COLOMBIA: Farm Subsidy Scandal Exposes Corrupt Policies

  • Helda Martínez interviews Senator JORGE ROBLEDO (bogota)
  • Inter Press Service

A total of 87 individuals have been questioned so far, including Ministry of Agriculture officials and recipients of the non-repayable, tax-free subsidies under the Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS) programme.

Many of these beneficiaries have made sizeable campaign contributions for the re-election of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe to a third term in office — pending the necessary amendment of the country’s constitution — and include model/actress and former Miss Colombia Válery Domínguez.

The scandal of the bogus subsidies, which is also being investigated by the Procuraduría General de la Nación (Office of the Inspector General), broke in September after the publication of an exposé in Cambio magazine.

According to repeated denunciations by peasant and indigenous communities, lawmakers, academics and non-governmental organisations, the magazine revealed, AIS funds have not only been disbursed to wealthy families with close ties to Uribe, but also to right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers.

One of the harshest critics of the Uribe administration’s wrongdoings for many years has been Senator Jorge Robledo, a member of the left-leaning opposition party Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) and the Fifth Senate Committee, which is responsible for agriculture, the environment and natural resources.

In the heat of the AIS scandal, Robledo cited current Agriculture Minister Andrés Fernández for questioning by the Senate. Fernández replaced former minister Andrés Felipe Arias, a presidential hopeful who has been nicknamed 'Uribito' (Little Uribe) for espousing the same political views as the country’s current leader.

After Robledo’s introductory comments, which included testimony from a new study undertaken by the private University of the Andes and the Centre for Livestock and Agriculture Studies (CEGA), the debate was cut short by Senate Speaker Javier Cáceres on the grounds of 'disorder' in the house.

Two weeks later a vote was taken on a motion to censure the minister, but did not receive sufficient backing to be passed.

The matter has not been dropped, however. The Fifth Senate Committee has already approved a motion to cite Fernández for questioning once again next year, Robledo told IPS in this interview that explores the background to this ongoing scandal.

Q: Has Colombia, a country rich in natural resources, ever had an appropriate agricultural policy? A: No. One of the problems that has played a role in the country’s economic backwardness is that agriculture has basically been used as an instrument for real estate speculation, with no policies to provide land to peasant farmers.

Be that as it may, however, the country’s agricultural policies since the 1990s have been worse than ever. Before then, at least, there was the belief that Colombia could produce its own food. Today, an ever greater amount of food is imported.

Q: How would you describe Colombia’s agricultural policy during Uribe's seven years in office? A: I would say that it has never been so reactionary. In the Fifth Senate Committee’s debates, we have determined that the current policy is at the service of transnational corporations.

When Uribe took office as president (in 2002), Colombia was importing six million tons of food annually. Today it imports 10 million tons, when the free trade agreement with the United States has yet to enter into force, or the agreement with Europe, and there is talk of an agreement with Australia, a major agricultural power.

Domestically, policy is geared to a plutocratic model; in other words, resources have become increasingly concentrated in a very few, very powerful hands.

Q: The government alleges that these accusations have been made up by the opposition, and especially by you. A: Corruption scandals involving the agricultural sector under this government are very well known. The claims of a major presence of powerful interests, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers in rural areas of Colombia are in no way exaggerated. It is all part of a process of land hoarding, investing money in land in order to use it later for speculative purposes.

Under a corrupt government like this one, it comes as no surprise that all of the scandals that involve the Ministry of Agriculture also end up involving, or referring in one way or another, to drug traffickers and paramilitary groups.

Q: Why do you believe that after your comments, the Senate debate was cut off before Minister Fernández had spoken? A: It was a ploy, because the debate was so overwhelming and devastating that Fernández was left speechless. And so the session was adjourned, and put off for two weeks, so that former minister Arias could write a response that was then read by Fernández, as was proven later.

It was a political ploy used to close ranks, which is typical of Uribe’s people, and to protect two of his buddies.

And we lost the vote on the motion of censure because we didn’t get the 52 votes we needed. However, of Uribe's 70 allies in the Senate, only 40 supported the minister.

Q: It’s well known that Arias and Fernández have been friends since childhood. But which of the two is responsible for the AIS scandal? A: It is obvious, given their personalities, that both Arias and Fernández are agents acting on behalf of the government, employed by President Uribe, who is the real mastermind behind agricultural policy, which internally responds to the elites, and externally serves the transnationals, the monopolies and ultimately Washington.

In other words, all of this is Uribe’s doing. I even found a speech on the web site of the president's office, from last April, where he declares his intention to set up estates of 40,000 to 50,000 hectares in the eastern lowlands, something he hasn’t managed to do yet because the law does not allow it.

His intention was for AIS resources to be allocated to these estates. This shows that what he wants is to set up huge landholdings, which is why he brought tycoons from around the world to (the eastern province of) Vichada. There is a photograph of the president showing Bill Gates a piece of property he would like to sell him.

The study by the University of the Andes and CEGA shows that the concentration of Ministry of Agriculture resources began shortly before 2002, but has been particularly stepped up since then. AIS is sort of the culmination of an idea that had developed earlier.

Q: The accusations raised certain expectations, but since the ministers have not resigned there is the feeling that nothing is really happening. A: That is only partly true. Perhaps there is nothing happening immediately. And not everything that one would like to see is happening, but things are moving, in any case. Small modifications in policy have been achieved, but above all, awareness of the truth is growing, and foundations are being set for the future.

Why isn’t more happening? Because the country is confused and corrupted. That means that even good people, which is most people in Colombia, get tangled up.

But things are happening. For example, I think this has dealt a fatal blow to Arias’s candidacy, which is something major, because he shares all of the same defects as Álvaro Uribe.

Q: Do you have faith in the findings of the investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General? A: There are a number of issues involved. First of all, the regulations designed by the government permit the concentration of land ownership. They also make it possible for a single estate to be divided up to allow for various projects to be carried out, benefiting a single family. This has been purposefully set up through legal instruments.

We also know that the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General are subject to heavy pressure from the Uribe administration, which also follows a policy of deceit, of pretending not to understand the question, or covering things up. And so it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up not finding anything, or laying the blame on a third- or fourth-level functionary as a scapegoat.

Q: At the height of the scandal, Uribe called for the money to be returned, and as far as anyone knows, the only person who has turned the money over so far is former Miss Colombia Válery Domínguez. Have there been any further developments? A: Not that I know of. Among other reasons, because a lot of the recipients must have spent the money even before the debate began…Which means that the president’s public request for the money to be returned is just another one of his tricks.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service