Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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It’s a tale of two countries: U.S. President Donald Trump announced April 15 that Coronavirus-crisis emergency loan funds to help U.S. businesses meet payroll are exhausted – just as 22 million more North Americans hit the unemployment lines -- yet Colombia simultaneously expanded its loan programs by COP$16 trillion (US$4.06 billion).

Colombia Treasury Minister Alberto Carrasquilla announced April 15 that the Board of Directors of the National Guarantee Fund (FNG) made the decision to “create three lines of credit and to implement them very quickly.”

The three new lines of credit “will benefit micro-, small- and medium-sized companies (MSMEs) and independent [sole-proprietor] entrepreneurs in the country, and will include loan guarantees of 90% and 80%,” according to the Treasury Ministry.

According to the Ministry, the first line of credits will help MSMEs to meet payrolls "by granting 90% [payback] loan guarantees.”

Through this program, banks and lenders know that “if something goes wrong, the first resources that are lost are not those of the financial institution, but those that the government put in the form of a guarantee,” he said.

“All those employers who are defending their workers and are honoring their labor contracts receive all that support. And the total sum of that line of credit is COP$12 trillion [US$3.05 billion],” he added.

A new, second line of credit worth COP$3 trillion (US$762 million) includes an 80% government loan guarantee and is directed to support working capital. Rationale: MSMEs are not only affected by payroll obligations, but also by “the need for working capital and the financing of their provisions, their suppliers, etcetera,” Carrasquilla said.

The third new line of credit totaling COP$1 trillion (US$254 million) carries an 80% loan guarantee and will be dedicated to helping independent entrepreneurs, he said.

Commissions on these loans will be slashed by 75% via government subsidiy, Minister Carrasquilla added.

Meanwhile, to date, the Treasury Ministry reports that because of new, recently liberalized lines-of-credit backed by the FNG, “Colombian banks have restructured COP$90 trillion [US$23 billion] in loans for the benefit of the productive sector.”

“At this time, Colombian banks have restructured more than 5.4 million credits” just between March 24 to April 10, Carrasquilla revealed.

In addition to more-generous loan terms thanks to new FNG programs, the government also has liberalized payments of income and wealth taxes to help businesses survive the crisis, he added.

The Minister also highlighted support from Banco de la República (the Colombian state bank) by making decisions to ease liquidity for financial institutions.

“The traditional standard in Colombia is [for banks] to have liquidity availability of the order of COP$8 trillion [US$2.03 billion] to COP$9 trillion [US$2.3 billion]. Right now, there are [funding] availabilities of more than COP$24 trillion [US$6.1 billion],” he added.

Colombia President Ivan Duque announced April 15 that while the current national Coronavirus quarantine is presumptively set to expire April 27, regular international passenger flights to and from Colombia nevertheless will continue to be banned.

Even after April 27 when the current national quarantine ends, “international flights will remain closed for a longer period of time,” Duque said, citing public health concerns.

As for domestic passenger flights within Colombia, “we are reviewing protocols in terms of health” and “looking at where there are areas that are currently free of the virus, and that we want to remain virus-free, and where we can work with local authorities” on the possibility of reopening some domestic passenger routes, he added.

“We are looking at how the [air passenger] protocols are going in many countries of the world. You have noticed that there are many countries that, for example, are already limiting the use of the middle seat [on a three-seat row], so that allows more distance. The use of a mask is being demanded, and food is no longer being distributed on flights of less than an hour or two.

“To the extent that we have certain, assured levels of control, where fever monitoring is also included, among others, I think we can take steps” toward eventual resumption of limited domestic air travel, he concluded.

The “Comite de Cafeteros de Antioquia” (CCA, the Antioquia coffee-growers association) announced April 14 that Colombia’s Health Ministry has approved a new biosafety protocol that will enable resumption of coffee harvesting -- a crucial export commodity both for Antioquia and Colombia.

“Between March and June, it is expected that the first-semester [first half of 2020] national harvest will be about 6.5 million bags of coffee, a task that requires about 135,000 collectors,” according to CCA.

