Today, around noon, President Gustavo Petro is going to have lunch with some of the richest businessmen in the country. But they are more than businessmen. They are also owners of the most important traditional media in Colombia and large donors to political parties. For this reason, among attendees and observers, the meeting has evoked the pact that Ernesto Samper made during his presidency with the “cacaos”, as the president besieged by the 8,000 scandal called them then.
The appointment is at the Cartagena Guest House, the official residence where the presidents receive their special guests. Until last night, the Casa de Nariño did not have a list of confirmed guests, according to the Presidency’s press office. In fact, the meeting has not been announced in any official statement, even though it has been in the works for several weeks.
The scope of the meeting has been interpreted in multiple ways, and its development will clear up doubts, amid the secrecy of its organization. While within the government they interpret it as a conversation with senior representatives of the private sector about the country’s major issues, other voices warn of an attempt to undermine the voice of the broader business sectors represented in the unions. And from the opposition theories are woven about an unpopular government, with its reforms bogged down, that turns to the big capitalists in search of media oxygen and governability in Congress.
The guest list
La Silla was able to establish, with first-hand sources, that businessmen such as Luis Carlos Sarmiento Ángulo, the richest man in Colombia, Carlos Julio Ardila, of the Ardila Lulle Organization, and Alejandro Santo Domingo, manager of the Valorem Group, will be present. The three lead organizations that, in 2022, donated around 35 billion pesos to the parties during the elections and are owners of the country’s mass media, such as El Tiempo, RCN and Caracol Televisión.
The meeting does not have a pre-established agenda. Neither the government nor the businessmen proposed specific points to discuss at lunch. It was organized by Laura Sarabia, director of the Department of Social Prosperity (DPS), and one of the president’s trusted women, and by Juan Fernández, Petro’s business advisor. “It is an open conversation about the country,” a source who has served as an intermediary between the parties, and who requested that his name be withheld, told La Silla.
The invitations started arriving last week. Among the reasons for the meeting is “to engage in dialogue on issues of mutual interest, peace and social justice,” as one of the invitation cards that one of the attendees read to La Silla says. “There is nothing square in the agenda. I said that I cannot negotiate anything because I must consult with my partners,” one of the invited businessmen told La Silla, who asked for his name to be reserved.
Among the confirmed entrepreneurs are:
- The banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento Ángulo and his son, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Gutiérrez, from Grupo Aval, to which companies such as Banco Bogotá, Porvenir and the newspaper El Tiempo belong.
- Alejandro Santo Domingo and Carlos Alejandro Pérez Dávila, from Valorem, the conglomerate that owns Tiendas D1, El Espectador and Caracol Televisión.
- Carlos Julio Ardila, president of the Ardila Lulle Organization, owners of Postobón and the RCN channel.
- Carlos Enrique Cavelier, president of Alquería, the dairy company.
- Pedro Carvajal, of the Carvajal Group.
- Harold Éder, from the Manuelita Group, the sugar mill.
- César Caicedo, president of Colombina, the popular food company.
There are big absentees on the list.
Among them, the bankers Jaime and Gabriel Gilinski, owners of Nutresa, Banco Sudameris and Semana Magazine, and who were invited, but excused themselves for agenda reasons, according to one version, and because of Petro’s comments on the subject of the conflict. between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, according to another. The Gilinskis have financed Petro’s congressional campaigns, and journalist Daniel Coronell this year documented a private meeting between the bankers and the president.
Representatives of the Antioqueño Business Group (GEA) will not be present either. The visible heads of the Paisa conglomerate have publicly confronted senior government officials. And some of its organizations, such as the Argos Foundation, have financed the campaigns of the main opponents of the Petro government, such as Andrés Julián Rendón, elected governor of Antioquia. The Char family, owner of one of the country’s main business emporiums, and whose members are open opponents of the government, will not be at the meeting either.
Sarabia and Fernández, the business advisor of the Petro government, were the senior officials in charge of promoting and organizing the meeting for weeks. This is a job that they have carried out on behalf of the president, and that does not involve the rest of the cabinet of ministers.
The two have become the main bridges of the high government with the private sector. Sarabia, for example, rebuilt the relationship with private banks to start Citizen Income, the government’s new transfer program. And Fernández organized, at the end of August, the last meeting between Petro and the Union Council after several rude remarks by the president to the unions.
