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Is Colombia Really Ready for the World?   2 comments

On July 20, 2011 USA Today carried a twenty page insert entitled COLOMBIA Working hand in hand towards a new era. With a great lead picture of Presidents Santos and Obama in what seemed to be a hearty conversation the insert (full version available at http://unitedworld.usatoday/ourworld.htm) covered: policy movements aimed at improving foreign relations; opportunities for investors; education, health care and culture features; and more. Clearly the intention is to promote Colombia changing the country’s image in the minds of people in the United States, if not around the world, still wary of the country’s violent past and human rights abuses. As testament, my great friends Cora and Bill, who gave me the insert, remain concerned about me being here (a blessing for which I am thankful everyday) acknowledged that the report gives a different, and more positive, view.

At times, though, I have learned from experience, the aspiration of leadership does not always filter down to the folks who make things happen. For example, renting an apartment in Barranquilla has been an experience to be endured. As an extranjero, a foreigner, I kept running into people who wanted two cosigners that are property owners and a letter saying that I was working here. I could not help but to think that in many parts of the USA, and the world, people would be happy to take an application, a check and a smile. On one occasion when I called one apartment owner the woman that answered told me to have someone call back that spoke perfect Spanish. Do you think that if she understood my Spanish well enough to tell me that it was not perfect possibly she could have understood the rest of what I had to say? Finally, after finding an apartment I really liked I offered to pay the first six months in advance on a year’s lease. Whether it was that I had the cash on my pocket or the pitiful “what am I going to do” look on my face my landlord, who is also an attorney, was nice enough to agree upon a mutually acceptable exchange rate and we sealed the deal. What I know also helped, a lot, is my friend who calls herself my assistant, partly as a joke and also partly because I compensate her for her time and expenses uses her own network to help me negotiate processes and the issues I have faced. I am very sure that her willingness to speak up for me helped seal the deal.

There is a reason that some people rate Colombia, particularly the coast, as a hard place to do business. There lacks a “we want your business (and will work to earn your money) attitude” in many aspects of the culture. Neither Bancolombia nor Banco de Bogota would exchange dollars to pesos, even though both banks quoted me their monetary rates for exchange. Both referred me to the currency exchange centers around the city, which of course offer a much less exchange rate than the market. I have not found a bank here that will let me open an account unless I have a Cedula de Extranjeria, a government issued ID card. This is even true for CitiBank, which operates more like a franchise here. Meaning that establishing an account with CitiBank in the United States does not give one access to that same account in Colombia. Not a huge incentive for going with CitiBank.

Getting a Cedula de Extranjeria is proving to be an adventure. In Colombia, The Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) is responsible for issuing cedulas. All Colombians have cedulas. Cedulas, along with their tracking numbers, prove you are who you say you are. So, it makes sense that to establish a bank account a Cedula de Extranjeria would be a requirement. Now this is where it gets tricky – or confusing. During my visit to the DAS I was told that I could not get a Cedula de Extranjeria unless I have a ViSA. That I needed to get a VISA in order to get a cedula was a big surprise to me. It is also a surprise to some other people with who have talked.

Equally a surprise was the DAS official’s interpretation of how long I can stay in Colombia. The law says a person can stay for 180 days in any given year. Which I thought was like Costa Rica, meaning after 180 days you have to leave the country for at least three days and then you can return to begin the clock ticking again on your next 180 days. His said that I could only stay for a total of 180 days in any given year. So he began to count the number of days I have been here in 2011 and then said when I leave in October, to take care of some business, I would only have 10 days left to stay in Colombia when I return to Colombia. But then he said that airport customs would probably stamp my passport for another sixty days, making the length of my stay a non-issue. Because if customs stamps my passport for 60 days then that will take me to 2012 when the 180 clock begins again. I must note that though a foreigner can stay for 180 days customs will only typically give a stamp for 60 days. To extend one’s stay you have to go the DAS to request an extension which costs about $35. Extensions are only granted in 30 day increments to a maximum of 180 days – a nice revenue source for the country. I also have people telling me that this interpretation is incorrect.

My friends in Costa Rica remind me that all of this would be much easier if I had decided to move there. And they are right. Costa Rica has worked this stuff out. And though some say that Panama is the gold standard in attracting extranjeros, other Latin American countries are creating their own incentives and promotions. They are making it easy. I have a bank account in Costa Rica. They only required me to have two references, one of who had an account at the bank. I got an apartment in Costa Rica with only a month’s rent, a security deposit and my signature with my passport number. You can stay in Costa Rica up to 180 days without having to pay a monthly fee to get your stay extended every thirty days.

Being a foreigner in most parts of the world can be a difficult transition to make, especially if the country is not used to having you there. I love Colombia and am willing to be patient and persistent to learn how to be here. I will say that if Colombia is making a commitment to attracting people, investors, retirees or tourists from around the world then assuring that the people on the ground and the systems supporting them are easily understood and manageable is critical to success. Costa Rica gets it. Colombia is still figuring it out. And perhaps that is the good news. Maybe Colombia will also learn from the mistakes made by Costa Rica and Panama.

By the way I am still waiting for the cable guys to get that service going – 5 days for a service visit and then they told me the building was not wired and it will take at least another six days before I could have service. Oh, well at least I feel at home here.

Posted August 14, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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