“With the validation by the Ministry of Health and to protect the health of producers, gatherers and their families, the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC) prepared and published the ‘COVID-19 Protocol for Coffee Growers,’ a detailed, step-by-step [manual] to prevent the spread and contagion of the new coronavirus, especially at this time of harvest.

“The protocol, written in simple language and explaining the recommendations to be followed, covers topics such as basic care for the interruption of the Covid-19 contagion chain, preparation and use of disinfecting solutions, use of personal protection elements, cleaning activities and disinfection, preventive social isolation and measures for farms that require local or external labor.

“Due to its usefulness for other agricultural sectors that can take advantage of it as a replicable model, the FNC makes this protocol available to the public, which can be found at www.federació,” the trade group added.

Meanwhile, Antioquia’s Agriculture Secretary likewise issued a bulletin to all mayors in the department of Antioquia urging widespread promotion of mandatory biosafety protocols for all types of agricultural workers -- including transporters of farm products as well as farm supplies.

Colombia President Ivan Duque revealed April 13 that his government is now preparing certain regulatory “protocols” that will allow many people currently in Coronavirus quarantine to return to work, many businesses to reopen and the national economy to restart.

“We are preparing to beat the Coronavirus, rather than letting the Coronavirus beat us and destroy everything we have built,” according to President Duque.

“What does that mean? That companies, that services, that we in the provision of specific activities have protocols that allow us not only to have sufficient distance [between potentially infected people] but also sufficient measures in terms of biosafety,” he said.

To that end, the Ministry of Health is preparing a special regulation that will compile and explain biosafety protocols to confront the Covid-19 threat, “aimed at all sectors of economic, social and public administration activity in the country,” according to the President.

“We have to advance the protocols. For this reason, we will issue a decree where the competent authority to set all biosafety protocols to deal with Covid-19, in all sectors of economic, social and public administration activity, is the Ministry of Health,” he said.

Under such protocols, workers typically will need to wear masks, maintain certain separation distances, and “many will have to wear gloves [while] some will be able to work from home,” he said.

“The Coronavirus is going to be around for a long time, and so we have to be able to restore a lot of our productive life [in the meantime] so that our country doesn’t fail, and we have to do it with safety rules,” he said.

“There are places where there is a greater presence of the virus, and there are other places where there is a moderate presence of the virus. There are also places where there is no presence of the virus. We have to design the response capacities based on these territorial realities, obviously, working to maintain the greatest protection and the greatest [where-required] isolation,” he added.

As for mass transport sectors, “we have to design protocols, schedules, and schemes that allow people to use mass public transport, but do so without regret, do so with due distances, and with the [proper] protocols,” he said.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced April 9 that its executive board will recommend approval of a US$10.8 billion line-of-credit request to help Colombian businesses and workers weather the economic downturn caused by the Coronavirus crisis.

“This renewable credit line helps safeguard against external shocks by providing countries who have very strong policy frameworks and track records of economic performance with large, upfront access to IMF resources -- with no ongoing conditions,” according to IMF.

“Given Colombia’s very strong policy frameworks and track record, IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva intends to recommend approval of the 2020 flexible credit line [FCL] arrangement for Colombia when the IMF executive board meets again to take a decision in the following weeks,” according to the organization.

In addition to the Colombian Treasury Ministry’s new expansion of finance totaling COP$12 trillion (US$3.3 billion) to micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises through the “Fondo Nacional de Garantias” (FNG, National Guarantee Fund), Colombia President Ivan Duque announced April 9 further aid to help small/medium businesses meet payroll.

Government loan guarantees for MSMEs will increase to 80%, up from a prior range of 60% to 70%, Duque announced.

In addition, under the new aid program, the Colombian government will “finance for three months those payrolls of micro-, small and medium enterprises [MSMEs], especially covering people earning up to five monthly [minimum] salaries [COP$4.9 million/US$1,260],” according to President Duque.

Vice Minister of Finance Juan Alberto Londoño added that the payroll-finance scheme will enable MSMEs to issue bonds to be acquired by the financial system.

