SEMANA Cover Story | 12/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The Colombian president’s sons
The sons of President Álvaro Uribe, Tomás and Jerónimo (left), address the criticism about their professional activities.
President Uribe’s reacted immediately. The following day, in a noteworthy presidential address at 7 in the morning, he referred to the issue. “About my sons: they are not involved in corruption. My sons are not corrupt. My sons aren’t government influence-peddlers. My sons aren’t subject to their father. My sons aren’t ‘daddy’s boys.’ My sons aren’t bums. My sons aren’t paid idlers. My sons have chosen to be men of work, honest and serious.”
The fatherly and heartfelt words of the president weren’t just idle ones. During the last few months, a series of rumors has been spread about the alleged businesses of his sons. The majority of them are false, many are exaggerated and few are real. However, in this confusion between fiction and reality, the issue has now arrived on the national agenda.
There have been so many myths that have created that if it weren’t because they were the president’s sons, nobody would have paid attention. But they are. This explains the unusual and challenging request of Senator López, the spokesperson for the main opposition party, so that the president’s sons would show their tax returns to the country.
Theoretically, that demand seems to out of line. Tomás and Jerónimo aren’t government employees. They have the same privacy rights as any Colombian. But, as they themselves recognize, the president’s sons are not ordinary citizens either. The activities of the presidential family are not only of public interest, whether they like it or not, but also will be a favored target of malicious interpretations of their conduct. Tomás illustrated it this way, “if I stay late at a party, it was because I was drunk. If I sit alone on a sofa, it’s because I’m depressed. If I have a coffee with a female friend, it’s because I am cheating on my wife.”
It was inevitable that, at some point, the activities of the president’s sons would become immersed in the political arena. To begin with, Uribe is the most popular political leader in the recent history of the country, and at the same time, is a confrontational and controversial man. Everything that he does or allows to be done is news and generates intense controversy, especially in the current situation in Colombia marked by deep polarization. Unlike the sons of former presidents Pastrana, Samper and Gaviria, who were still in high school when their fathers were president, Tomás and Jerónimo Uribe have graduated from college and begun their professional careers during the presidency of their father.
The decision of the sons to stay in the country, take on the security risks and face public scrutiny has also made the ground fertile for all types of conjecture and speculations regarding their lives. But how much of what is said is fiction and what is the reality?
Above all, Tomás and Jerónimo are entrepreneurs. Despite their ages- Tomás is 27 and Jerónimo is 25- they manage two important businesses: Salvarte, a store that specializes in Colombian handicrafts, and Ecoeficencia S.A., an environmental services firm. They also participate with their father in the activities of the celebrated ranch El Ubérrimo in the department of Córdoba, which they call the “family business,” and are minority partners with an uncle from their mother’s side of the family in a real estate company that buys and sells properties in several regions of the country.
They have devoted themselves to business. “I opted for the private sector because of the suffering in public life that my father has had to endure and after hearing the things they say about him,” explains Tomás. And although “when I was very young I made speeches, I didn’t want any more public life.”
Tomás, who studied chemical engineering at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, still remembers as if it were yesterday his first stab at business life, before his father had won the election. During a visit to the market of the city of Montería, some wide-brimmed hats made from natural fibers caught his eye. After haggling for 15 minutes, he was able to lower the price from 4,000 to 2,000 pesos. “I thought that I could negotiate down to 1,000 pesos with the provider and sell them in Spain for a good profit,” he says. He proposed the idea to his brother and since then they agreed to always work as partners, 50-50. When Tomás arrived in Spain, he learned his first hard lesson. They didn’t have the certificate of origin of the hats. Finally, after a lot of paperwork that Jerónimo had to take care of, they were able to put things in order. But the hats didn’t sell and they lost almost the entire six million pesos (around $2,600 USD) they had invested in their first business.
But they didn’t give up. Tomás knew of some straw bracelets and invested the remaining 500,000 pesos and took another chance in Europe. The success that they had was overwhelming, and that’s how Salvarte was born. As they say over and over again, “a good product sells itself.”
