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Santos’ Railway Dreams

Colombia’s alleged plans to build a 137mile interoceanic railway between a “new city” next to Cartagena and Cupica, in the northern part of Choco, sound really interesting. But unfortunately that’s about it. Even the backing of the mighty Chinese Development Bank might not be able to pull this one off.  And it shouldn’t.

Let’s start with Cupica. Cupica? Really?

Anyone that has set foot in the Colombian Choco, the lush, scarcely populated, tropical rainforest region that stretches throughout the northern Pacific Coast, knows that this is not exactly a symbol of Colombia’s pride. It is a beautiful region, but ridden by violence, corrupt and very poor. A trip to Quibdó, its capital, takes 30 minutes on a small airplane from Medellín and up to 14 hours or more by car –that is, in the dry season.  The land of the Embera Katios and other indigenous groups,  a large afro-Colombian population, illegal goldminers, armed groups, and a few adventurers, has proven unlawful and ungovernable for decades. Building a new port with the goal of a new era of development in the Cupica area sounds awfully quixotic, sardonic, but perhaps more worryingly, completely misguided.

Leaving aside the environmental concerns, which have been discussed for years and should be again before such a plan remotely begins to take shape, the government will do better by paying close attention to the infrastructure the country really needs. This is especially true after the devastation created by the recent floods. First should the food come to the table, and then the wine. The dry canal project is like wine. It may bring out the food flavor, but is certainly not essential. 

Probably one of the biggest and most criticized flaws of the past government was the lack of improvements made in infrastructure –highways, ports, railways, and airports. The Santos administration has tried to fill that void by appointing German Cardona, an able technocrat, in charge of the Ministry of Transportation while announcing big plans for the sector.

Hopefully, Santos won’t now get distracted by some interoceanic railway dreams. Priorities should be to connect cities like Bogota, Cali and Medellin to the coast with decent highways and to improve existing ports and airports. This is what’s necessary for the growing economy and to lower transportation costs and make the country more competitive.

An upgrade to existing ports, especially those in the Pacific Coast like Buenaventura and Tumaco, will make more sense than building new ones in deserted places because of a coal rush. We don’t need a Jari Project in Colombia.  Perhaps the old ports will not bring immediate riches to the Chinese, the Indians, and the coal mining companies in the country, but will certainly bring more economic benefits to many more people within Colombia’s borders.

Mateo Samper is a blogger to AQ Online. He is Editor of Americas Quarterly and Director of Public Policy Programs at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Colombia, Panama, China, Juan Manuel Santos, transportation policy

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