The Canadian embassy in Colombia must perform a delicate balancing act between political sensitivities and the task of marshalling a growing stampede of resource-based companies into Colombia. When a delegation of Canadian and American human rights activists arrived for a recent briefing on the situation in Marmato at the Canadian embassy in Bogota, which is housed in the new Scotiabank Tower, they encountered a security check involving no less than 17 separate stages under the supervision of eight guards at two separate barriers. Once all the checks were done, the visitors—who included a retired Catholic bishop from Detroit and a clutch of labour, human rights and development workers—were asked to don plastic security badges identifying them as visitors to the Embassy of Canada in small lettering beneath a much more prominent Scotiabank label.
Inside the embassy, the senior official who met them on a “background only” basis said that although Canadian officials are watching the Restrepo affair with concern, the embassy strongly supports Gran Colombia’s project in Marmato, which Canadian diplomats have viewed from aboard a helicopter chartered by Gran Colombia. In Marmato, he said, embassy staff observed the use of child labour in artisanal mines, as well as environmentally dangerous practices of a sort Gran Colombia’s project would abolish. Regarding the murder of Father Restrepo, the official said both the Canadian government and Gran Colombia have urged Colombian officials to closely investigate the matter.
Standing beside a plate-glass window looking out onto the slums running along the mountain ridge that flanks Bogota’s eastern edge, Eduardo Pacheco was about to sit down to lunch in Bogota’s exclusive Club Nogales, the Colombian elite’s massively fortified mid-city playpen. Joining him to celebrate the billion-dollar deal he’d signed earlier that morning was Rick Waugh and several hundred other friends and associates, including Alvaro Uribe, the former president who started Colombia on the current less-crime/more-investment path that his successor Santos is so proud of.
If Pacheco had the I-can’t-believe-my-luck-look of an oligarch who’d just sold the same bank twice, perhaps it was because that’s exactly what he’d done: In 2007, on the eve of the U.S. bank crash, the Pacheco family sold GE Capital a major stake in Banco Colpatria. And, early last year, they paid a reported $550 million (U.S.) to repurchase it from cash-strapped GE. Today they were reselling almost exactly the same stake to Scotia for a billion dollars. “Eduardo and his family are great entrepreneurs,” acknowledged Dieter Jensch, Scotia’s executive vice-president for Latin America, with a slightly wry smile, before insisting that the deal was as good as any Scotia has ever done. “Colombia is a country that has never defaulted or even rescheduled its debt,” stressed Jensch, who was on hand for the party as Colpatria’s newest board member. “This country is highly bankable.”
For his part, Pacheco wanted to talk about his bank’s contract with Scotia as a nation-building moment. “When you look at the totality of the Colombian banking sector, it is simply too small to finance some of our major resource projects—but Scotiabank can help us do that,” he mused. “That’s one of the new areas the bank will explore. We don’t do project finance but Scotia does. What they call wholesale banking—servicing the multinationals.”
Seen from this perspective, Canada, too, seemed to be looking pretty bankable. “Canada is going to be crucial in helping this country move beyond poverty,” Pacheco reflected with his freshly minted billion-dollar smile. “Why do you think we got invited to the palace?”