When I interviewed Ivan Duque, front-runner in Colombia’s June 17 presidential elections, one of the things that caught my attention was his plan to turn his country’s cultural activities — including movies, music and fashion design — into major export industries.
Compared to the implementation of the peace agreements with FARC guerrillas and other issues that have dominated the campaign, his idea sounds trivial. But it’s not.
Duque, 41 and the candidate of former President Alvaro Uribe’s right-of-center Democratic Center Party, is an international expert on efforts to turn cultural industries into engines of economic growth.
A pro-business attorney with master’s degrees from American University and Georgetown University, Duque worked for more than a decade as a development expert at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. While there, he co-authored a book with economist Felipe Buitrago, “The Orange Economy,” about Latin America’s extraordinary opportunities to better monetize its cultural industries.
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I had first met Duque in 2013, when I wrote a column about that book. In it, they argued that cultural industries have grown exponentially, but Latin America — despite its wealth of talent — only accounts for 1.7 percent of the world’s trade in cultural goods and services.
The region has not only recently produced Oscar-winning film directors, Nobel Prize-winning writers and Grammy Award-winning musicians, it also has tens of thousands of world-class video producers, actors and artists who could become a major source of income for their countries, they said.
“We are sitting on top of a treasure and don’t realize it,” Duque told me at the time. He cited the fact that Canada’s Cirque de Soleil employs more than 4,000 people and generates an income of more than $800 million a year.
In his presidential campaign, Duque says one of his main priorities is to diversify Colombia’s exports, which rely heavily on oil and a dozen other traditional goods. He wants to promote agribusiness, tourism and exports of the nation’s “orange economy” — goods and services related to creativity. He says that these could be much bigger sources of income for his country.
“Cultural industries already represent 3.4 percent or our economy, more than the coffee and the mining industries,” he told me last week. That says a lot about why Colombia should further expand its cultural exports, he added.
Duque has proposed creating a Latin America-wide free-trade area of cultural goods, which would allow Colombian movies, for instance, to enter other countries in the region duty free. That would attract investments and help export cultural goods and services worldwide, he said.
Will Duque be able to do this if he wins? Like with the rest of his economic and political plans, a lot will depend on whether he can create his own power base and dispel his critics’ assertion that he would be a puppet of his party’s leader, Uribe.
Gustavo Petro, Duque’s leftist rival in the runoff election, says that Duque would be an instrument of the former president to change the constitution and create a “Uribista dictatorship.”
Baloney, Duque says. He paints Petro — a former M-19 guerrilla fighter who was close to former Venezuelan populist demagogue Hugo Chávez — as a “Castro/Chávez” sympathizer who wants to divert attention from his own authoritarian tendencies. (I tried to interview Petro, but he declined.)
“I want to say this unequivocally: The president will be me,” Duque told me when I asked him about his political ties with Uribe. He added, “I also want to be clear: I will not change the Constitution to allow re-election.”
I like Duque’s idea of turning Colombia — the home to late Nobel Literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, world-famous painter Fernando Botero and singers such as Shakira and Juanes — into a major exporter of cultural goods and services.
All too often, Latin American presidents promote culture to create local entertainment or to buy political loyalties among influential artists. They don’t see their cultural activities as a potential major export industry.
As Duque says, the region may be sitting on a treasure without knowing it. If he wins, it will be interesting to see if he turns his ideas about the “orange economy” into reality.
Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera