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Strengthening U.S. business ties for Colombia

Interview - January 28, 2015

Executive Director of AmCham Colombia, Camilo Reyes, sat down with The Worldfolio to discuss his vision of the organization and what he believes the coming years have in store for business relations in the country.


Tell us about your vision of AmCham, your work here and your perspectives for coming years.

The Colombian American Chamber of Commerce is the largest bilateral chamber in Colombia. We have over 1000 members on a national level and about 470 in Bogota alone. The Chamber’s mandate since 1955 has been to achieve and contribute to the development and consolidation of commercial relations and investment between Colombia and the United States. In that sense, recently the Chamber has dedicated great efforts to an element that has made a great difference: the achievement of a free trade agreement with the U.S.

The Chamber was involved in the negotiation process from the beginning and afterwards in the achievement and execution of lobbying with the American administration and Congress to obtain the necessary votes for the agreement to be approved and come into effect.

Since that happened, the relationship between both countries, from the trade and investment point of view, has changed a lot. We see the Free Trade Agreement is generating a series of very interesting byproducts for Colombia as well as for the United States. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that we have to provide the corresponding information to the community so that they can understand what an FTA is. Unfortunately, the common perception is that the main objective is to increase exports. I insist that even though it is a priority objective, it is not the only one.

We have to educate the public to understand that exports are just as important as imports, that goods are just as important as services and that trade is just as important as investment. The Foreign Direct Investment generated by an FTA is very important, because the agreement sets stable and permanent rules that create a guarantee for the American investor coming to Colombia, as well as for the Colombian investor going to the United States. Just ten years ago, it was impossible to think of Colombian companies operating in the United States in a successful and competitive way. Today that has changed.

Another important aspect of the FTA is that while free trade agreements force countries to compare themselves to other nations and assume international commitments, the country acquires internal obligations and imposes upon itself internal reform goals. And that, in Colombia, is very important because having signed the FTA –not only with the United States but also with other countries- has made us look at ourselves and assume reforms to become more competitive and to meet  international standards.

That is why I think it is important for the public opinion to understand the different aspects that concern a free trade agreement and to know the benefits and difficulties it can generate. We believe it raises the commercial performance and productive levels of the country’s investments.

How does AmCham support companies that want to establish themselves in the United States?

We do intense work in trying to inform, in the clearest way possible, in the different regions of the country, what an FTA is and the opportunities it creates. This is important because Colombia is a country of regions: because of its topography -because it has three mountain ranges- very strong regions have developed, with a tendency to isolation. So we have to make an effort to be present in those different regions and try to explain a decision like the FTA, which is a decision basically made in the capital but has international implications that aren’t fully understood at a regional level.

Keeping this in mind, we discuss the advantages and opportunities that international agreements represent for each region specifically. We have found there is a lot that needs explaining: we have to make them understand that imports are just as important as exports, because it has been proven that the countries that benefit most from FTAs are the ones that combine both aspects. Often, that capacity is based on an increase in foreign direct investment, because the new companies coming to invest frequently import to create a product that then goes out to the international market with added value.

From this exercise, the Chamber has created internal mechanisms to help companies that want to become international. And not just Colombian companies, but also American companies that want to come here to Colombia to sell or to begin operations.

Sometimes you have to sell a country before you can sell a sector. Have you noticed a negative perception of Colombia in the United States or has that mentality changed?

I believe that perception has changed a lot. If I had to measure it, I would say it has changed by 80 percent. Colombia is coming out of a very difficult period in its history, because of what the country went through during the eighties and nineties. There is an element that has had a negative impact on our institutions and organizations: drug trafficking, which seems to be the phenomenon that finances the other criminal activity, which leads to corruption and weakens Colombia’s democratic institutions.

But Colombia overcame that period and changed dramatically. That happened, in good measure, thanks to the courage of many Colombians and the resistance of many of the country’s institutions. I believe there has been great progress and that is statistically evident in the reduction of the worst instances of criminal activity and the recovery and strengthening of many of our institutions. We can say this recovery was so obvious, starting with the decrease of the number of homicides per year and of kidnappings, massacres and internal displacements, that Colombia became a real opportunity for investment. Foreign Direct Investment went from a little over $2 billion in 2001 to $16.8 billion dollars last year.