The government also will waive mandatory pension contributions for the next three months, aiming to help both workers and employers to reduce expenses. However, those already retired will continue to receive their normal pensions, he added.

Colombia President Ivan Duque announced last night (April 6) that the current Coronavirus general quarantine – initially due to expire April 13 – instead will continue for another two weeks, until April 27.

What’s more, persons 70 years and older will continue to remain in quarantine until May 30, while school-age pupils of all levels (primary through university) will continue studying at home until May 31, Duque added.

Exceptions to the quarantine include limited trips for groceries, drugs, banking and health care. Healthy workers at supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, hospitals, freight transport, rural transport, farming, food production, public safety, critical construction projects, city public transport, public agencies, social services and certain specially permitted others are exempt from quarantine.

“This decision is made based on recommendations and analysis by a team of scientists and experts with the accompaniment of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO),” according to Duque.

“We had initially thought that children -- young people, university students -- would be out of school until April 20. But given the effort we must make [to stem the threat of Coronavirus infections], we are going to extend those measures until May 31,” he said.

The quarantine not only restricts travel just for basic necessities-- food, medicine, health care, banking -- but also includes border closings, air travel bans, closure of most commercial operations, restrictions on public events, closure of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and -- in a growing number of municipalities -- “pico y cedula” rules that limit all grocery, pharmacy and banking trips to one or two days per week.

Masks, Medical Equipment Production Incentives

On a related front, Colombia’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (MinCIT) José Manuel Restrepo simultaneously announced that starting April 13, a new government program will accelerate the conversion of more factories and workshops to produce more medical supplies and devices.

This “entrepreneurs for employment” program initially aims to accelerate production of more than 20 million protective masks for the general population as well as more than 2 million surgical masks, Restrepo said.

The scheme will enable “a properly endowed health system that has access to medical supplies and devices, disinfection and hygiene products, [general-population] face masks, antibacterial gels, gloves, protective glasses, and specialized masks and protective clothing needed in the health sector,” Restrepo said.

“The government seeks to find potential suppliers and know their production capacities, then connect them with clinics, hospitals and other institutions involved in the care of patients affected by Covid-19.

“Likewise, we seek to identify barriers and needs that entrepreneurs require in order to advance in the production or marketing of such products, in relation to the procedures that apply to them, such as health records, access to raw materials or machinery and technology, among others.”

Entrepreneurs interested in participating in this rapid-development scheme can find more information here: .

Mask Mandate Goes National

The mask-production acceleration scheme from MinCIT comes on top of an earlier, April 4 order by the Health Ministry that all people moving in and around congested areas in Colombia (including metro Medellin) must start wearing protective masks. According to the Health Ministry, examples include:

1. “Public transport systems (buses, Transmilenio, taxis);
2. “Areas where there is a massive influx of people (market squares, supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, among others) where it is not possible to maintain a minimum distance of one meter.
3. “People with respiratory symptoms: Risk groups (adults over 70 years, people with cardiovascular diseases, diseases that compromise their immune system, cancer, HIV, pregnant women and chronic respiratory diseases).”

In addition, “people with confirmed diagnosis for Covid-19 and their close contacts should not leave the place where they are carrying out their mandatory preventive isolation (14 days without exception),” according to the Ministry.

These Ministry of Health mask-mandates are in addition to a related order from the Mayor of Medellin requiring all passengers on the “Metro” rail, bus, aerial tram and streetcar system to wear protective masks as of April 7.

Treasury Ministry Expands Finance

On a related front, Colombia’s Treasury Ministry announced April 6 that it’s expanding finance totaling COP$12 trillion (US$3 billion) to micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises through the “Fondo Nacional de Garantias” (FNG, National Guarantee Fund) to help them survive during the current crisis.

“In this scheme, the employer may request loans from the financial sector with the guarantee from the FNG for up to $3.316 billion [US$842,000],” according to the Treasury Ministry.

“These credits will have a grace period of four months and a [repayment] term of between 12 and 36 months.

