Former Agriculture Minister and Conservative presidential precandiate Andres Felipe Arias intervened at the Common Council’s Anti-Corruption meeting Saturday to defend his role in the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal which has prompted a backlash from other presidential hopefuls.
The scandal refers to the Uribe government distributing subsidies to wealthy landowners under a guise of creating more jobs.
President Alvaro Uribe allowed Arias fifteen minutes during Saturday’s meeting to defend the program, a move that has everyone from Uribe’s supporters to his opponents up in arms. According to weekly Semana, rules established by the presidency itself often allow two-minute interventions in the Saturday councils. However, Arias’ fifteen minutes is considered unwarranted involvement by the President.
Uribe giving a presidential candidate a quarter of an hour of live television, broacast across Colombia, is considered by Semana to be an unfair advantage over the other candidates. The Liberal Party’s candidate Rafael Pardo announced that he had sent a letter to the Inspector General requesting that he address the irregularity. “We shall also ask the National Television Commission and the director of RCTV to investigate the misuse of this space,” Pardo said.
The president of the National Television Commission, Juan Andres Carreno, told Caracol Radio that he would assess the circumstances in which Arias participated in a Common Council. He explained that this process was necessary to determine whether to schedule or not the same space to other presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, Arias has spoken out against the backlash. “A political scandal has been created to hurt me,” he said. “How could I not have the right to defend myself on a subject in which they have said so many things and where they have written all kinds of stories, how can I not be entitled to explain so many things that have been said?”
Newspaper El Espectador reported the former minister as saying, “so what we want is that Arias not talk, to not expose the truth, as if I were to enter the ring against seven Mike Tysons, and blindfolded with one hand tied behind [my back] … I do not know what they are afraid of, that I might expound upon topics of national interest.”
Referring to the criticism he has received for participating in the Common Council, Arias said his opponents want to silence him. W Radio reported that Arias believed that his speech could bring down a number of “myths” that have been woven around the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal.
Presidential candidate for the Polo Democratico, Gustavo Petro, said that the fault did not lie with Arias but with the government. “The problem is not the thirty billion pesos given to wealthy Magdalena families, but the direct transfer of millions of pesos to businesses and multinationals, given away for example under the pretense of tax exemptions.”
Noemi Sanin, also a frontrunner for the Conservative party, did not support the space given to her colleague. She demanded that the same space be given to all presidential aspirants. She noted that Uribe could not be accused of giving Arias undue opportunity to speak, since the Council was always due to discuss corruption, of which the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal made up a large part. However, she wanted an opportunity for her and the other precandidates to speak on the issue of the scandal. “I’m ready to make my point of view known… I want that same opportunity,” she said.
Meanwhile, Arias said that “the important thing is that I could explain my thesis on Agro Ingreso Seguro and show how [critics] are wrong.”