A Tale of Two Countries

On April 14, Latin American officials will gather in Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. But the region’s oldest dictatorship will not be represented, to the delight of Washington and the dismay of Hugo Chávez. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos did not invite Cuba to the summit, citing a lack of “consensus” among the other countries, though he did meet with Raúl Castro last month in Havana and said that “we really appreciate [Castro’s] desire to take part in the meeting.” Santos has worked hard to improve bilateral relations with leftist regimes in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, while also maintaining warm ties with the United States, so the decision on Cuba was a sensitive one. In the end, he managed to make the right choice without incurring too much diplomatic blowback from the Chávez bloc.

As it happens, Colombia and Cuba are each marking a significant anniversary this year. Ten years ago, both countries were at a crossroads. The South American nation was holding a presidential election amid terrible violence from drug-running Marxist rebels and paramilitaries. Meanwhile, Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá was receiving global praise for his Varela Project, a petition drive aimed at forcing real democratic change within the Communist constitution.

A decade later, Colombia is a nation transformed -- “a prospering dynamo,” in the words of journalist Mac Margolis -- but Cuba is still ruled by a brutal dictatorship that has rejected political liberalization and is now desperately trying to stave off an economic crisis. Indeed, if Colombia symbolizes the enormous progress that Latin America has made in the new millennium, Cuba remains a stubborn relic of the region’s autocratic, impoverished past.

It may not be a member of the BRIC club (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but Colombia has been included in the so-called CIVETS bloc (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa), another group of emerging-market countries with great economic potential. Joachim Bamrud, the executive editor of the Latin Trade Group, has said that “Colombia is set to be a star for many more years,” noting that it “offers a far easier business environment” than Brazil. The World Bank reports that Colombia now has one of the three “most business-friendly regulatory environments” in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under Presidents Uribe (2002–2010) and Santos, there have been astonishing reductions in violence, though we should acknowledge that Colombia still suffers from major security issues. (Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon correctly argues that the United States should increase military assistance to Bogotá.)