Santos needs help, and fast

Juan Manuel Santos and his cabinet
Juan Manuel Santos and his cabinet

Ask yourself this question: How many faces of Juan Manuel Santos’ cabinet do you recognize? Be honest. One, maybe? Two, perhaps? I’m guessing even the hardiest of politicos would struggle to name more than three or four.

With the exception of Vice President Angelino Garzón, Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, or housing minister German Vargas Lleras, the government’s top team is largely anonymous. This is bad for democracy, bad for the government, and potentially life threatening for Santos’ re-election hopes.

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Last August, Santos shook up his team. He was responding to a dramatic fall in public confidence following the passing of the Justice/Tax Reform bill. That reshuffle has had little positive effect in terms of generating positive public opinion. The current crop of ministers might be good bureaucrats – they might even be decent law makers – but politics is also about the message, communication and leadership. In this area they are falling dramatically short.

We know that President Santos is acutely conscious that his government is failing to communicate. So why does he stick with a team that appears camera shy? When was the last time we heard the Transport Minister speak, for example? Infrastructure is one of Colombia’s most pressing concerns, yet I can’t remember when Cecilia Álvarez appeared on TV or radio, to tell us what she’s doing about it. What too of Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria, of whom we have high hopes? He appeared on television once or twice last month to announce new reforms to the nation’s health service, but has since appeared to scuttle back to the corridors of power.

And the silence from the Interior and Justice ministers, do we know anything of them? Where are the announcements on measures to curb the corruption that’s putting a break on the nation’s economic development and scaring off inward investment? Santos needs a new cabinet of politicians, not bureaucrats. He needs campaigners: people who will defend and fight for government. All successful governments rely on “heavy weights” to retaliate and lay some punches on the opposition.

At the moment the opposition is having all the fun. Former president Álvaro Uribe has gone into Twitter overdrive and Robledo on the left is running rings around the government. If the campaign is already nasty, it’s going to get a lot worse once the Uribistas choose a candidate for the 2014 fight.

Santos cannot afford to stick with political deadwood if he wants to be re-elected. For many Colombians, part of the problem is that the cabinet is too “Bogotano.” The President seems to have pulled the rug from regional powerbrokers. Senator Armando Benedetti called it creating a “Country Club” cabinet in which ministers “speak more English than Spanish.” Critics of Santos are concerned that a Bogotá-centric cabinet made up of an educated elite seems disconnected with tough realities on the ground. If Santos’ team is out of touch with the nation, how then can it fight for votes outside Bogotá? If you consider that much of Uribe’s following is in the countryside, where his democratic security agenda gave back confidence in precisely that: security in the countryside, Santos seems to have retreated to an urban, liberal base.

Santos’ third year in office has to be one of results. Traditionally, the legislature is slow as politicians start to return to their bases to whip up support for the forthcoming election fight. So now more than ever, Santos needs a team ready and able to go out and sell the government’s accomplishments.

If Santos were a caudillo his cabinet wouldn’t matter. If Santos were even an Obama, or a Clinton, or a Blair perhaps it wouldn’t matter, either. But for all his qualities, Santos is not a politician of the media age, despite the fact that he grew up in his family’s newsroom at El Tiempo newspaper. If Santos’ advisers don’t see that the president is forced to struggle with a cabinet which has zero public profile, then they should be sacked. Santos needs help and fast. It’s premature to suggest that Juan Manuel Santos is in danger of going out with a whimper; after all, he still holds most of the bureaucratic cards. But unless changes are made to the top, the ride will be bumpy and journey’s end difficult to predict.



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