Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the booming South American nation of Colombia. This is my third visit to the province of Antioquia where the modern, vibrant city of Medellin is located, surrounded by lush green mountains. I must tell you I'm really impressed with the cleanliness of the city, the modern infrastructure and the industriousness of the people. Colombia is a nation of opportunity and the time is right for Americans and other foreigners to visit ahead of the crowd.
I know what you are thinking: Colombia is full of guerilla fighters, crime and drugs. A few years ago I would have agreed with you because all I knew about Colombia came from the 1984 movie "Romancing the Stone" starring Michael Douglas as Jack. Who could forget the wild ride he and Joan had in the mudslide segment? Later, the Tom Clancy novel and 1994 movie "Clear and Present Danger" with Harrison Ford, in which CIA analyst Jack Ryan found himself caught in an illegal war between the US and a Colombian drug cartel, completed my education about Colombia.
Actually, there were serious problems in Colombia for many years until things began to turn around in 2002, when Alvaro Uribe was elected president. He had promised to take action against the drug cartels and the Marxist guerilla war but promises are nothing new for politicians running for office.
Uribe is the Ronald Reagan of Colombia
But unique among any of the politicians I have followed in my lifetime, other than Ron Paul and Ronald Reagan, Uribe actually followed through with his campaign promises. The results were phenomenal, to say the least. The guerillas were dramatically pushed back, crime and kidnappings dropped precipitously and the economy took off. After two years in office, Colombia government statistics indicated that terrorist attacks, homicides and kidnappings fell by as much as 50 percent.
Outside investment in the country exploded from around $2 billion to $17 billion in 2010 when he left office. There is a two-term limit for president in Colombia or else he would have been reelected again, as his approval rate was around 75 percent. How many domestic or foreign politicians have ever had an approval rate this high after they leave office? None of our presidents in the US have left office with such a high approval rate and actually, most just hide out for a few years waiting for the anger and disgust to clear.
My Only Concern About Colombia
Colombians have many reasons to be optimistic about their nation and I'll cover these later in this essay but I did hear some concerns about the current government's plans for peace talks with the Marxist rebels. Uribe recently stated, "We all want peace, but there can't be a negotiation while the terrorists are continuing their criminal activities…. It creates investor panic and in turn creates difficulties in financing social policy."
I believe Uribe is correct and very astute in his assessment because foreign investors and money flows are very dependent on the security and safety of a jurisdiction when investment advisors are weighing profit and growth opportunities versus perceived risks. Today, the world is a global marketplace where funds can flow almost instantaneously from nation to nation depending on news, current events and investor psychology. Government negotiations with guerillas still fighting in the field when combined with heightened security concerns by the citizenry are the only negatives I see today for Colombia.
A Tale of Two Colombias
Yes, like in all countries there is still crime and drugs in Colombia but it depends on where you are. Many major American cities have far higher crime rates than Colombia and most people are smart enough to stay out of the highest crime areas in those cities. It is the same in Colombia.
Actually, the crime rate down in Colombia, South America is minimal compared to the threats to your health, wealth and safety in another Colombia up here in the US, the District of Columbia. I would rather be lost in the deepest jungles of Colombia than have car trouble in much of the Washington, DC area.
After all, drug use is higher in DC, violent crime is more rampant and public education graduates fewer than 60 percent of students from public high schools in and around our nation's capitol. In addition, the strong work ethic down in Colombia cannot even be compared to that in D.C., where most who are employed don't really work; the people on the dole, or government employees, in the District have a work ethic similar to the tree sloths of Colombia.
A Successful Drug Strategy
I had the honor and opportunity to meet personally with Alvaro Uribe (left), who speaks perfect English and taught at Washington D.C.'s Georgetown University after serving as president of Colombia. Before his reforms took hold, drug lords, crime and terrorism had stalked the Colombian nation.
During his tenure, FARC's presence in Colombia was reduced from 20,000 members to roughly 8,000. We asked President Uribe why his government's policies on illegal drug trade and terrorism were so successful, especially when compared to the total failure in Mexico and even in the United States. His response concerning Mexico was quite revealing.
President Uribe suggested three reasons his program had worked:
1. They decriminalized the use of cocaine and marijuana by drug users and treated addiction as a medical problem.
2. Colombia dramatically increased educational efforts about the risks of drug abuse.
3. The government passed strict laws for prison time for distributors.
I believe the United States and other nations dealing with ever-growing drug abuse problem and related criminal activities can learn much from the Uribe drug policy.
Natural Resource Opportunities In Colombia
The nation of Colombia may actually benefit most from the debt and dollar crisis sweeping Europe and the US because the world is looking for currency alternatives and a store of value away from fiat, paper money in the West. I believe Colombia, despite it's violent past, just may become the investment opportunity of the decade because of its vast store of natural resources, including gold, silver, coal and oil. Their big advantage is most of these in-ground resources have remained hidden and untapped because of the past rebel guerilla violence.
From the beaches and history of the old walled city of Cartagena and the renowned gold museum in Bogota to the perpetual spring climate in the mountains around Medellin, with essentially no bugs and a year round average temperature of 72 degrees, the real Colombia is far different from the public perception of ten years ago. This makes an interesting investment combination considering that less than 25% of the country's exploration potential for natural resources has been carried out due to previous decades of instability.
