Colombia's peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas has been almost universally hailed as a historic event that will bring about all kinds of goods things, but I'm afraid that the deal has been vastly oversold, and has turned Colombia into a one-issue country at the expense of other just as important issues.
While Colombians are embroiled in a bitter debate over President Juan Manuel Santos' preliminary peace agreement signed Thursday in Havana, and have been talking about almost nothing else for the past three years, the country remains obscenely behind in the areas that will matter the most for its future prosperity: education and innovation.
Granted, peace is always a worthy goal, even if Santos' peace agreement has been described by Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups as way too generous with FARC war criminals. And granted, peace may bring more investment, even if Santos may have been too optimistic when he predicted it would help Colombia's economy grow by an additional 2 percent a year.
But Colombia has been virtually consumed in recent years by a fierce public fight between Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, over the merits of this peace deal. And this clash is likely to intensify with a planned referendum on the peace accord.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Meantime, the peace debate has overshadowed a much-needed conversation over Colombia's backwardness in areas that are key to its ability to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.
Colombia produces some of Latin America's most talented people — Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, artist Fernando Botero and singer Shakira are just some of them — but its overall education, innovation, science and technology levels are dismal for a country of its size and potential. Consider:
▪ While South Korea invests 4.04 percent of its GDP in research and development, Brazil 1.2 percent, Argentina 0.6 percent and Costa Rica 0.5 percent, Colombia spends only 0.17 percent, according to World Bank figures.
▪ The budget of Colombia's research and development agency Colciencias has been cut by 24 percent since 2012, according to the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science figures.
▪ In patent applications for new inventions, one of the most common measurements of innovation, Colombia applied for only 86 patents at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) last year. Colombia's patent applications went down by nearly 15 percent from their 2014 levels, and are way below Chile's 167 patent applications, Brazil's 547, Israel's 1,700 and South Korea's 14,600, according to WIPO figures.
▪ In education, Colombia ranked 62nd among the 65 countries around the world that participated in the standardized PISA tests for 15-year-olds in mathematics, below countries such as Jordan, Tunisia, Albania and Mexico.
▪ Britain’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings of the world's 800 best universities, one of the best-known of its kind, places the highest-ranking Colombian university — Universidad de los Andes — in the 501 to 600 range. That's way below universities from other countries that also have significant pockets of poverty.
In part because of all of the above, Colombia is exporting mostly commodities: 83 percent of Colombia's total exports are raw materials, while only 17 percent are manufactured goods, according to new Inter-American Development Bank figures. If Colombia doesn't produce more sophisticated goods, it will have a hard time growing and further reducing poverty, economists say.
My opinion: Santos wants to go down in history as the man who ended his country's armed conflict, and perhaps win the Nobel Peace Prize, which are both legitimate aspirations. There is nothing wrong with that.
But to grow and reduce poverty, Colombia needs to reduce its dependence on commodities, reverse its pitiful education and innovation deficit, and start exporting higher value-added goods. We're living in a knowledge-based world where Google — which produces almost nothing you can touch — has a market value of about $500 billion, while Colombia's entire exports last year were $35 billion.
The peace process is good news, but it should not be — as it is now — Colombia's one and only issue. It's time for Colombia to cease being a one-issue country, and to focus more of its energies on education and innovation.
Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera
Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español