“In this way, the credits required by small and medium-sized enterprises to meet liquidity needs and to assume personnel costs, fixed costs such as rent, public services, among others and other obligations that must be met to maintain their continuity [will be] sustainable,” the Ministry added.

The program will provide government guarantees on 60% on the value of the loan. Companies -- individuals or legal entities -- with sales of up to COP$51.95 billion (US$13.2 million) can access this scheme, according to the Ministry.

The FNG scheme also enables companies to restructure their guaranteed obligations “without having to pay commission for the guarantee for the first year of the restructuring and will only return to pay [commission] from the second year.”

In addition, “employers may defer up to four months the commission payment they must make for renewals or annuity of guaranteed credits,” according to the Ministry.

“Likewise, if the loan guarantees are reaching their final maturity during the next four months and the entrepreneur does not have the liquidity to pay the last installment, then the employer can request a loan extension -- and in this case the FNG will not charge commission until six months later.”

Transport Ministry Clarifies Inter-City Transport Rules

On yet another front, the Transport Ministry on April 5 announced that public inter-municipal transport services will continue to operate -- but with certain restrictions.

“Companies that provide mixed passenger transport service [that is, both passengers and freight] and transport terminals must take into account exceptional operating conditions,” according to the Ministry.

“Inter-municipal road passenger service is allowed for the purpose of access or provision of health services and to facilitate the mobilization of [certain] people . . .

“Routes that operate in nearby municipalities or with economic or social interrelationships with major cities must continue to operate in the same authorized origin and destination sites, according to demand conditions.

“Services other than those provided in dormitory or suburban cities will be understood as those road passenger transport services which usually have coverage for a distance greater than 40 kilometers between origin and destination.

“Due to the exceptional nature [of the Coronavirus quarantine], inter-municipal services must compulsorily establish telephone information points at transport terminals, and optionally by other non-face-to-face information means such as a website or email.

“The terminals that are in urban areas defined by the Ministry of Transportation and approved by the Logistics and Transportation Center will remain open to serve the routes authorized for this purpose.”

As for inter-city mass-transport of passengers, “according to the mobility analysis of each district or metropolitan municipal authority, the enabled offer [of passenger transport] may not exceed 50% of the maximum offer in each system,” the Ministry added.

Colombia President Ivan Duque announced April 4 that his administration likely will decide early this week whether and how strict the current national Coronavirus quarantine will extend beyond the presumptive April 13 expiration.

“We are working with scientists, epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists within the team of the Ministry of Health and the National Institute of Health [INS] -- and depending on how the reading of the epidemiological curve is, from the beginning of next week [April 6-11] we will be able to say if the current measures are extended or if, on the contrary, we go from a ‘total mandatory preventive isolation’ to an isolation that is intelligent,” meaning more-specific, targeted measures, President Duque said.

As of April 5, the Ministry of Health reported 1,485 cases of Cornavirus nationally, with 35 deaths (none in Antioquia) and 88 people fully recovered. Bogota continues to register the most cases (725) followed by Cali/Valle del Cauca (196) and then Medellin/Antioquia (172).

Currently, all Colombian residents 70 years and older are in quarantine until May 30 with the exception of venturing out for food, medicines, health care and banking.

What’s more, many cities (including metro Medellin) have additional “pico y cedula” restrictions that effectively limit even these grocery/pharmacy/banking trips to just two days of each week -- not just for those 70 and older, but rather for all residents.

Meanwhile, schools and universities are shut down during the current quarantine, with many students attending “virtual” classes via internet connections. Most commercial enterprises likewise are shuttered -- leaving millions temporarily unemployed -- although workers continue laboring in supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, fuel stations, power stations, utilities, health care, food production, farming, freight transport, public safety, certain essential construction sites and local public transport.

Further, air traffic is suspended along with much inter-city bus traffic -- with Medellin having already shuttered both its North and South terminals.

