important in today’s interconnected world.”