My boiler decided to call it quits. After a decade of relentless work, it grumbled and groaned until breaking its metal casing, sending water gushing across the kitchen floor. The end of my ‘Made in USA’ spelled trouble. I thumbed through the yellow pages and managed to find a qualified repair and maintenance company. They duly arrived for the emergency. Conclusion: I needed a new boiler. I chose the only one available, the ‘Made in Colombia.’ In less than two weeks of being fully operational the water temperature has been irregular. One minute it’s scalding. Then back to temperate. When asking the company why this occurred, the affable manager stated that the machine “was not built to last,” and that part of the competitiveness of this com- pany was to build things to break, so in two years you had to rush out and buy a replacement.
I thanked the technician for his honesty, hung up and phone, and began to delve into the greater theme, of what makes Colombia “competitive.” If we can’t beat the system with our boilers, there must be other areas where we build things to last somewhat longer than a drawn-out peace process in Havana, Cuba.
To be fair, Colombia is good at many things. It’s a country that takes its pastime seriously. In other words, when not working, it works. On November 11th the pageant season ends in the country with the crowning of Miss Colombia. Amidst all the pomp and ceremony, it’s an event which celebrates the Independence of Cartagena from Spain, and a heroic city which has blossomed over the decades into a global destination for tourists.
Colombia puts on a good show. From celebrating plenty of regional diversity to hosting monthly fairs and festivals, it’s partly what attracts foreigners to these shores, and in droves. But beyond the “happiness” factor, and Colombia ranks high in this area as well, there is the macro economic capacity for Colombia to compete in the global market. For this, a nation, needs to have access to its rich natural resource base, have infrastructure to move everything from ore to sugar to its ports. So far, so good. When the Santos government was elected in 2010 it promised to embark on an ambitious plan to modernize this nation’s road networks as well as expand existing concessions. President Santos announced October that during the last 3 years his government has already spent 22 billion pesos on roads, far more than any of his predecessors.
So if we’re to have modern bridges and tunnels in the upcoming years, then surely the economic engine will be well positioned to take on international trade as well as, compete with all the Chinese boiler manufacturers. Possibly.
Not all competition comes down to parts and logistics, however. There are hidden, more subtle factors, such as the capacity of one’s labour force to write a simple letter in another language. Colombia remains very much a one language nation. Even though the government pushes through measures in schools to have greater English education under the program ‘Bilingüismo en Colombia’ a recent study by the Centre for Regional Studies of the central bank, Banco de la República, stated that only 2 percent of high school graduates have a decent command of English. This begs the question: what’s happening with the other 98 percent?
While Colombia grapples to understand basic English, other emerging countries (especially those in South Asia), are well into a trilingual era, with many of their young professionals picking up other than English, languages such as Mandarin and German.
If Colombian teachers can’t teach English at a competent level, then why not ease cumbersome immigration procedures to help qualified gradu- ates from overseas come and teach in district schools? But this is easier written than done. Of the many qualified foreigners I have come across in recent years while editing The City Paper, there are always problems regarding the official paperwork needed to remain in this country for more than the allo- cated 90 days in order to venture out there, to teach, to educate. For English is so much more than a language: it’s the way the world communicates. And by communicating well, one is able to compete with an advantage.
Colombians work hard, but are remiss when it comes to learning a foreign language. We see this at our paper. Many read us (thankfully), but few I predict, understand the importance of having English media in a society which remains somewhat ambivalent to the rest of the world. And while we’re on the issue of domestic troubles, my thoughts turn again to shoddy boilers. If Colombia wants to compete, it must start with the basics.