Bogota happy to do business with London: Colombia's Foreign Minister tells Colin Harding why relations with Britain are stronger than ever

THE woman described by a Foreign Office minister as 'symbolic of a new kind of leadership in Latin America' made clear that the admiration is mutual. Noemi Sanin, the Foreign Minister of Colombia, told the Independent: 'We like doing business with the British. We understand each other very well and your people adapt easily to our way of life.'

Colombia is at the cutting edge of a new British policy of developing closer relations with Latin America, where stable democratic government, steady growth and free-market economic policies have become the norm after decades of turmoil and stagnation.

When President Cesar Gaviria, who like Ms Sanin combines youth (he is 46, she 43) and good looks with a sharp political brain, pays an official visit to London in July he will set the seal on this rapprochement. Ms Sanin, a Conservative politician from Medellin with a background in law and economics, was in London this week to prepare the ground for the President's visit.

John Major chose Colombia for the first visit to a Latin American country by a serving British prime minister last year, and Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, followed soon afterwards. As a result of the Major visit, the two countries set up a bilateral trade commission, which is due to publish a report soon. Britain has a big trade deficit with Colombia, importing goods worth pounds 126m last year, and exporting only pounds 75.5m.

Much of the running at the Foreign Office has been made by Tristan Garel-Jones, the minister better known for his European responsibilities. But his fluent Spanish and extensive knowledge of the region have gone down well in Latin America.

Mr Garel-Jones points out that, although trade is still negligible, British investments in Colombia have grown rapidly in recent years. BP is committing some pounds 600m to the development of the huge Cusiana oilfield on the Casanare plains east of Bogota, which with proven reserves of 2bn barrels is the biggest oil discovery in the Americas since that in Alaska in 1968.

President Gaviria will be meeting representatives of the British private sector in London, hoping to build on the results of a trade mission to Colombia next month, subsidised by the Department of Trade and led by a senior British Gas executive.

Colombia feels it has much to offer; Ms Sanin pointed out that, for all its reputation for violence and corruption, Colombia enjoyed an average annual economic growth rate of 4.5 per cent thoughout the 1980s, has never had to renegotiate its foreign debt and kept inflation under control throughout this period. The minister drew attention to the huge privatisation programme being undertaken by the Gaviria administration, which includes openings for foreign investment in such fields as electric power, railways, roads, ports and banks.

British instructors have been training Colombian special forces in anti- drug operations for some time, and several new accords designed to strengthen the Colombian judiciary, which in the past has been notoriously susceptible to pressures from the cocaine cartels, will be signed when President Gaviria is in London. Ms Sanin stressed that Colombia was no longer a comfortable place for drug businesses to operate.

She also said that, although Anglo- Colombian relations had never been better, her country expected a more favourable deal for its exports, particularly coffee and bananas, from the European Community.

'We have opened up our own economy, like many other countries, and are very concerned that there are still areas that practise protectionism,' Ms Sanin said. This week the minister asked British government officials for their support in getting a dialogue going with the Community before new tariffs and quotas on banana imports from Latin America are implemented in July.

(Photograph omitted)

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