Colombia: Uribe, Clinton, Barrett, Reid, and Others

The Inter-American Development Bank is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Medellín so we’ve been able to piggyback on those festivities to meet some amazing people.

Our first meeting was with the former prime minister of Jamaica, James Patterson. He opened by expressing his “sincere disappointment” that no one from the Caribbean was represented in our group of 20. He then discussed the state of Jamaica, the drug trade, and his country’s precarious financial situation. Anti-American sentiment shimmered throughout.

At lunch we heard from the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who’s now launching a presidential bid. A mathematician and university professor by training, he got involved in politics by giving voice to the everyday people on the street. He mentioned several times that he’s “walking around the country” meeting with everyday people, hearing their concerns, etc. A grassroots effort. He’s deservedly proud of Medellín’s turnaround from drug haven 20 years ago to a very safe, beautiful city today. Whether this record will be enough to win a nation-wide presidency remains to be seen; if Uribe successfully amends the constitution and runs for a third term, it’s Uribe all the way (he has 60% approval rating). If Uribe is out, Fajardo has a good chance.

Next we chatted with Craig Barret, chairman of the board at Intel, former CEO there, longtime employee. He began his remarks by saying “We old people have screwed the world up — it’s up to you to solve the problems we created.” Unfortunately he didn’t specify what problems, exactly. Most interesting tidbit: 75% of Intel revenue comes from outside the U.S. and all future growth will come from emerging markets.

Next was Michael Reid, Americas editor of The Economist, and author of The Forgotten Continent which I read and posted my notes. Reid was impressive. He’s spent 20+ years in the region and knows it inside and out. He wrote the editorial in the Economist calling for drug legalization. The political will to legalize drugs will only come when there’s universal understanding that the War on Drugs has been a failure. Reid also said it would be a “terrible mistake” for Uribe to amend the constitution and run for a third term.

The following day started with Agustín Carstens, Treasury Secretary for Mexico. Very smart dude. He said it’d be nice for Mexico’s economy to be less dependent on U.S., and for Mexican companies to have a more diversified customer base. But practically speaking, companies are going to continue to try to penetrate the world’s largest economy next door. As long as the Mexican-US trade relationship remains tight, Mexico’s economy will mirror America’s. He also said he expects more Americans to immigrate TO Mexico, as 10-15 million Americans retire in the next decade. Another fun fact: 50% of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. in a six month period is grown in Mexico.

Our next meeting was with Robert Merton, Nobel prize winning economist at Harvard. He famously co-founded Long Term Capital Management, the disastrous hedge fund in the 1990’s that used complex statistical models to make trades. Merton struck me as an arrogant prick. His remarks were all over the place, and his overconfidence was shocking given the state of the global financial system.

Our meeting with Bill Clinton got cancelled but we were able to catch the end of his talk to the larger group. He had some very gracious things to say about Colombia’s stunning progress on the security front. He closed by saying Colombia should not give up on its neighbors — that it should talk to countries that disagree with them. This meant Venezuela, for sure, and maybe Ecuador too?

The day ended with the big meeting: President Uribe of Colombia. It was my first time meeting a head of state. He was impressive and thoughtful. We got to ask questions. We asked about his move to amend the constitution to allow for a third term and asked his reaction for observers who say such a move would weaken the “institutions” of Colombia. He pushed back and asked what specific institutions would weaken. He noted that Margaret Thatcher in England was in office for 14 years (or so). He said the security work in Colombia is not yet done. Most of all, he said he just wants to respond to the people’s will. If they want him for another term, he should have another term. On drugs he said the “US is not spending too much on it.” Ie, they’re spending the right amount, not too little.

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