Salvarte today rents space in shopping centers in Bogotá (El Retiro, Atlantis Plaza and the Gran Estación). Those stores are managed by them. The shops at the domestic air terminal and at the El Dorado International Airport that have been the source of suspicion are franchises.
The Salvarte business is not without controversy. It is inevitable that there would be those who attribute their positioning in the market because they are the president’s sons. Businesses such as Comcel, a mobile phone provider, and business associations like Andi, a national association of businesses, have been their clients. Without a doubt, they have an advantage. Who wouldn’t answer a phone call from one of Uribe’s sons? But that does not guarantee that a business will buy its product, and doesn’t guarantee its continuity. Comcel, for example, -says Jerónimo- for the past two years ago “hasn’t bought anything from us,” despite several proposals that they had presented. They also remember their failed attempt to enter into the competitive fashion market with a Salvarte clothing brand. They still have some clothes left over to sell. Jerónimo manages this handicraft business.
The firm Ecoeficiencia, whose general manager is Tomás, is less known, but is a more ambitious endeavor. It is a business that provides environmental services such as recycling, water treatment and noise level measurements. It was born a few years ago in partnership with an old friend from high school, and today it has 220 employees. Its clients include Bavaria, Quala and Postobón among other large industrial companies. Under the management of the older Uribe son, who follows the slogan of his father of “work, work and work,” it has significantly increased its sales. “We don’t have a single contract with the government,” he says emphatically, and explains the presence of Army personnel watching their installations as obvious security measures that must be taken.
Between handicrafts and recycling, the Uribe brothers take time to watch over the activities at their father’s farm in Córdoba. Tomás is in charge of the care and maintenance of the president’s cattle, while Jerónimo supervises the horses. The real estate business of their uncle (from their mother’s side) takes up less time, because they are less involved in it.
Despite the ostentatious – and necessary – security details that watches them day and night, they put a special emphasis on their austere life. Tomás, who recently married the former beauty queen Isabel Sofia Cabrales, lives in a rented apartment of 115 square meters. Jerónimo, despite the good performance of Salvarte, only in January of this year began to take a salary. Like good businessmen in the Antioquian tradition, they reinvest all the profits of their companies.
Given their signs of seriousness in business, it is surprising that they let themselves be affected by two controversial episodes. In the first, for being too trusting with a friend from university, Jerónimo agreed to sign an IOU to an unknown person. That person, without Jerónimo’s knowing, was one of the embezzlers of Cajanal, a state pension fund. In the second case, Jerónimo, like his brother, ended up involved with one of the people implicated in the monumental pyramid scheme scandal of the company DMG.
Today both recognize their errors of judgment, which they attribute to naïveté. The case of Cajanal is perhaps the most embarrassing. According to Jerónimo, a university classmate of Tomás introduced him to the lawyer Jeiner Guilombo in mid-2005. Guilombo, says the youngest Uribe son, promised to loan his friend 100 million pesos to hold some events in Neiva. Jerónimo agreed to be a guarantor in an IOU for 50 million pesos and was responsible for the other 50. He only remembered about the matter two years ago, when a lawyer charged him for the debt. This was paid in September 2007, according to Jerónimo, with resources that his friend, who lives in Australia, paid. Jerónimo, who at the time was 22, says that it was a mistake due to inexperience and that he has learned his lesson. But regardless it is incomprehensible that a son of the president, who is aware of his “public responsibility”, could be so naïve.
Another uncomfortable episode was the friendship the two Uribe sons had with Daniel Ángel, a partner of David Murcia Guzmán, the owner of the DMG firm. Tomás met Ángel in Australia in 2002 and they became very good friends. In mid-2006, Angel proposed to Jerónimo to make some documentaries about Salvarte throughout the country for a new television channel called Body Channel. Jerónimo agreed and did not think anything more of it until February 2007 when an article in the magazine Cambio came out that planted some doubt over the origin of the financing of that channel. At that time, Jerónimo called General Óscar Naranjo, Director of the National Police, to ask for advice. Naranjo was categorical: it was best to stay away.
