BY JOACHIM BAMRUD
In February last year, Colombian commerce, industry and tourism minister Luis Guillermo Plata received a group of foreign journalists at his downtown Bogota office. At some point he referred to The World Bank's Doing business survey, where Colombia had gradually been improving and in 2009 managed to become the second-best country in Latin America after Chile. Next year, he promised the group, Colombia would improve its score further. Whether that meant upsetting Chile or not, he added with a smile to the Chilean journalist in the group.
A year later, Colombia did just that. The country now ranks as the Latin American champion on the Doing business ranking.
Behind that success has been a deliberate strategy by the outgoing government of President Alvaro Uribe to implement laws that would boost foreign direct investment in Colombia. And one of the key architects and drivers behind that strategy has been Plata, who has been widely seen as Latin America’s best commerce minister in recent years.
“Luis Guillermo Plata is a sterling example of an entire generation of Colombians who have rallied to give their country a second chance,” says John Murphy, international vice president for the US Chamber of Commerce. “Like many others who’ve served alongside President Uribe, he left behind a host of lucrative and exciting opportunities abroad to take up the challenge of reviving the country’s economy and its spirit. As trade minister, he framed a far-sighted strategy that is already bearing fruit as Colombia enters into new trade agreements that lock in free access to the world’s great markets.”
When Plata leaves office on Saturday along with the rest of the Uribe administration, he leaves behind a legacy of making Colombia a serious player in global commerce, says Carlos Gutierrez, a former US Commerce Secretary who worked closely with Plata to get US lawmakers to pass the 2006 US-Colombia free trade agreement. They failed, but not because of their efforts, but rather U.S. domestic policies.
Gutierrez praises Plata for “his mastery of facts, ability to stay calm under pressure, and his personal integrity.”
When asked what his proudest achievement is, Plata does not limit himself to one single event. Instead he points to the negotiation of several free trade agreements, the strengthening of micro credits, modernization of the accounting system, the new competition law, development of private capital funds, creation of venture networks and ease of corporate registrations.
“However, I believe the [reform] with the greatest impact is the policy of productive transformation, which will make it possible to develop world class sectors in Colombia and thus improve the competitiveness of the country,” he says. “With this policy, the productive structure of the country will be modernized and new sectors will grow, allowing Colombia to become an important player on the world market.”
In June, Canada’s legislature gave its final approval to the Colombia-Canada FTA signed in 2008. Meanwhile, Colombia has reached FTA’s with the European Union, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and is negotiating one with EFTA and Panama.
Plata says the lack of the US-Colombia FTA passage is his biggest disappointment. “We did everything humanly possible, we worked closely with members of congress in both parties, with had the support of both President Bush and President Obama, we showed many opinion makers that the image they had of Colombia wasn’t correct, we brought to Colombia members of congress, union leaders and opinion makers to show them the reality of the country,” he says. “We understand that various factors affected the priority of the Congress and the FTA’s were pushed back. We are confident that the topic will be settled in January, as President Obama has suggested.”
Before heading up Colombia’s commerce ministry, Plata led Proexport, the investment promotion agency that is considered one of the best in Latin America. He also served as a Colombian trade official in Asia in the 1990’s, a useful experience when he as commerce minister led the way towards boosting ties with that region.
Prior to joining the government he also had ample private sector experience, including as co-founder of Simplexis, a San Francisco-based e-procurement company, and at Mckinsey & Company, where he advised the top management of private companies and government organizations.
He holds a BSc from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
“He was no respecter of persons — he took questions and meetings with the mighty and the meek as long .. as it helped to advance Colombia’s interests,” Murphy says. “The fact that Colombia today punches above its considerable weight in global trade affairs is a testament to his vision and hard work.”
So what will the dynamo do after August 7? “Relax, relax and relax,” he says.
© Copyright Latin Business Chronicle
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