Colombia’s Minister of Information & Communications Technology Resigns Amid $280 Million Dollar Children’s Internet Scandal
After fighting several months for her reputation and her position leading Colombia’s Ministry of Information & Communications Technologies (MinTIC), Karen Abudinen Abuchaibe resigned yesterday at the request of President Ivan Duque. Abudninen, a lawyer from Barranquilla, was seen by many political analysts as the Duque administrations envoy to the Atlantic coast’s powerful and “House of Char” political & business clan, but Abudinen’s approval of a huge contract to deploy internet service to rural Colombian schools, only to see the contract advance money disappear to somewhere in the United States led to calls for her resignation, and even her last name being used as a synonym for the verb “to pilfer.”
Last December, the minister signed a $1.07 billion COP ($280 million USD) contract with a consortium called the Union Temporal Centros Poblados to install internet service in almost 9,000 rural schools in Colombia. The contract included an advance of over $18 million USD, which the ministry paid, but also required certain bank guarantees that the consortium submitted—ostensibly—from multinational Banco Itaú.
In April of this year, Abudinen did an interview with Colombia’s Caracol network, where she personally promised on national television that 1,529 schools would be connected that month, 1,500 more schools in May, and by December, 8,700 schools would be connected.
“The favorite dish of many Colombians is ‘baked minister’”—President Ivan Duque
“Find me, I will come here and show my face,” Abudinen said to television news presenter Juan Diego Alvira, personally assuring that the rural children would have their internet service.
“You promise me that the signal won’t fail when I call you?” asked Alvira.
Later that month, Colombian media reported that practically no schools had been connected so far and began to investigate. The bank guarantees that the contract was conditioned upon were made public in June…But Banco Itaú came out and said that the documents were forged, and they had no pact or relationship with the contractor at all. It turns out, on a quarter billion USD contract, no one from the minister’s office bothered to call the bank to verify the documents.
As the scandal began to explode, Abudinen began to insist that she and the ministry were not complicit in any misdeeds, but in fact victims, and would try to do everything possible to protect the public interest. Towards the end of June, Colombia’s attorney general began investigating, and discovered that a large part of the deposit had been wired to a Delaware company in the US. Colombia then asked for the FBI’s assistance in tracing the money.
Colombian daily El Tiempo revealed that Juan Carlos Cáceres, the principal of one of the consortium partners then used $1.3 million USD of the proceeds to buy a luxury condominium in Miami’s luxurious Brickell neighborhood, south of downtown. Cáceres insists he has done nothing wrong. Colombian and US prosecutors have moved to seize the assets and proceeds of the consortium and its beneficiaries in Colombia and the US.
Meanwhile, back in Colombia, Abudinen was busy defending herself and her ministry’s stewardship of the contract and public resources. Social media comedians began to refer to unrelated theft and fraud as to “Abudinear” someone or something so frequently, that Spain’s language guardian, the Real Academia Español noticed the word’s usage.
No one so far has formally accused Abudinen of any criminal activity, or of collaboration with Union Temporal Centros Poblados.
At the Caracol broadcasting network, Alviria was claiming bad luck in reaching the minister to have her keep her promise to “show her face” and answer for the progress on the mammoth contract. Abudinen would not connect with Alviria, but when a colleague from competing BluRadio was able to reach her, the TV presenters took the extraordinary step of putting the minister on the spot by patching her through.
“Do you see your friend there Minister? Juan Diego Alvira has been looking for you for a long time, asked presenter Néstor Morales. Alviria reminded Abudinen of her pledge to show her face and not hide, then asked simply whether she had complied with her promise or not.
Juan Diego Alvira por fin pudo encarar a Karen Abudinen, en medio de una entrevista con @BluRadioCo.
— Noticias Caracol (@NoticiasCaracol) August 30, 2021
Abudinen evaded the question. “We are on top of the operators. Colombians permitted us to discover this trap…”
Alvirio interrupted and was very blunt with the official: “If you go through the twists and turns of the law, you will without a doubt find an escape, but you made a promise here. The question is very precise, please. Did you comply or not comply? Because I have searched for you and only now because of this ‘accidental interview’ have I been able to even ask you!”
“Juan Diego, one complies in the contexts of possibility. I ask you to let me talk and explain. We are working to expire the contract (with the consortium) so that (Bogotá telecommunications company) ETB will be the operator to terminate the contract and connect the 7,000 schools that I promised you on Caracol, I remember perfectly, and I will continue to work obsessively to connect this country and recover this scam that they played on the ministry. But unfortunately, that date, I cannot say that I complied or did not comply.”
Alvirio pushed back. “But minister, let me remind you. Your phrase was ‘If I don’t comply…to the cemetery!’ Your words! Do you know what the cemetery for public functionaries is?”
“Look Nestor, I know that in this moment, one always wants to find…”
“The metaphorical tombstone was used by you,” interrupted Alvirio.