Today, the sovereign debt and dollar crisis together with rising energy and gold prices are combining with Colombia's growing reputation for tourism, real estate investing and retirement to create an investment potential long delayed by past decades of civil unrest. Many experts agree monetary events now taking place on the world financial stage mean the nation of Colombia, as well as foreign and domestic investors, are today benefitted by the country's former economic stagnation.
Timing Is Everything
Would a company or nation rather have sold most of their oil reserves in the past at $25 dollars a barrel or prefer the future at $100 plus a barrel? How about mining gold during earlier decades at $300 an ounce in contrast to $2,000-plus an ounce in coming years? Of course, both company profits, Colombian tax revenues and share prices would likely increase exponentially from the higher prices but this is only one-third of the story.
What if the deepening sovereign debt crisis or a future collapse in public confidence in the dollar and other fiat currencies forces reluctant politicians and central bankers to return to a currency standard somewhat backed by a combination of gold, silver and oil reserves both above and in the ground? The nation of Colombia is uniquely situated, due to past unrest, to benefit from future oil and gold prices that could easily double from current levels due to a paradigm shift in Western monetary policies.
Although Colombia is the most resource-rich country in South America, the earlier major civil unrest forced the nation to miss out on the resource exploration and investment boom that swept the world during the last 30 years. This means Colombia may be the most under-explored and under-developed nation with untapped resources not just in South America but in the oil, coal and mineral resource-hungry world today.
Some experts suggest that less than 20% of the in-ground mineral wealth has been explored, which translates into an unknown but tremendous opportunity for junior gold mining exploration ventures as well as other resource development, tourism and infrastructure projects.
The delay in exploration is an even greater advantage to the nation and new investors because the high prices of gold and oil today along with stricter environmental concerns mean far higher revenues and better care of the environment than 20 years ago. Due to past history and political problems, Colombia today is an untapped and unexplored strategic petroleum reserve and a Fort Knox combination that will benefit both investors and Colombia.
As I stated above, the profit opportunities for many will likely be enormous due to a paradigm shift in political, economic and monetary theory away from sovereign debt financed democracy and fiat currency to new alternatives based on a more sound currency basis. This loss of confidence we see across Europe and the US eventually could lead to more than a government-backed system and later even to the Austrian economics ideal of public and private currency competition.
Today we see this loss in confidence in the growing EU sovereign debt crises and the American debt downgrade as well as the ongoing debt ceiling political circus in Washington. In addition, governments and central banks began dramatically increasing their gold holdings in 2010 to diversify reserves out of the dollar with net gold purchases in 2011 tripling. 2012 numbers aren't yet in but it looks to be on an even better course this year.
Nations with substantial gold resources should benefit from the sudden end to 20 years of central bank gold sales as every nation and central banker in the world now understands the importance of gold to establishing a strong currency and monetary system. That is, all except America's "Abbot and Costello" financial comedy team of Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke, who have made the once secure American dollar and our sovereign debt the joke of the monetary world.
Geithner's "strong dollar policy" is in tatters and met with laughter in foreign capitals. Bernanke's "gold and dollar disconnect" was apparent to all last year in an exchange with Congressman Ron Paul on whether gold was money. This stubborn resistance to the reality of thousands of years of world history showing the importance of gold to a secure monetary system is lost only on these two men.
Today, the price of gold, the weak dollar, foreign investors and bond rating entities vote in tandem in opposition to their monetary mistakes. In the near future, a few nations like Colombia with a friendly, free-market business climate and adequate food and agricultural production combined with extensive untapped gold and oil resources are likely to be the primary beneficiaries of the paradigm shift in the West toward resource backed currencies.
Colombia Is Unique!
The political failures in most nations of the West have taught voters to have very low expectations about politicians, their programs and promises made during elections. Colombia is unique because former president Alvaro Uribe actually kept most of his promises and the turnaround in growth and the economy is the result. Will current and future administrations continue the Uribe model? We believe they will as the positive trend continues today. Concerns are being expressed by some about the current approach to the Marxist rebels but differences of opinions are to be expected in a free and democratic society.
Remember, Colombia has a proud tradition of civilian, constitutional government. During the 20th century, all presidents were elected democratically with the only exception a military regime during 1953 to 1957. While many Latin American countries suffered dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia has remained a solid bastion of democracy.
Perhaps what I am most optimistic about is that the people of Colombia today are living in a country much different than that which existed prior to Uribe taking office. And the people of Colombia are eternally grateful for his "firm hand, big heart" approach to dealing with criminal organizations such as FARC. In fact, despite being out of office for two years now, Uribe still maintains an estimated approval rating in Colombia of 80%!
In summary, when my wife Tami and I arrived back in Toronto we felt a mutual sense of calling … one that undoubtedly will bring us back to Colombia in the future, perhaps to purchase a serene mountain retreat to enjoy as a major part of our retirement plan. To say we were pleasantly surprised is a major understatement, indeed. Viva Colombia!
I'm excited about the real reawakening of Colombia and what has been accomplished and I want to be involved – and maybe you do, too. If so, join me in looking forward to a Colombia future for global investment diversification, resource and gold mining allocations, tourism, real estate and retirement opportunities.