Oil hopes raised by Gaviria visit: Colombia leader's investment drive faces problem over image abroad

PRESIDENT Cesar Gaviria of Colombia found the red carpet rolled out for him when he began a three-day official visit to Britain yesterday, accompanied by a bevy of ministers.

Britain is taking an increasingly close look at Colombia - the world's next great oil producer - where BP intends to invest some dollars 600m ( pounds 403m) in developing an oilfield that by the end of the decade should be producing 800,000 barrels per day. It will make Colombia Latin America's second-largest oil exporter. Britain is the third- largest foreign investor in Colombia (after the US and Switzerland) and, as President Gaviria told the Independent yesterday, it could soon occupy first place. In the meantime, Colombia is negotiating an investment protection treaty and double- taxation agreement with Britain.

Britain is impressed with Colombia's move towards an open economy over the past few years, which has seen average tariffs fall from 44 per cent to 11.7 per cent, and its record of relative political stability since independence early last century. The creation of an independent central bank charged with controlling inflation (currently 20 per cent and falling) has also caught the eye of British ministers.

But the President is acutely aware of Colombia's largely negative image abroad, coloured by endemic political violence, sky- high murder rate and the activities of the notorious drug cartels, and he is anxious to draw attention to progress that has been made towards resolving human rights and security problems that might otherwise deter potential investors. 'Pablo Escobar's Medellin cocaine cartel is finished, and their Cali rivals are talking about giving up,' he said. 'They know that the pressure we have been putting on the Medellin people will soon be switched to them.'

Mr Gaviria is equally confident that the two left-wing guerrilla organisations still in the field, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), will soon give up. 'Four armed groups have already laid down their arms and taken up legal political activities in the past few years,' he said. 'They are not even very radical now that they have people in Congress. Our peace process has been really successful.'

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