January 24, 2018
Monday, March 20, 2017

Fallout of Odebrecht scandal forces Santos into apology

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos attends an event where Vice-President German Vargas Lleras presented his office’s annual report in Bogotá.
BOGOTÁ — Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos became the lastest Latin American leader to be scarred by the fallout of the Odebrecht corruption scandal, after he acknowledged this week that his 2010 election campaign had received illegal payments from the Brazilian conglomerate. He asked for the country’s forgiveness but denied any knowledge of the illegal transactions.
Without specifying amounts, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office has alleged Santos’ successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns received money from Odebrecht, which is engulfed in a region-wide corruption scandal. Santos said he had no knowledge at the time of the illegal payments and did not authorise acceptance of them. He said he “rejects and condemns” them.
“I am deeply sorry and ask forgiveness from Colombians for this shameful act that should never have happened and that I have just learned about,” Santos said in a statement.
It is illegal in Colombia to receive campaign financing from overseas companies. Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, did not mention Odebrecht specifically in his statement.
The revelation is likely to put corruption front and centre in next year’s election campaign. While Santos, whose popularity is at near record lows, is barred from running for another term, the candidate of his U Party may well be damaged.
The president’s campaign manager, Roberto Prieto, told local Blu Radio on Tuesday that Odebrecht paid US$400,000 for election posters in 2010. He said Santos had no knowledge of the payment. Prieto could not be immediately reached for comment.
In Colombia, political parties may be disbanded and prevented from backing candidates if a campaign is found guilty of electoral violations. The statute of limitations is three years, so only the 2014 campaign would be at issue.
The funding scandal will remind Colombians of cash paid to the 1994 campaign of former President Ernesto Samper by the Cali drug-cartel. Samper was impeached, but Congress cleared him.
US prosecutors contend Odebrecht paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in association with infrastructure projects in 12 countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, between 2002 and 2016.
Santos’ 2014 rival is also facing investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly receiving Odebrecht money. Óscar Iván Zuluaga was the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre opposition party, led by former president Álvaro Uribe, Santos’ former mentor turned foe.

Vice-president resigns
Santos now finds himself without a vice-president too, after the current postholder Germán Vargas Lleras resigned on Wednesday night, a move widely expected to herald the latter’s push for the presidency next year, even though he says he is undecided.
The president has nominated former national police chief General Oscar Naranjo as Vargas’ successor, stating he wants Naranjo to strengthen security and the drive to stamp out coca cultivation.
In his resignation letter to the Senate, Vargas, 55, said he had not yet decided whether to run for president, but would leave office to make sure he was eligible to compete in 2018. He will step down on Tuesday, according to his letter.
A growing number of media commentators and political analysts believe Vargas, a member of the centre-right Cambio Radical party, will run against the candidate of Santos’ ruling U party.
As vice-president since 2014, Vargas focused on infrastructure projects, spearheading improvements to roadways and building subsidised housing for the poor. He has not publicly criticised Santos’ 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. But local news media have reported he is against the deal’s terms allowing rebels to enter politics and receive no jail time. Like Santos, Vargas comes from one of the most powerful families in Colombia. He is the grandson of former president Carlos Lleras Restrepo and nephew of former presidential candidate Carlos Lleras de la Fuente.

83 new probes requested
in Brazil
As the Odebrecht scandal continues to create headlines across the region, it emerged this week that Brazil’s top public prosecutor has asked the Supreme Court to open 83 new investigations into senior politicians, reportedly including five ministers and leading lawmakers, in a dramatic escalation of a graft probe threatening the government.
Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot also requested that the Court send 211 other requests to lower courts based on much-anticipated testimony by dozens of executives from Odebrecht. Brazilian newspapers reported that Janot called for an investigation into five members of President Michel Temer’s Cabinet, along with his most senior allies in Congress, raising concerns about the stability of his administration and the fate of fiscal reforms cheered by investors. Temer said last month that he would suspend any Cabinet member who is placed under investigation and would dismiss them only if they are indicted for corruption.
Janot also requested that the Supreme Court send 211 other requests to lower courts, involving people without a right to trial before the Supreme Court. Under Brazil’s Constitution federal lawmakers and ministers can only be tried by the Supreme Court.                w
 — Herald with AP, Reuters
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