Although Jerónimo never participated more in the channel, he as well as Tomás continued to be friends with Ángel and they even went to his wedding. For some, Naranjo’s warning should have been enough to abruptly end this relationship. But in the real world, things aren’t so black and white. Ángel was a friend who they had a strong appreciation for and despite that they had doubts about his businesses, it is only now that the criminal activities are being confirmed. The Uribe brothers were not the ones caught by surprise. Dozens of people with whom he studied in high school and in university are still amazed by Ángel and his connection with Murcia and the underworld.
On the other hand, there is little that Tomás and Jerónimo can do to put an end to the many of the myths that have been created about their lives. Because they suffer what could be called the syndrome of the supposed friends of the president’s sons. That is, those who use their scant relationship- a greeting in public or a casual photo – to ask for favors on their behalf. And there were always be some gullible person who will believe them.
The other dilemma that they face, paradoxically, is the success of their companies. Neither Tomás nor Jerónimo see a great benefit for their business interests in being the sons of the president. It is quite difficult – even for them to accept – that they will never be recognized as successful and innovative entrepreneurs while their father is president. There will always be those who attribute their success to being sons of the president. If they are able to gain some business outright, it will always be easier for the losers to allege favoritism. They will never be judged by their merits and their abilities, but only by their connections. It matters little for critics that Ecoeficiencia has all the ISO quality certificates and that this is a competitive advantage in a sector where informality reigns.
The Uribe sons say that they have abstained from taking low interest credit at Bancoldex, a state financial institution, and that their father recommended them to opt for a higher rate in a private bank to avoid suspicion. Neither did they agree to the $5,000 dollars that they were entitled to for the activities of Salvarte from Proexport, a government export promotion agency.
It is also true that that microscope that pursues them obligates them to be very careful with regards to their bank accounts, their tax returns, and their treatment of employees. They know that any error could impact the public image of their father.
At times even, just their participation in some private project can affect a public work, like what occurred with the El Codito – Sopó road. The president decided not to authorize that road that the residents of that region in the savannah had requested because a company in which the sons are minority stockholders have a property located there. Transportation Minister Andrés Uriel Gallego confirmed that decision to SEMANA, which ended up affecting a community and was made to avoid an apparent conflict of interest.
It is ironic. The president’s sons complain more when they talk about how their relationship with the government affects them. They underestimate the inherent advantage that the Uribe name generates. Not just anyone can, for example, call General Naranjo and seek advice.
Less evident are the favors many people - the president of a company, the head of a bank, the mayor of a town- make to Tomás and Jerónimo Uribe. Those are the intangible benefits of power. That is what makes the administrator of a shopping mall such as Atlantis Plaza happy to have a Salvarte. Or it is the reason for which, as they say, “a lot of people want to be our partners.”
For many, the sons are a more effective way to arrive at the heart of the president. And it is such an evident risk, that they have to be very careful.
If Uribe finally ends his term on August 7, 2010 and does not opt to run for a second re-election, maybe the happiest people will be Tomás and Jerónimo. Sometimes they feel that they are in a game in which “heads you win and tales I lose.” Jerónimo is even more thoughtful when he listens to the critics about his decision to be a businessman. “So, what exactly should the president’s sons be doing?”
From all of this, the first thing that can be deduced is that being a statesman’s son is more difficult than what people think. That becomes more evident if you take into consideration that the father’s eight years in the Casa de Nariño presidential palace coincide with an important decade in the beginning of the professional lives of his sons.
The Uribe brothers have a lot of similar traits to their father. They are hardworking, disciplined, confrontational, and talented. Conscientious of their privileged situation, they have avoided having businesses that depend on the government. However, it would be naïve to pretend that being sons of a president has been a disadvantage with respect to the private sector. The prestige of the president and the personal sympathy that the sons have undoubtedly brings many opportunities. The majority of young people of that age have to knock on many more doors. They also face a skeptical public that always believes that their success depends more on connections than their talent.
Being the son of a president carries the burden that, in their success, people judge them not for who they are but what they represent. This without a doubt is unfair. But unfair or not, it is undeniable that they have become, before turning 30 years old, some of the most successful young businessmen in the country.
What is also a certainty is that the Uribe name, not only in politics but also in the private sector, will be heard in Colombia for many years to come.