Opinion: The lies of Colombia’s politicians should not go unpunished

By Sergio Guzman September 6, 2019
The Palace of Justice in Bogota where the inscription at the entrance reads “Colombians, guns have given you independence, laws will give you freedom.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

The Colombian news outlet Publímetro reported this week that at least four members of Congress significantly embellished their educational backgrounds. Representative John Jairo Cárdenas claimed to be a sociologist of the Universidad del Valle, but after questioning on the radio he confessed to being self-taught. Representative Carlos Villamizar claimed that he has a graduate degree in Urban Law and Territorial Development from the University of Santander, but according to the university, he only studied for three semesters. And Representative Carlos Cuenca allegedly told the press he had a Master’s in Political Communications from Externado University, however, the university has no record of him ever studying there. 

But not only the members of Congress are accused of lying on their résumés. The former president of the Senate Ernesto Macías allegedly did not even graduate high school and the President of the Republic himself, Iván Duque, allegedly embellished his résumé and depicted executive education degrees as more advanced degrees. 

Allegations that several politicians falsified their academic credentials raises serious questions, not only about the honesty of those who govern us, but also about the consequences that they encounter when faced with these allegations in Colombia, compared to other nations. Bottom line: Our politicians lie to our face with impunity.  

When politicians campaign in an election it is akin to any other job application, only that is submitted to a vote. According to research, close to 85 percent of employers have found that applicants take liberties with the truth in their résumés. And, like some job applicants, politicians also lie on their resumes. 

Employment termination, among many other things, usually follows when an employer discovers a lie on a résumé. The same should go for Colombian politicians at any level. 

One particularly egregious case is that of Housing and Urban Development Minister Jonathan Malagón who, at the age of 35, boasts an impressive academic resume which includes: a doctorate from Tilburg University, three masters degrees, and three undergraduate degrees — one from the National University of Colombia, the London School of Economics, and the University of London.

However, upon further scrutiny by Noticias Uno, it was suggested that Malagón’s PhD thesis is being questioned on the grounds of plagiarism – a very serious accusation. According to the media report, there are close to 200 lines of text in the PhD thesis which are copied verbatim – including visual aids – from other academic papers without any attribution. Further inquiry revealed that Malagón had served on the thesis committee for the papers he allegedly borrowed ideas from, a claim that Malagón disputes by saying that he was a co-writer of some of the portions in question, which were also not attributed in those papers. 

These claims should be further investigated by the government, but also deserve close inspection by Tilburg University in the Netherlands, as an accusation of this type warrants discreditation. That’s what happened to German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was stripped of his doctorate from the University of Bayreuth after he admitted to plagiarism. 

But what will become of Colombia’s politicians? Will they be stripped of their diplomas and forced to step down like has happened in cases in Spain or Germany? As it turns out, when the Colombia’s Congressional clerk’s office caught wind of an in-depth investigation into senators’ resumes, instead of being open to scrutiny, they decided to temporarily shut down access to the website that allows people to download the professional profiles of members of Congress. 

What is less clear are the consequences that Cárdenas, Villamizar, Cuenca, Santos, and Malagón will face following the recent allegations. At the very least, some of them should step down from their positions, as lying is unbecoming for a public official and contrary to their oath of service. 

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.