What’s more, the Ministry of Health announced April 4 that all people moving in and around congested areas in Colombia must start wearing protective masks. Examples include:

1. “Public transport systems (buses, Transmilenio, taxis);
2. “Areas where there is a massive influx of people (market squares, supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, among others) where it is not possible to maintain a minimum distance of one meter.
3. “People with respiratory symptoms: Risk groups (adults over 70 years, people with cardiovascular diseases, diseases that compromise their immune system, cancer, HIV, pregnant women and chronic respiratory diseases).”

In addition, “people with confirmed diagnosis for Covid-19 and their close contacts should not leave the place where they are carrying out their mandatory preventive isolation (14 days without exception),” according to the Ministry.

These Ministry of Health mask-mandates are in addition to a new order from the Mayor of Medellin requiring all passengers on the “Metro” rail, bus, aerial tram and streetcar system to wear protective masks starting Tuesday, April 7.

As for potential upcoming modifications or extensions to the existing national quarantine, President Duque explained that “intelligent isolation” measures would at minimum include “protection and restriction of the elderly,” plus “restrictions on the educational system” as well as “rules of distancing.”

“Measures such as those that have been implemented in South Korea or even in Singapore show that activities with greater and better health protocols” gradually can be adopted following an initial, drastic quarantine of nearly everyone, he said. But such gradual flexibilities will depend upon “improving testing capacity, improving capacity of isolating those with the disease and maintaining the protection of older adults, children and young people,” he added.

The ultimate goals of “intelligent isolation” during the crisis must include protection of "life, health, the most vulnerable, employment and maintainence of social and economic resilience,” he added.

Colombia’s national innovation and digital transformation adviser to President Ivan Duque publicly announced January 14 that the Duque administration and various allies in the Colombian Congress are developing a new law that will legalize more technology-platform taxi operations -- like the now-illegal “Uber” taxis.

Government initiatives to ban unlicensed taxis -- including “Uber” -- have been in the works for years, long before President Duque took office in July 2018. But the long-expected ban finally takes effect February 1, 2020.

Victor Manuel Muñoz, national innovation and digital transformation advisor to the President of Colombia, revealed in a January 14 press conference at the Transport Ministry that the national government’s new scheme will take a few more months to develop.

Until the new law takes effect, Uber Colombia announced January 10 that it will comply with the February 1 regulation, which disallows continued operations of private taxis that fail to conform to all tax, insurance and licensing regulations in Colombia.

“Uber respects the law and the decisions issued by the authorities,” according to the Uber-Colombia press bulletin. “However, decisions like [the ruling by the Transport Ministry] also respond to the absence of a regulation covering the collaborative mobility service through technology platforms in Colombia.”

According to a January 14  press statement from the Colombian president’s office, the Duque administration “will work together with the Congress of the Republic to present a [law and] regulation, so that [Uber-like digital] platforms can legally provide their service in the country.”

Three political parties in Congress that collectively represent a majority are already working with the administration on a new bill: Centro Democratico, Partido Verde and “La U,” as noted in a separate report from Colombian business newspaper Portafolio.

The proposed law would enable private individuals to offer Uber-like taxi service without affiliation to a conventional taxi company. However, these individuals, their vehicles, and their affiliated technology-platform operators would have to enroll in a new “National Unique Registry of Private Intermediate Transport Service” (“Runspti” in Spanish initials), according to the report.

A mandatory insurance policy would cover drivers, passengers, vehicles and third parties, without which the individual driver would be blocked from enrolling in “Runspti.”

In addition, the technology-platform operators (tapping “Uber-like” private drivers) would be required to contribute 1% of earnings to a new national fund designed to compensate today’s legal taxi drivers, who pay vastly higher costs-of-operation than the illegal drivers.

Unlike “Uber” operators, legal taxis in Colombia today pay huge sums (around US$30,000 to US$40,000 per vehicle) for a “cupo” (quota) enabling circulation in various cities.

The new legislation aims to phase-out or modify this quota system in future years, hence enabling conventional taxis to compete with “Uber-like” taxis on a cost-equivalent basis.