“The tombstone metaphor I used,” she insisted. “But let me tell you something. I have been out in front of this situation—one goes to the cemetery when he ceases to struggle. One goes to the cemetery when they lose their desire. When they are without passion. When they don’t have the opportunity to find a solution to the problem. I believe that in this case, there is a solution, we are working on it, the control people are on top of it, and I am going to tell you something. And it’s the most important. I have the desire to connect those 7,000 schools. Today ETB already started to work with the ministry to find out how to very rapidly sign a contract, so that we can start as soon as possible and keep our word to the children. And when one talks about going to the cemetery, it’s because there is no other option. Here we have options, and I am working to see that we comply with those options.”
Friday, September 3rd, the minister was called to testify before a congressional hearing where she was grilled over her stewardship of the ministry and the contract. At the end of the day, she issued a defiant statement via official MinTIC channels.
“I will not resign, Colombians! I will not give one more victory to the network of corruption! Everything has been said against me with the aim of liquidating me, but I will not continue to tolerate such defamations. I will not allow one more insult against my honesty.”
A week later, during the soccer match that Colombia won 3-1 against Chile, and a day before Colombia’s house of representatives was scheduled to vote on censuring the minister, a motion that vote counters said she was destined to lose, Abudinen took to a podium and announced her immediate and irrevocable resignation. Daily El Tiempo reported that she resigned at the insistence of President Ivan Duque, already facing the lowest approval ratings of any Colombian since modern opinion polls began in the country.
I submitted my resignation to the President @IvanDuque as Minister of ICT. Today I am leaving in pain due to the circumstances that the country knows but certain that I acted with honesty and transparency, in the hope that justice will punish those who defrauded Colombians.
Presenté mi renuncia al Presidente @IvanDuque como Ministra de las TIC. Hoy me retiro adolorida por las circunstancias que el país conoce pero segura de que actué con honradez y transparencia, con la esperanza de que la justicia castigará a quienes defraudaron a los colombianos. pic.twitter.com/5FAZLWeChz
— Karen Abudinen (@karenabudi) September 9, 2021
To the cemetery…or Sincelejo?
Abudinen is now destined to the metaphorical political cemetery of her own artifice, while US and Colombian prosecutors continue to investigate potential irregularities in approving the contract with Union Temporal Centros Poblados, how such a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars could have been approved with elementary fake bank documents that were never verified, why the contract was approved over other apparently better qualified firms, and the alleged criminal nexus between representatives and associates of Centros Poblados and white-collar criminals. A Colombian judge has already ordered the accounts frozen of the consortium and its functionaries, and US officials are cooperating to freeze any US assets.
The “Ad Hoc Mayor”
On the other hand, even after questions arose over the Centros Poblados contract, and with Abudinen working full time as minister, in July, President Duque quietly issued Decree 794 of 21 July of 2021 which appointed Abudinen as “Ad Hoc Mayor” of the small city of Sincelejo, roughly three hours south of Cartagena, with the mandate “to monitor compliance with the biosafety measures and the four general components according to the health authority regarding the revocation of the mandate against the mayor of Sincelejo, in accordance with the motive part of this decree.”
In other words, while still minister of information and communications technologies, Duque appointed Abudinen as an “ad hoc mayor” of the city with the specific responsibilities of ensuring that the recall campaign against SIncelejo mayor Andrés Gómez Martínez complies with COVID pandemic-related health mandates. While Gomez faces a recall campaign, he remains as mayor in charge of the city, so Abudinen’s actual workload related to the assignment would be very small. In Colombia’s system, a politician facing a recall vote cannot supervise the process taking place against him or her, so ad-hoc appointments are made to monitor or manage relevant processes related to the recall.
While there is nothing illegal or necessarily unethical about the posting, the appointment is curious, as until and unless Abudinen is removed from the post, she continues in a government posting of some kind, no matter how minor or “ad-hoc.” Duque’s Centro Democratico political party, controlled by former President Alvaro Uribe, and with a power base in Medellín and surrounding coffee-country, has little hope of winning national elections without the support of Caribbean coastal centrist and conservative power bases – especially with leftist presidential hopeful and current polling frontrunner Gustavo Petro hailing from Córdoba, also in the Caribbean region.
It may be easy to overestimate the importance of the ad-hoc mayoral importance for Abudinen. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Freud supposedly said, though the quote is probably apocryphal. Still, it is newsworthy and warrants a mention given the timing, the workload of a cabinet minister, Sincelejo’s geography, and Abudinen’s powerful political patrons. The Char family, successful politicians and owners of several important businesses such as the Olimpica supermarket chain and the FC Junior soccer team of Barranquilla, are very well regarded and extremely popular on the coast. Though Colombia’s Atlantic coast suffers endemic political corruption, the Chars have a clean reputation. As mayor of Barranquilla, Alejandro Char finished his term at the end of 2019 with an astonishing 95% approval rating, according to independent pollster INVAMER. At the time Finance Colombia looked into it, and regardless the margin of error, Char certainly had overwhelming, practically adoring support across the political spectrum. Abudinen is close to the “Casa Char” or “House of Char,” in Spanish, and while Duque can’t run for re-election, his party needs the Char family and Caribbean political infrastructure to maintain any hope of political relevance beyond next year.
Headline photos: Karen Abudinen defends herself before Colombia’s Congress (Courtesy MinTIC)