Colombia – Is this the expat world’s best kept secret?

There are many countries that deserve their poor reputation, and for decades Colombia was one of them. Narco-terrorism, human rights violations, and a host of other challenges have plagued it for years.

Colombia montageHowever, Colombia is working hard to shed this image and, since 2012, has even topped the list on the “Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness” (a global poll by the WIN/Gallup International Association),[1] coming in first or second.[2]

Because of Colombia’s troubled history, however, many companies still find it hard to recruit employees for assignments here. Over the past several decades, terrorist groups such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) have made it an unwelcome place for capital investment and an unsafe place for its inhabitants.

Yet Colombia has become a flexible and welcoming country, eager to do business with foreign investors; those who have been here on assignment here will probably agree that one of the hardest parts is leaving.

Also, while the FARC movement is still alive, its influence is declining, minimized by the concerted efforts of the Colombian government and foreign investors. These have included peace talks with the FARC over the past few years, with provisions that include giving land to poor farmers and replacing illegal crops (coca) with legal ones. The goal has been for the FARC to give up its terrorist activities and participate in Colombia’s legal political process.

Beyond this, another reason for the nation’s optimism is an improved economic climate, brought about in part by its many trade agreements. Among these is an agreement with the United States that went into effect in 2012. Once implemented, more than 80 percent of U.S. industrial goods exports to Colombia became duty-free. In addition, it also became easier for American companies to access Colombia’s highly lucrative services market.

However, the following realities must be noted when doing business here:

Brand Loyalty: Though friendly to foreigners, Colombians are fiercely loyal to local brands. Unlike many other countries, it has not embraced well-known U.S. brands like Coca-Cola and McDonalds. They are proud of their own culture and want to keep it intact.

Language Barrier: To enable its assignees to fully experience Colombia, companies should encourage and pay for Spanish lessons. For anyone learning Spanish, there is no place better than Colombia, as its Spanish dialect is considered is the clearest of all to Westerners.

Cultural Bias: In the United States, there are those who feel that foreign nationals (particularly from Latin America) have taken jobs away from Americans; this has created a cultural bias among some groups against Hispanics. To avoid being at a disadvantage when on assignment in Latin America, this must be overcome.

Safety: Although the FARC’s influence is diminishing, it still continues to operate, as do other terrorist groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), and armed gangs. Visitors are therefore advised to avoid areas where they’re most likely to be found (small towns and jungle areas), which are considered dangerous.

Overall, however, Columbia is a great place to live and work. Much has changed over the past decade and the country has gone from a failed state to an important emerging market. Those who recognize this will reap the rewards, especially the lucky few assigned to live and work there.

For a full white paper on Columbia, please click here

[1]   “Colombia Again Ranked the Happiest Country in the World.”