In the meantime, Colombia’s Transport Minister Ángela María Orozco announced January 10 that Colombia already has 24 alternative, tech-platform private transport services that meet existing regulations (unlike "Uber.")

“The use of technological platforms for the provision of the transport service in the individual mode of passengers in taxi vehicles are regulated by the national government Decree 1079 of 2015 and by the Ministry of Transportation,” Orozco stated.

“There are currently around 24 platforms enabled for this purpose. In no way are we against technological development. We support initiatives of this nature, but the life of passengers and the provision of public transport services must be protected under the technical and legal conditions established by Colombian regulations.

“Reforms must be carried out in the Congress of the Republic to anticipate new phenomena of collaborative [transport] economy, to allow a leveling of the rules-of-the-game for all actors, with new conditions of qualification,” she added.

As noted in a separate report from Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (citing Transport Ministry data), the existing, legal, alternative tech-platform transport services include “Etaxi,” “Prontuz,” “Red Amarilla,” “Acar Technology,” “Taxi Finder,” “Farley,” “Coopebombas,” “Taxis Ya,” “Digi+,” “City Taxi,” “Taxi Web,” “Mi Águila,” “Taxi Élite,” “T-driver,” “Me Voy,” “Megataxi,” “White cloud,” “Infotaxi,” “Muvit,” “Smart Taxi,” “Yougo,” “Quua,” “Taxis Cabarellos,” “Play Taxi,” “Taxis Cafetalito” and “Rio App.”

Colombia President Ivan Duque on December 27 signed into law a new national tax bill that mainly helps lower-income people and incentivizes job growth in legal industries.

The new law “seeks to continue promoting economic development and creates the basis for reducing inequality and closing income gaps in the country,” according to the official press statement following the President’s signing.

The measure would generate an estimated COP$13.5 trillion (US$4.1 billion) in new revenue in 2020, via income taxes on people with relatively high incomes; a surcharge on the financial system; and a multi-phase VAT (value-added tax) on beer and soft drinks, according to the summary.

“Normalization” measures in the bill would generate COP$5.3 trillion (US$1.6 billion); while economic growth stimulation measures would result in another COP$3.2 trillion (US$971 million). Furthermore, a new electronic tax-billing-and-collection system is expected to raise another COP$5 trillion (US$1.5 billion), according to the summary.

The full text of the new law (in the original Spanish) is available here:

“This legislation links social programs such as the VAT refund for 2.8 million low-income households, plus three days without VAT per year, the reduction in [individual] health [insurance] contributions from 12% to 4% for pensioners and vulnerable populations, plus incentives to companies that create jobs for young people between 18 and 28 years.”

“This reform will allow us to continue increasing resources for education, for health, for household improvements, and for bringing clean drinking water supplies to the most vulnerable areas of our country,” added President Duque.

The measure, officially dubbed the “Economic Growth Law,” contains measures that will continue to boost the growth of Colombia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and foreign direct investment (FDI), hence creating more jobs in the “formal” (legal, taxable) economic sectors.

The new law also establishes income-tax benefits for large, medium, small and micro enterprises, as well as VAT discounts for imported capital goods “in order to reduce costs so that the business sector is modernized more quickly and becomes more cost-competitive,” according to the press summary.

The law also includes a mechanism by which compliance with the tax obligations of micro- and small businesses are simplified.

Another provision includes nearly COP$2 trillion (US$607 million) received from financial-sector taxes for upgrading rural, tertiary roads -- in order to improve logistics in many of Colombia’s remotest regions, as noted by the Transport Ministry.

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About Medellin Herald

Medellin Herald is a locally produced, English-language news and advisory service uniquely focused upon a more-mature audience of visitors, investors, conference and trade-show attendees, property buyers, expats, retirees, volunteers and nature lovers.

U.S. native Roberto Peckham, who founded Medellin Herald in 2015, has been residing in metro Medellin since 2005 and has traveled regularly and extensively throughout Colombia since 1981.

Medellin Herald welcomes your editorial contributions, comments and story-idea suggestions. Send us a message using the "contact" section.

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