Pay-to-Play Lobbying by U.S. Think Tanks: Focus on Colombia
In the case of Colombia, proof that these thinks tanks serve mainly as an echo chamber for their contributors is in their failure to predict the results of the October 2 plebiscite on the Santos-FARC deal
By Lia Fowler*
October 22 /2016
For several years, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Social Party of National Unity have been aggressively pursuing U.S. support and funding — to the tune of some $450 million — for the implementation of a “peace agreement” between the Santos government and the narco-terrorist group FARC. Ready to promote that agenda were several U.S. think tanks, which shamelessly echoed the Santos propaganda while passing it off as objective analysis and scholarly research – always for a price. But the cozy relationship between these non-profit organizations and the Santos-FARC deal promoters comes at a high cost to the public they claim to serve, both in the U.S. and Colombia – and it could well be violating U.S. law.
Part one of this series described the role of the Atlantic Council in promoting Santos’ agenda through its Senior Fellow, Miguel Silva, who happened to be Santos’ chief communications strategist. [http://www.periodismosinfronteras.org/colombia-norway-and-the-atlantic-council-selling-peace-to-the-u-s.html] In return, the Atlantic Council received sizeable donations from Norway and its state-controlled oil company Statoil, both key players in the Santos-FARC agreement. But the Council wasn’t alone in these activities.
The Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C. think tank that promotes itself on its web site as being among “the top 25 most-cited think tanks in the U.S. media” [http://www.thedialogue.org/support-us/corporate-program/] co-sponsored several events with the Council and other think tanks. In June 2014, the Dialogue’s President, Michael Shifter, offered opening remarks at a discussion led by Silva regarding Colombia’s presidential run-off in 2014. [http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/events/upcoming-events/detail/the-colombia-conundrum-predictions-for-the-presidential-runoff]. And in february this year, the Dialogue and the Council co-sponsored a speaking event for Santos, where, per the Dialogue’s web site, Santos promoted the peace agreement and “called on President Barack Obama to continue to lend US support.” [http://www.thedialogue.org/resources/colombia-transformation-and-future-challenges/]
The Dialogue has also promoted Santos’ interests through its publications, and provided access to policy-makers and media through its award galas and off-the-record events. In 2015, for example, Bernard Aronson, U.S. Special Envoy to the Santos-FARC negotiations in Havana, received a Special Recognition at the Dialogue’s Leadership for the Americas Award Gala. [http://www.thedialogue.org/event/gala/]
In October 2015, the Dialogue hosted Colombia’s then-attorney general Eduardo Montealegre for an off-the-record meeting where, per a Dialogue staffer, Montealegre and the Dialogue collaborated on the guest list – which was never disclosed. [http://www.periodismosinfronteras.org/justice-of-tyrants-colombias-shady-ag.html]
Upon request for comment, the Dialogue stated that their members represent a diversity of beliefs and that their donors do not influence their research or outcomes. Yet it is difficult to find this balance of views in their promotion of the Santos-FARC deal.
The so-called experts that shape the Dialogue’s position on Colombia are neither scholars nor analysts. They are businessmen who have contributed generously to the think tank, or they are politicians. Many also happen to be key contributors to Santos’ election campaigns and promoters of the Santos-FARC agreement. Some have received lucrative contracts from the Colombian government, suggestive of a pay-to-play relationship between the think tanks, the donors, and the Santos government.
The Colombian members of the Dialogue’s “President’s Leadership Council,” for example, are Carlos Enrique Cavelier, president of Alqueria, a company that produces dairy products, and Carlos Andres Uribe Arango, president of Ladrillera Santafe, a company specializing in the production of clay materials. [http://www.thedialogue.org/experts/?iad_experttype=70]. Alqueria is listed in the top bracket of the think tank’s current list of donors as having contributed more than $50,000. Ladrillera Santafe is listed as having donated between $25,000 and $49,000. [http://www.thedialogue.org/support-us/our-donors/] The Dialogue’s 2013-2014 Annual Report listed both companies as having donated between $25,000-$50,000. [http://1m1nttzpbhl3wbhhgahbu4ix.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/2013-4AnnualReportFinal.pdf]
In 2014, Colombian news portal Las 2 Orillas included Alqueria and Ladrillera Santafe on the list of top 30 donors to Santos’ campaign, with Alqueria topping the list. [http://www.las2orillas.co/asi-financio-juan-manuel-santos-su-campana-en-2010/] Cavelier has also been a significant promoter of the Santos-FARC agreement. In November 2015, he was one of eight businessmen who met with the FARC and government negotiation teams in Havana, where he publicly endorse the agreement. In an interview with Spain’s daily El Pais – owned by another Dialogue sponsor, Grupo PRISA – he promoted the deal and expressed his full confidence in the members of the FARC. [http://www.alqueria.com.co/posconflicto-la-inversion-al-campo/].