On behalf of the Petro government, the signing of a document is not prepared at the end of the meeting. Nor a joint statement. According to a senior government source, they are discussing whether or not to issue a statement at the end of the event. “Businessmen see it as a simple conversation. No one is going to refuse an invitation from the president of the republic,” says a politician close to one of the attendees, who asked for his name to be reserved.
“I met with Santos about 10 times,” one of the attendees told La Silla, at times downplaying the magnitude of the event. But, later in the conversation, which he agreed to have on the condition of not being quoted so as not to undermine his position at the event, he recalled Samper’s meetings with the so-called “cacaos.” In fact, since then, a summit of as many millions as the one the former president had at the end of the nineties with Sarmiento Angulo, who repeats, Augusto López, then president of Bavaria, and Carlos Ardila Lulle, of Postobón, had not been proposed.
However, in another back and forth, the businessman denied that this was part of a national agreement or that there was a specific discussion on the table of the reforms that are being processed in Congress. “It’s a conversation about how we can help on issues that unite us all, like the fight against poverty,” he added.
But the reserved nature of the meeting has aroused multiple suspicions. Among them, those of business associations, the traditional organizations that mediate between the government and the private sector, and whose relationship has been strained as a result of the debates generated by social reforms. And the opposition fears a high-level pact that will give new impetus to the government.
The suspicions of the unions and the opposition
Some unions question whether the institutionality of the unions is replaced by the vision of private businessmen. “If they are going to talk about what Colombia needs, they are not the most representative of the country. The unions and producer associations have a broader view,” says Jorge Bedoya, president of the Colombian Farmers Society (SAC).
This criticism is preceded by a relationship marked by mistrust between the unions and the Petro government. It has materialized in canceled meetings and insults to the country’s main trade organizations, such as the president’s reluctance to attend the closing ceremony of the National Association of Industrialists (Andi) in Cartagena. “Until now relations have been very distant, with the feeling that the government is not especially friendly to business activity,” Bruce Mac Master, president of Andi, told the Chair.
The news of the meeting with the business cocoas, added to this growing distrust, alerts the union leaders. And some believe this is a government strategy to bypass them in the middle of key negotiations. “They are seeking to discuss the reforms without the unions. But I doubt that the country’s big businessmen see this alternative favorably,” another union leader told La Silla, who asked for his name to be reserved.
There are several negotiations that the Petro government must face with unions on board in the remainder of the year. Among them, the increase in the minimum wage for 2024. The first technical table of this negotiation begins on November 28. This negotiation has, by law, the participation of the SAC, Andi, Asobancaria, Fenalco and Acopi, the Colombian Association of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. “With inflation that is subsiding, but slowly, high interest rates, and a slowing economy, we must correct purchasing power, but not make an extraordinary increase,” says Rosmery Quintero, president of Acopi.
There is also the negotiation to increase the price of Acpm in 2024, and in which the Minister of Finance, Ricardo Bonilla, leads a table with the main transport unions in the country.
The other side of suspicion regarding Petro’s meeting with the cocoas is led by a sector of the opposition.
“What are they going to trade? “Perks in exchange for submission?” Former Vice President Francisco Santos asked, in his X account, regarding the meeting. Along the same lines, the digital activist and opponent of the Petro government, Diego Santos, also questioned the motivations for the meeting. “What is Alejandro Santo Domingo looking for in his meeting with Gustavo Petro? “Give a break and a push to a president who has only run over and devastated the Colombian business community, the large, the medium and the small?” he stated in a tweet that he later deleted, but that appears reviewed in an article of week.
Santos did not explain to La Silla why he deleted the trill, but added that “today the cocoas no longer control the narrative, because today social networks exist.” In fact, Semana, the Gilinskis’ outlet, is the only one that has given voice to critical voices like theirs, amid the absence of their owners from the meeting.
At the heart of the opposition’s criticism is the suspicion that an agreement between Petro and the cocoas would give the government greater maneuver between the parties represented in Congress, financed in part by their business organizations, and among the media. that they control. This idea, about the omnipresence of economic power, is promoted, to a certain extent, by President Petro. “I didn’t come to power. I came to the government, because the power, the true power, is held by others, the economic groups,” he told journalist María Jimena Duzán at the time.