By Ryan Arenas (edited by Sonja Rijnen)-
Later on this year, in May 2022, Colombians will be voting in their next general elections. Left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is currently leading the polls. As Petro is a candidate from the left, his campaign is significantly shifting the political tide in Colombia that has historically mainly had right-leaning presidents. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the centre and right are regrouping in efforts to prevent the country’s possible transition to the left. So far, Petro has made commendable efforts to build his presidential platform on progressive values and to prioritise a diverse group of candidates within his political party, ‘Colombia Humana’. Ranging from Afro-Colombians to Indigenous leaders, Colombia Humana is leading a new political movement and is charging a youth-driven social idealism that members of Colombia’s traditional political parties (mainly those from the right) are working hard to counter. A key example of this can be seen through the recent formation of the ‘Equipo por Colombia’ (team for Colombia), a newly formed alliance consisting of elite politicians from the right that have banded together in attempts to counteract the country's shift to the left.
At a closer inspection, Colombia’s predominantly right-wing political groups have traditionally consisted of economic and political elites which, through a bureaucratic hierarchy consisting of patronage and business ties that span back decades, have fortified a ‘representative democracy’ systemically troubled by staggering examples of nefarious politics: vote-buying, ‘parapolitics’, corrupt government contracting, and intimidation. Consisting of Partido Social de Unidad’s (or the U Party) President Dilian Francisca Toro, Former mayors Federico Gutiérrez, Enrique Peñalosa, and Alejandro Char (or Alex Char), Conservative candidate David Barguil, and former finance minister and president of Ecopetrol Juan Carlos Echeverry, the Equipo por Colombia coalition epitomizes Colombia’s heterogenous and disconnected political elite. So, who are these key players in this coalition and what do the Equipo por Colombia’s candidates mean for 2022’s elections, if anything?
Informally known as the baroness of Colombian politics, Dilian Toro, a surgeon by training and later turned politician, is a powerful force in Colombian politics. Having supported the 2018 presidential campaigns of more right-wing candidates German Vargas Lleras and Ivan Duque, Toro has shown to be well allied across the executive government. Moreover, Toro has been reported to also have a strong influence over the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office, the Department of Customs and National Taxes (DIAN), the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF), and the National Savings Fund. From 2013 to 2019, whilst Toro was governor of the department of Valle del Cauca, there was evidence of fraudulent government contracts that were found to be solicited under Toro’s name worth up to 5,700 million COP (over 1.4 million USD) of public revenue. Furthermore, as senator and later governor of the Valle, Toro was tied to other fraudulent contracts worth up to 10.9 billion COP (c. 27 million USD) through her cousin Miyerlandi Torres, manager of ESE Centro Hospital.
Toro was also investigated in 2008 for her involvement in Colombia’s Parapolitics scandal which followed the discovery that several politicians had colluded with a paramilitary group that had killed thousands of Colombian civilians. It was later also reported that Toro’s family business, Agropecuaria Ceiba Verde Ltda, paid money to Hans Barney Salazar in 2007 in the same year that he was convicted for money laundering in connection to narcotrafficking. This resulted in another investigation by the Supreme Court against Toro in 2012, which led to her being sentenced to home detention in February 2013 and later to resign from congress. Toro has also been accused of intimidating citizens to vote for her within her municipality.
The ‘Equipo por Colombia’s’ main architect, Alejandro (Alex) Char, is the group’s front running candidate for the 2022 presidential elections and is supported by many public and private entities. Alejandro’s father Fuad Char, co-founder of political party ‘Cambio Radical’ and founder of Olímpica S.A, one of Colombia’s largest economic group conglomerates, served in congress as a senator for Cambio Radical for years before leaving his seat to youngest son Arturo Char- currently sitting as the president of Colombia’s Senate. Alejandro Char represents the elite dynasty informally known in Colombian politics as the ‘Char Clan’ that reportedly holds a considerable amount of power over the country’s politics. The Chars have entrenched their economic and political interests in Colombia’s political system over decades. Both brothers are not only important shareholders of Olímpica and its many subsidiaries but are strongly allied across the government.
The Chars have been accused of several corrupt practices, notably, the case of exiled congresswoman Aida Merlano of the Partido Conservador Colombiano. Merlano made several claims accusing the Char’s of extensive vote-buying in the Barranquilla department, where Alejandro himself was mayor from 2008-2011 and 2016- 2019, while admitting that her campaign to congress was also irregularly and directly funded by Alex Char. Today, there are 21 open criminal investigations against Alejandro Char, the process of which remains stagnant, which some argue is due to the Clan’s control that even reaches the judiciary.
The elitist underpinnings of ‘Equipo por Colombia’, is exemplified by the entrenched business interests of the coalition’s members and their support from large corporations: looking at campaign funding during the 2018 elections, primary donor to Centro Democratico and Cambio Radical was tycoon Carlos Ardila Lülle, owner of staple company Postobon, while David Barguil’s conservative party and Toro’s U party received substantial donations from sugar mill company the Manuelita Group.
With the above in mind, it is hard to argue that the Colombian people should trust that the right can lift the country out of the socio-economic disaster brought on by COVID-19 when President Duque, a trusted ally and friend of the individuals that make up the ‘Equipo por Colombia’, has failed so miserably. The reality remains that many vulnerable Colombians are willing to concede their democratic integrity for any “financial dividend”, in exchange for their vote. Satisfaction with democracy in Colombia has hit an all-time low, with Latinobarometro indicating that 70% of the population is unsatisfied with the political system, while Duque has shown the lowest approval ratings of an active president to date. Reflected by a growing political apathy and voter abstention, popular cynicism and the struggle to identify or interact with the political system further reinforce the corrupt forces at work in Colombia’s political system.
So, what does Equipo por Colombia mean for the 2022 elections? As Toro herself has acknowledged: “In politics, we are all friends and when there are elections, we decide as friends who to and not to support because its logical and here, we’re all acquainted”. The coalition demonstrates the sustained threat that the centre-right poses to Colombia’s democracy and people, as likely to perpetuate the country’s system of revolving doors, corporatism, and inequality rather than tackling the growing poverty and meeting Colombians' real needs.
Semana. (2020b). Entrevista Aida Merlano habla desde Venezuela sobre sus declaraciones en exclusive, Vicky en Semana [YouTube]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2TZDJlp4M8
López, Claudia. (2018). ‘Alejandro Char tiene 21 investigaciones abiertas y no ha pasado nada. El Fiscal corrupto removió a la fiscal que llevaba los casos.’ Available at: https://twitter.com/ClaudiaLopez/status/920431702450823168