May 2012 - Pablo Vargas
About six months ago I received an email from something called "CEO's Summit of the Americas." Attached was a letter from Juan Manuel Santos, president of the Republic of Colombia. My reaction was, "Yeah, right. The Colombian president doesn't have enough problems to solve and decided to send me a letter."
I receive about 200 emails a day, and there's always some spam that makes it through the filter and into my inbox. But the email didn't look 100-percent spam, so I kept it. Some weeks later I received an original letter from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) with the invitation in printed format. Everything looked legitimate, and one week later I received the call from the Colombian embassy. The event website had a video of President Santos inviting 250 business people from the Americas to be part of a CEO's Summit that would take place at the same time as the Presidents' Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, April 12-14. So I was one of the lucky two Ticos who were invited.
But why has Colombia become important for us? Well, last February we won two bids to operate gift shops in the new El Dorado Airport Terminal in Bogota, Colombia. This building will be the largest Latin American airport terminal so far. It's scheduled to open this coming August. I have been traveling to Bogota, and our team has been to many regions in Colombia searching for handcrafts, coffee and chocolate. A team of six people toured the country last March for a week as part of the scouting trip — our method of discovering what a new Britt country has to offer to visitors — to gather information to develop products, souvenirs, T-shirts, etc.
I have met three times with the Colombian Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism in San Jose, Bogota, and Cartagena, and have met key business people from that beautiful country. Britt was in El Tiempo, an important newspaper of Colombia, three times in the same week when the news of the new airport concessions broke out. We have received hundreds of emails from suppliers and people offering their services to us. And yes, we have already tasted some of the best coffees from the most representative regions of Colombia. In a future newsletter I will try to describe them for you, they will be part of our collection of Café Britt coffees from Colombia.
So, there I was. In addition to the 250 business people from the Americas, the government picked about 100 key Colombian business people to attend the Summit. We heard presentations from CEO's from global companies, like Marriott and Pepsico, who have a strong presence in the region. Other speakers included representatives from NGO's like "Un techo para mi país" (A Roof for My Country), a non-profit organization with presence in 20 countries in Latin America that last year listed 125,000 volunteers who helped build houses for the poor. Even Shakira, the famous song-writer, singer and global pop star, spoke to us. Shakira has been helping poor children for 20 years already, building care centers for young children in many countries. She spoke to an auditorium filled with some of the most influential business people in Latin America, and called for more decisive action. She preached the philanthro-capitalism concepts as practiced by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who have each committed to give half of their wealth to non-profits. Shakira supported her talk with the concept of Shared Value, as proposed by Harvard's Michael Porter. She made an impression, certainly a strong one.
I hadn't realized that most of the presidents would come to speak to us. I enjoyed Mexican President Felipe Calderon's presentation. He was funny, spontaneous, and delivered a no-nonsense pro-commerce presentation that was worthy of a high-level economist. With figures, graphs and unusually simple terms, he showed that our countries need more business, that the government does not create wealth, and that we need to work to improve the competitiveness of the companies operating throughout Latin America. We also heard U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliver an insightful presentation on connectivity in Latin America, and how the U.S. will try to help connect our cities and improve conditions for marginal communities. We had Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who impressed the auditorium according to several people from different countries, by simply explaining Costa Rican history. It looks like our recipe of no-army, a focus on education, universal health care, and care for the environment, is really powerful and needed these days. That evening we went to the historic Castillo de San Felipe, Cartagena's signature colonial castle within the walled city. And, yes, we had dinner with the 20+ presidents (about 1,000 people total), including President Barak Obama, and listened to traditionally vibrant vallenato music. Everyone was relaxed. The organization throughout the conference was perfect. Colombians are the best hosts in the world. They truly make you feel at home. On the second day things looked different at the Hilton, where the conference took place. This time the security checks were carried out by Americans, and you could "feel" the security level going up to the sky. You felt scanned, videotaped, controlled. The 500-seat room was full. Hurried people in dark suits invaded the mostly white guayabera/linen dressed business people. The dress code was informal. The guayabera shirts are traditional in many parts of Latin America. And there they were. We had President Dilma Rousseff from Brazil, now the 6th economy in the world and #1 in Latin America, President Santos from Colombia, and U.S. President Obama. First, President Rousseff talked in her paused, strong, easy-to-understand Portuguese about the economy.
She blamed "some" developed countries for creating a "Monetary Tsunami" — by printing money like crazy — that was affecting the competitiveness of Brazil and other emerging economies by causing their currencies to appreciate in value, thus making their exports more expensive. President Obama looked serious and a bit uncomfortable, maybe because President Rousseff was right. She was right in her reasoning, and I was positively surprised she spoke with a good handle of economic and business concepts. President Santos started with an ice-breaking joke that had secondary effects. He said he was in the midst of "two titans," and looked first to his right at Mrs. Rousseff, and then turned left to make eye contact with Mr. Obama, who didn't laugh. He talked about the drug issue. One of the big issues at the presidential conference was a discussion about drug legalization, which the U.S. opposes strongly. President Santos spoke about analyzing the topic, because what we've done for the last 40 years has created many dead people and an increasing drug trade. He was diplomatic toward the U.S., saying that maybe legalizing the drug trade is not the answer, but calling for a serious analysis of the current situation, and the harm that mainly U.S.-based demand is causing throughout Latin America. The secondary effect of President Santos intervention, in my opinion, was that somehow in the auditorium and the conference, the U.S. looked about the same as Brazil in terms of importance. And I think Mr. Obama didn't like that sense of being at the same level as Brazil. Then it was President Obama's turn. I have to say he has a great personality, but I think he felt somewhat uncomfortable. I was eagerly expecting some of his jokes. He just made one. He said that he was tired of going to conferences around the world, especially in Latin America, where the U.S. is to blame for all that is wrong in those places. He made a facial expression as if taking offense, but in a friendly, almost funny way. People laughed. But that was it. He basically responded. He didn't propose. He said, "We are mindful of our responsibilities." He gave a definite "No" to legalizing drugs, and not much more. Maybe my level of expectation was too high. Or the U.S. doesn't have a coherent and decisive focus towards Latin America.
In my opinion, Colombia was the big winner at the conference. Colombia looked positive, competent, progressive, and with execution ability. This is a country with warm people, a great culture, the best music, good food and great coffee!! I heard the event cost them $20 million U.S. dollars, and Cartagena looked at its best. There were no security incidents, and all this will help boost tourism. The day I was leaving Colombia and going to Brazil, I had some time to relax. I was at a beach resort and went jogging along the beach. Then I saw a group of local people playing soccer. For someone that grew up playing soccer (not much else to do after school), soccer at the beach is one of the best things in life. So I stopped for a second to watch the match. Six, 10-to-20-year-old kids, shirtless, were playing against a group of shirted older guys. I was lucky enough to get invited to play, and since I was shirtless, I played with the sun-bathed, brown-skinned athletic kids. No one asked me what I was doing there. I just crossed a couple of words, took off my running shoes and spoke the universal language of soccer. Shirtless, shoeless, I loved it! I didn't score but we won. Without my iPad I could not take a picture, but believe me, from the whole trip, if I were able to repeat one activity, it would be that one. The warmth and hospitality of Colombians is incredible. With them, this country will succeed!!