“The best defense is offense”, goes an old saying, one of those catchphrases that sometimes explain a situation. In this case, it reflects the change in attitude of President Gustavo Petro in the face of the revelations of the alleged illegal financing of his campaign in 2022. After two weeks of sluggishness, in which the first leftist president of contemporary Colombia was stunned by the announcement of his eldest son that he will prove this income before the Prosecutor’s Office, returned the active critic. The president regained strength not as president, but with the facet with which he made his career and came to the presidency: that of an opposition politician from the establishment and from the right. He returned to his comfort zone.
The turnaround began thanks to an external event: the announcement of an agreement between Grupo Aval, the large financial and construction conglomerate owned by magnate Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, and the United States authorities. In the agreement, Aval accepts its responsibility for paying bribes to add the Ocaña – Gamarra road to a road concession that it already had together with the Brazilian Odebrecht, the dual carriageway called Ruta del Sol 2. Petro reacted to the news with fierceness: he asked all politicians to return the financing they had received from Aval, a solid group, with decades of experience and that even lists shares and debt securities in New York.
The president went further and this Thursday accused the Prosecutor’s Office of having allowed the Brazilian managers involved to escape and of not doing their investigative work in Colombia due to their relations with traditional politicians. “Most of the intermediaries are free, but we don’t know where the money came from. And we don’t know where the money went because the money went to those in political power, ”he said at an international meeting on the fight against corruption. Already on Tuesday, he pointed out that the case cannot remain in the US courts, for which reason he asked the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the recipients of the bribes and ordered the Foreign Ministry to collaborate with the United States and Brazil to establish the damages that Grupo Aval and Odebrecht have generated the Colombian State. “Brazilians who committed crimes in Colombia enjoy total impunity and Odebrecht has not paid a peso of the fines imposed in Colombia,” he lamented.
In the past, Petro has been a strong critic of Aval, Sarmiento and Martínez. As a senator, he himself led controversial political control debates over the Odebrecht case. This is how they remembered it this week himself from his X- or Twitter account- as the official page of the Presidency of the Republic. Petro’s criticisms are not limited to the judicial scandal, as he has also pointed out that Aval has a lot of power for managing one of the two large private pension fund administrators, banks that account for 25% of that market and several important highway concessions.
The president’s counterattack, however, has not been limited to the Odebrecht case and its protagonists. In the same meeting this Thursday, for example, he broadened that horizon. Referring to the few advances of the transitional justice created in the Agreement with the FARC against civilian third parties responsible for crimes in the conflict, he said that it has not advanced because they have power in Colombia. “They are the owners of the State. And then? That is what is called a regime of corruption. This regime of corruption will not break down if there is no transformation of the same society”.
Gustavo Petro gives a speech during the mass demonstration supporting his political reforms, in Bogotá, on June 7. NATHALIA ANGARITA
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In the previous days, Petro made more statements or made other announcements that show this new phase and his return to a rhetoric that tends to exaggerate to prove his points. On Wednesday, at a meeting of coffee growers in Pitalito, he said that corn cannot be grown in Colombia because of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States —the country imports around 79% of the corn it consumes, but produces the other 231%, according to the National Federation of Cereal Growers. For the president, cultivating it could produce 1.2 million jobs, an extremely optimistic figure, since today all agriculture, livestock and fishing employ 3.2 million people, according to DANE, and the union calculates that it would produce some 120,000 jobs. . Beyond the hyperbole, the counterattack was clear: as a result, the president announced “that the renegotiation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States begins here.” This postponed campaign proposal, complex and slow to carry out, reinforces the image of the critic of the establishment.
At that same event, the president launched another challenge, this time against the National Federation of Coffee Growers, a private union of coffee growers that has a closely intertwined relationship with the government. Petro has kept his distance from her since he asked for the resignation of the previous manager, Roberto Vélez, and tried to put one of her rope, but failed. In his place, the board of directors, on which coffee leaders from 15 departments sit, elected Germán Bahamón, a businessman who has passed through the public domain at the hands of the center-right opposition party Cambio Radical. At the event, Petro recalled that the link between the Federation and the State goes through the management of a public resource pool, the National Coffee Fund. And, as a good counterattack, he launched a threat: “If the National Federation of Coffee Growers is not restructured according to the coffee base, the National Coffee Fund will end.”
For the analyst Andrés Mejía Vergnaud, Petro is not on the offensive because it is a ploy, but because it is the manifestation of who the president is. “The reporting role is the one he knows how to do best and the one in which he feels most comfortable. In this chaos, he also includes objectives from his fight years ago, such as criticism of Sarmiento Angulo and Néstor Humberto Martínez. That may help you try to divert attention, but I tend to think that the original motivation is genuine. It is also consistent with his message (which we will surely see increase) in the fight against impunity, which is as authentic as it is strategic, ”he explains. “In the end, it’s a natural reaction, which doesn’t stop his communications advisers from celebrating the effect it produces.”
Petro returned to his comfort zone, that of denouncing the established powers. His vision, as he explained a few weeks ago in an interview with María Jimena Duzán, is that being president is not the same as having power, which in his opinion resides in already established economic or political structures. The question is whether criticizing those powers has the same force when you are in opposition, as he was for decades, as when you are on the presidential throne and have in your hand the enormous power of the president in a presidential country.
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