Now, not all the work is done. We still have instances of violence and we want to achieve a significant reduction, not only in criminal statistics, but also in poverty. And that creates big challenges, although significant progress is being made. Colombia can reduce poverty another 15 percentage points, which is why it is so important for the country to be seeking to join the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

What sort of commitments and corporate social responsibility projects does the Chamber develop, and in what way does it encourage its members to do the same?

I am going to refer to several areas of our social responsibility outlook and initiatives. One is related to the member companies, where there are wonderful projects and where we see the concept of corporate social responsibility has been developed, implemented and consolidated in the last ten years. The companies understand this is not something additional and accidental; they understand that CSR is an essential part of the company, because it helps make the communities where they operate more viable and that is essential for the company to be able to progress and generate wealth.

So today I can say with satisfaction that, from what I can see amongst the members of this Chamber, this is happening. There are two examples of CSR projects that we can mention. One of them is at The Coca Cola Company, which is looking to recover water sources in the country. They have carried out a wonderful campaign for the recovery of watersheds, through tree planting, cleaning and other measures, that has been recognized internationally.

The other example is that of Alquería, an important Colombian company that makes dairy products. They developed a project in a conflict area where they have been able to recover the milk production capacity of over 250 families, through social work and by generating employment, security and viability for production. What they did is miraculous, because it generates economic and social stability in addition to security.

In this regard, the Chamber has undertaken a series of actions to support those companies and contribute with its own grain of sand. We have a CSR Committee that brings together the different companies and generates information exchanges between them about their CSR projects, about how they have incorporated them into their strategic planning and about good policy practices. It also helps build consensus to communicate to the government when these companies need help, because often the challenge lies in that, to move forward on their projects, the companies need to dialogue and reach agreements with local authorities or with the central government.

A second contribution of the Chamber to CSR is the generation of information and publications to highlight those projects that their members are developing. It is a way of recognizing the efforts of these companies that work towards developing both their communities and their sectors.

Now, the Chamber also develops its own social responsibility projects. The oldest one is the Declaration of Equal Opportunities, a text by which the companies engage in generating elements of inclusion in the Colombian workforce, which means they generate equal opportunities in terms of gender and minorities. That declaration was signed by companies that are major sources of employment, such as General Electric and The Coca Cola Company.

Likewise, the Chamber works together with an American institution called WeConnect International, which seeks to support companies owned or managed by women. This is very important in a country like Colombia, because Colombian women are very intelligent and have a lot of initiative. We are sure the best contribution we can make to society is to empower women. That is why we support it from the entrepreneurial point of view in general terms and, in particular, through this project with WeConnect International.

Also, the Chamber has been engaged for the last four years with a CSR project called “Advance with English”, which offers financial support for public schools in the most underprivileged areas of Bogota, to educate their best students in English for two years. These kids take English lessons from between the ages of 14 and 17, with very highly qualified teachers. We do this through a program supported by the State Department and the United States Embassy, called “Access”. In this manner, the kids graduate with a solid knowledge of the English language, which gives them access to many work-related and academic opportunities. The other part of the program is developed with Fulbright Colombia, which identifies university students with good academic performance who need to improve their level of English in order to pursue postgraduate programs in the United States. These are the two elements that comprise our effort to contribute to the development of bilingual human capital in Colombia.

Advance with English is executed with the surplus the Chamber produces annually, because we are a non-profit organization. We also hold a dinner gala to benefit the program, by complementing our traditional contribution with the help of our affiliate companies.

Lastly, this year we have committed to a very important aspect of corporate sustainability in the country, which is peace. We have worked together with Reconciliación Colombia, an initiative from the civil society that aims to highlight the reconciliation experiences in the country over the past several years, even without being in a post-conflict scenario. Our contribution to their work has been to cast some light on the ways in which the private sector can create the capabilities and possibilities for reconciliation, for our member companies to recognize and take hold of the potential for peace in their communities and their areas of influence. We have done this through events and publications in our media.