Petro faces crisis of confidence with cabinet resignations

President Petro addresses the nation after a rash of resignations. Photo: Presidencia.

If in a Western country, a democratically elected President – or Prime Minister – would knowingly post on social media images that are intended to deceive citizens, lawmakers would be quick to hold them accountable. Accountable to the extent that words such as “resignation” or “impeachment” would resonate across the political aisles.

But in Colombia, deception peddled on social media, reached a new low after President Gustavo Petro posted a series of dated photographs inside a derelict hospital claiming they were the current conditions of one hospital in the department of Antioquia. It took the former Minister of Health, Dr.Fernando Ruíz, to identify the pitiful scene and quickly correct the Colombian President on Twitter.

“President, don’t let your advisors deceive you. They are NOT hospitals in Antioquia. It is the Vargas of Caracas, where surely your health reform wants to take us. In Antioquia, we have excellent public hospitals, some deficient, but never like this,” wrote Ruíz.

As the Minister of Health under the Iván Duque administration, Ruíz is also a world-renowned epidemiologist, specializing in tropical viruses, among them Zika and Chikungunya. During Ruíz’s four-year term in the government’s health portfolio, he managed to secure more than 90 million coronavirus vaccines to reach immunity among the country’s 50 million population.

What is surprising about Petro’s use of images to scare the populace into believing that the nation’s health system is on the verge of collapse, is his apparent disregard that “fake news” – especially the most visceral photographically – can be disproven by experts.

Tweet by Colombia’s Petro referencing state of Antioquia’s hospitals with pictures from Caracas.

But it is especially worrisome that the leader of a country is willing to delve into historical archives to promote a contemporary falsehood. As if the warning by Ruíz wasn’t enough, within hours, President Petro posted yet another image – this one taken inside a cramped and run-down hospital in Mexico – titled: “Another photo.” President Petro did not state where the picture originated from, but given the man sitting in a corner with a typical wide-brimmed sombrero: probably Tijuana or Guadalajara.

Petro’s health reform was not well received by three members of his cabinet, Ministers of Finance, José Antonio Ocampo; Agriculture, Cecilia López; of Education, Alejandro Gaviria; as well as the director of the National Planning Department, Jorge Iván González.

The four had written a document with specific details of the health reform, to be given to Minister of Health, Carolina Corcho, before the final document was presented to Congress. In a surprise move, according to the four, none of their observations were taken into consideration, and as they raised their concerns to Petro’s Chief of Staff, Laura Sarabria, the Minister of Health interrupted the meeting. The document was leaked to the press, and a feud ensued within Petro’s inner circle.

In damage control mode, Colombia’s leftist leader summoned Alejandro Gaviria to ask for his letter of resignation. And in a televised address to the nation on Monday night, President Petro also confirmed the exit of Minister of Sports and Olympic Gold medalist María Isabel Urrutia, and Minister of Culture, Patricia Ariza.  Even though Urrutia and Ariza were not involved in the health reform discussion, their rash departure has added to the government’s loss in credibility just seven months since Petro took office.

During an interview with Ariza on Blu Radio, the former playwright said she knew she was out of a job just three minutes before Petro spoke to the nation. Ariza has been replaced by musician Ignacio Zorro, the private piano teacher of Petro’s daughters.  The resignation of Alejandro Gaviria in Education, and a former Health Minister himself during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, could presage the end of Finance Minister Ocampo’s time in government.

Should Ocampo decide to return sooner – rather than later – to his duties as Professor of Economics at Columbia University, New York, Petro will face an ever deeper crisis, and one that Twitter can’t rectify.