Posted by Gustavo Silva Cano on Dec 21, 2009 Leave a comment

The land of the Impossible: Why can’t Colombia get things done?


Arriving at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport is an interesting experience. We Colombians are always thrilled about getting home, so oftentimes people clap right after the airplane lands. After waiting for everybody to leave the plane, you find yourself in an overcrowded room where immigration agents check passports. The service is usually very speedy, which makes you wonder how strict the agents are about who gets into Colombia and who doesn’t.

After getting your passport stamped, you go to the somewhat more chaotic baggage claim room. The five or six conveyor belts are all filled with bags, and so is the floor. Airport workers must constantly take unclaimed bags off the conveyor belts just to make room for the bags of following flights. People move around frantically searching for their possessions in the midst of the confusion.

Once you find your bags, you move to the customs line, which is best defined as a messy mass of people coming from all sides, trying to get past one of the small doors where the customs agents are sitting. You show the agent your customs form, and if you are lucky, he won’t ask you to have your bags searched by the police standing on the other side of the room. Once you make it to the exit, you see the sea of people waiting for travelers, all pushing against the ugly metallic barriers placed there to contain them. You finally find your relatives among the many unfamiliar faces, and, even as you hug them, you reach the inescapable conclusion that Bogota urgently needs a new airport.

This truth has been evident to all Bogotans for a while now. In order to improve the situation, in August 2006 the national government ceded control of the airport to a private firm that is supposed to transform and expand it. That was more than three years ago, but in that time the airport has had only a minor overhaul.  The main thrust of the project, which requires the construction of a huge building with two new terminals, decent rooms for immigration, customs and baggage claim, has been all but abandoned.

The biggest obstacle to the construction of the new airport has been the question of whether the current ugly gray terminal should be torn down or not. For some, the old building (it was built in the 50s) has an important historic value that makes it worth preserving. The issue went all the way to the Inspector General and the State Council, whose decisions confirmed that the old terminal may be demolished in order to make room for the new building. Finally, last month an agreement on those terms was signed by the private owners of the airport. With all the delay, it is estimated that Bogota should have its new airport by 2014, and not by 2012 as was originally planned.

The difficult birth of Bogota’s new airport is representative of how tough it is to complete large public works in Colombia. Two more examples serve to emphasize the point. First, let us talk about Colombia’s third private TV channel. For the past ten years, Colombian TV has been dominated by a duopoly formed by RCN and Caracol, and although a boom in cable TV has brought more competition to the market, ordinary Colombians have little choice on their television screens. The government started to discuss the opening of a third TV channel in late 2007, and, soon after, three private conglomerates expressed interest in the project.

A big debate followed about whether the ownership of the third TV channel should be determined through an auction or by other means. Constant changes in the technical requirements for the channel (whether its signal would be transmitted in Ultra High Frequency or Very High Frequency, for example) created further delays. In the meantime, both the Comptroller General and the Inspector General started asking questions about the transparency of the whole process, and recently two of the three conglomerates said they would not be bidding for the TV channel anymore. The government insists that the third TV channel can still be auctioned even if there is only one bidder in the race. The future of the project is uncertain. Ironically, browsing the website of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, I found an article published in February of 2008 titled “Third Channel will have to Wait until 2009”. It now seems it will have to wait until 2010, too.

Our second example of the Colombian inability to move forward with big projects is Bogota’s metro system. Mayor Samuel Moreno won the election largely on his promise that he would finally build “el metro” for a city that craves it. After much skepticism from his opponents, the Mayor finally announced the route that the first line of the new metro system would follow. The mayoralty appointed a manager for all things related to the project, and they set up a nice webpage. It seemed like Mr. Moreno was finally achieving some progress, when Planeacion Nacional, the national government’s department for planning, said last week that there were some serious errors in the technical studies that Mr. Moreno’s administration had presented. Now, those errors will have to be addressed by the bureaucrats in charge of the project, and their correction could increase the cost of the metro system by tens of millions of dollars. Even without this problem, Bogota wasn’t expected to have its metro until 2016. How much longer will we have to wait now?

So yes, I sometimes feel Colombia is the land of the impossible. Our leaders bid us dream of fancy new airports with no overcrowding, of smart and refreshing new channels that will bring diversity to our dull TV screens, and of fast and modern trains that can take us from one place to another in no time. But these dreams and grand projects often become entangled in the strong and sticky nets of bureaucracy and the juridical mess. For some reason, everything takes forever, and the constant changes in the specifications of the projects and the contents of the law make it difficult for private companies to go about their business.

Everyone agrees that a new airport, a third TV channel, and Bogota’s metro system would be fantastic things for the country, and yet it seems impossible to make them happen. Is it due to excessive red tape? Corruption? Plain inefficiency? Private third parties trying to hinder the progress of their private competitors? All of the above? I honestly do not know the reason behind this lack of action, but whatever it is, I do not expect it to change any time soon. I guess that means I will have to stop complaining about El Dorado and simply try to enjoy the ride.