Ladrillera Santafe has also enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the Santos government. According to Colombian daily El Tiempo, in 2015, the company was awarded three titles for clay excavation by the National Mining Agency. The excavation rights allow for mining between 273-481 hectares in the Cogua municipality – tripling the amount of land being mined in the area. [http://m.eltiempo.com/bogota/aumentaron-en-un-900-areas-con-titulos-mineros-en-cogua-/15871576]
The list of donors includes other key players in the promotion of the Santos-FARC deal. Among these are Grupo PRISA, which also owns Colombian broadcaster Caracol Radio; Telefonica; and BBVA. These three Spanish companies collaborated with Fundacion Buen Gobierno, a Colombian foundation headed by Santos’ son, Martin, in a forum titled “Benefits of Peace in Colombia.” Touted as providing “analysis” about the deal’s impact on Colombia, it was a promotional campaign, attended by Santos himself. [http://espana-colombia.org/articulo/los-beneficios-del-proceso-de-paz-sobre-la-economia-colombiana] In the case of Grupo PRISA, its support has had rewards: Caracol Radio has received millions of dollars in government money for publicity related to promoting the Santos-FARC deal. The Dialogue’s donor’s list also includes Norway’s Statoil.
One problem with the Council and the Dialogue acting as lobbyists is that they are tax-exempt organizations and, in one case, funded with U.S. tax dollars: the Council’s current list of donors reveals a donation between $250,000 – $1 million from the Department of State. As such, they are prohibited from engaging in substantial amounts of lobbying.
“The idea is that charities [tax-exempt entities] are formed to serve the public good, and not special interests,” explained Miranda Fleischer, Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, in a telephonic interview this week. “But the rules are so permissive, that sometimes activities that cross the line slip through the cracks.”
Whether the lobbying work done for Colombia amounts to “substantial” would depend on an analysis of the totality of each think tank’s programs and activities. But as to the relationship between the Council and Silva, Professor Fleishman was clear: “Not disclosing [Silva’s] role seems like an ethical and public relations mistake,” she concluded.
More troubling, however, is this question, posed by Amos Jones, Associate Professor of Law at Campbell University in North Carolina in a telephonic interview this week: “Why are we now at a
point where so-called think tanks are being hustled as lobbying agencies?” he asked. “In the good old days, scholars were supposed to be objective, and find out what was really going on…. Now we don’t really have scholarship. Everybody becomes a hack in service to an ideology as opposed to a truth-finder or a truth-teller.”
From a U.S. perspective, Silva and the Atlantic Council may also be running afoul of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938, which requires those acting as an agent of foreign principals – with a handful of narrow exceptions — to register with the U.S. government.
“It’s designed so we don’t get snowed in the United States, and so we know who is pulling whose strings and for how much,” Jones explained. “Whether or not there’s a FARA violation, it’s a sad day in our world when D.C. think tanks become as politically incestuous as D.C. lobbying shops – But as least the latter are open about the fact that they’re doing influence-peddling in exchange for money.”
More importantly, for both the U.S. and the Colombian public, the work these think tanks are producing does not contribute in any positive way to public policy debates and decisions.
“If only these so-called experts actually knew anything and had a real theory, they could actually predict things,” Jones stated.
In the case of Colombia, proof that these thinks tanks serve mainly as an echo chamber for their contributors is in their failure to predict the results of the October 2 plebiscite on the Santos-FARC deal: Contrary to the perception in the U.S. that the deal had universal support — as promoted by the think tanks themselves — Colombians rejected the agreement, with only 17 percent of the electorate voting in favor of it. The question now is, how will the think tanks spin the result of the vote to please their sponsors?
The Council ignored several requests for comment.
*Lia Fowler is an American journalist and a former FBI Special Agent.