During the political crisis that almost toppled the government of President Ernesto Samper, no one examined the role played by business. This was despite the fact that, on several occasions, principal business sectors recommended the president’s resignation because they feared possible economic sanctions by the United States.
But ultimately, they did not accomplish anything. This is the topic that political scientist Angélika Rettberg, a professor at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and a founder of the Harvard-MIT Colombian Colloquium, discusses in her book, Cacaos y tigres de papel.
On June 19, 1994, a Sunday and an election day in Colombia, Samper’s campaign manager Fernando Botero Zea received a message on his beeper from Augusto López Valencia. The Bavaria beer company president asked Botero to contact him immediately. When Botero returned the call, Lopez didn’t even say hello. He enthusiastically shouted, “We won!” Later he explained that he had just received radio network Caracol’s last results, indicating that Ernesto Samper had been elected president of Colombia. (Semana, June 21, 1994).
This episode is not very well known, but the events that followed are common knowledge. A few hours after voting closed, Samper was caught up in a judicial and political crisis regarding the donations of money from drug trafficking to his campaign, commonly known as Proceso 8.000, (in reference to the number of the judicial dossier raising the charges). The process polarized the Colombian society, wounding feelings, tearing apart friendships, and even resulting in fatalities. The majority of the Colombian populace watched perplexedly as the events—in the tradition of a tragi-comic soap opera—played themselves out.
The Colombian business community was one of the more visible actors in the scandal surrounding the contributions of drug trafficking money to the Samper campaign. While some industrial sectors recommended the president’s resignation, several large economic groups strongly supported the president, thus fracturing the unity of the business community.
Rettberg uses Proceso 8.000 as a window through which to study certain aspects of the relationship between business and politics in Colombia. There is a tendency to see the private sector as a unified bloc without examining internal differences and multiple— and at times—contradictory interests. This tendency has resulted in a generally simplified vision of business participation in politics. Rettberg’s book breaks with that popular vision, pointing out the difficulties of making and keeping business interests united in the face of common threats to come up with a tentative model for relations between business and politics in Colombia.
In analyzing the relationship between the business sectors and the large economic groups, one must ask why the latter supported Samper. The book goes beyond the specific case of Proceso 8.000 and delves into why businessmen and women get involved in politics, when this involvement is effective, and how they mutually interact to achieve their goals.
Cacaos y tigres de papel makes several revelations in this area:
- Business people want different things in the political arena. Keeping these divisions and distinctions in mind helps to understand why, at times, they don't achieve what they want. Recent events in Venezuela also illustrate this situation. Until it obtained the support of the powerful Cisneros group, the anti-Chávist business movement could not produce a collective response against the government. Fedecámaras, the strongest Venezuelan business association, did not manage to sustain the opposition against President Hugo Chávez in spite of having succeeded in organizing a several-day anti-government strike.
- The internal differences within the private sector regarding their access to power and their capacity for influence explain who is listened to in political decision-making. For example, in the unsuccessful peace process during the government of Andrés Pastrana in March 2000, a group of business leaders who attended one of the first public audiences was subject to embarrassing catcalls. The hardest blow came a few days later when representatives of the principle economic groups—magnates, “big shots” known in Colombian Spanish as cacaos—were invited by the government and received in a private session by the leader of the FARC guerrilla group in Caguán. The qualitative difference in the treatment of the two groups was appreciated even outside the business community due to the manner in which the guerrilla negotiator known as “Joaquín Gómez” referred to the visit of the cacaos. “If we previously felt we were talking with saints (when other national and international figures visited the FARC in their territory of Caguán), now we feel ourselves talking with God.” (El Espectador, March 18, 2000).
- The economic groups are powerful, but not omnipotent. In Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, globalization has brought, as a consequence, fierce competition between economic groups to protect their privileges and their market niche. In this sense, relationships with government assume new importance, giving them more capacity for maneuvering and negotiation than what is commonly assumed as a result of their dependence on capital.
- The Colombia business sectors continue to have an identity crisis because—with the exception of those linked to exports—they have not managed to overcome the loss of privileges that came with the opening towards free trade in the 1990s. They have not been able to assume a role of true interlocutors of the government in formulating policy.
Cacaos y tigres de papel presents a shortened version of Rettberg’s doctoral dissertation, based on first-hand interviews with protagonists and observers close to the events under consideration. These include business sector leaders, executives from the economic groups, business managers, government officials, academics and journalists. In turn, the interviews were compared and contrasted with other sources such as archival materials, newspaper reports and statistics from several institutions.
The first two chapters of the book can be found on www.semana.com. This review was translated and reprinted with the permission of Semana Magazine.