“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question [whether ExxonMobil lobbied against US sanctions on Russia, ed], or are you refusing to do so?” Senator Kaine asked. Tillerson responded, “A little of both,” a fitting summary of his entire appearance Wednesday.
Rex Tillerson at his Senate Confirmation hearing, Rolling Stone
“As far as the potential conflict of interests, […] I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Donald Trump, New York Times
Seldom is silence as oppressive as it is in the lift in a high-rise building. It seems like too much trouble to start a conversation on the ground floor, but once you are underway, the journey seems to take forever. The Colombians have found something to ease this discomfort, however. In the business centre in Bogota, the lifts are fitted with television screens, which broadcast the latest news. We stand, all of us, mesmerised by the head of President Elect Donald Trump, as he silently defends himself against allegations. The headlines clarify that this is coverage of alleged conflicts of interest. Trump thinks it is unnecessary to transfer his financial interests to a ‘blind trust’, but will simply allow family members to manage his companies.
To make matters worse, he had also just nominated the CEO of the world’s largest oil company to be his secretary of state. If he wins approval from the Senate, Rex Tillerson will move seamlessly from the pinnacle of a global business empire to the head of the US state department. Unlike Trump, Tillerson has to divest his obvious business interests. But he cannot divest a career-long worldview, not to mention personal connections.
I suppress the urge to say to my colleague that here, in Columbia, they wouldn’t bother making such a fuss. After all, you never know who is standing next to you in the lift. However, just before the door opens at the third floor, my colleague elbows me to silently indicate his acknowledgement. The entanglement of political and economic forces in the western hemisphere is not a recent development. The firm grip of business on American politics has been clear for half a century and, once again, became painfully obvious after the last banking crisis. But what shocks me is that Trump feels no need whatsoever to tackle the political and ethical objections to the alleged conflicts of interest while America is quietly drawn into a purely legal debate. Choosing a businessman to run his foreign policy only underlines that attitude.
Parallels between the US and Colombia
I think about the decentralisation of political and economic power in Colombia and start to draw parallels between the two situations. Píng! Saved by the bell that signals we’ve arrived at the 7th floor. Still plenty of time to summon up the efforts of former president and substantial land-owner Álvaro Uribe. He pushed large-scale agro-industry and mineral extraction like a man possessed. The fact this sector, in the expansion process, profited from uprooting small farmers was not even raised within the social dialogue. After his term, Uribe commanded his troops, via his Twitter account, to oppose the peace process. In his populist comments, he capitalised on the anxiety among the population in relation to a guerilla movement, even though it had been disarmed. However, the real motivation became clear from the lobbying that enabled the economic elite to shore up and retain their acquisitions. It was established that land could not be expropriated for the benefit of victims and the chances of bringing charges against businesses suspected of complicity in acts of war were minimised in the accord. A legal smokescreen covered up the ethical and democratic objections to this policy in this context, too.
Píng! Tenth floor and new headlines. Alongside Tillerson in the Foreign Office, the future Minister of Energy would like to dismantle the Washington’s oversight organisations. My colleague throws a meaningful look in my direction, but I´m not going to risk making an audible comment. In Colombia, the mineral sector has complained vehemently for years about strict legislation and regulations. Under the guise of an efficiency campaign, part of the Environment Ministry was thus dismantled and a brand-new governmental institute was created to issue permits. This has become a second home to the mineral sector and the doors also regularly rotate for former civil servants from the environment ministry. When issuing permits and maintaining supervision, the government profits from the information provided by companies. There is no notion of independent research. The local population, which suffers under the impact of the activities, can do nothing but raise concerns and hope that Bogota listens. But it’s not easy to be heard when the media is largely financially dependent upon the same businesses and the current president’s family is the owner of a substantial part of the written press. It is now a common situation across the world.
Ping! We have arrived and enter the marble corridor. “Don’t talk about it in the meeting,” whispers my colleague before we enter the imposing reception area. But, of course, couldn´t keep quite any longer.