Colombian President surprises and changes three ministers in first cabinet crisis

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Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced on Monday, Feb. 27, the surprise departure of the ministers of Education, Alejandro Gaviria, Culture, Patricia Ariza, and Sports, María Isabel Urrutia, in his first cabinet crisis after six months in office.

“I am grateful for the services rendered by ministers Alejandro Gaviria, María Isabel Urrutia, and Patricia Ariza. With their contributions, they helped enrich the debate and initiate the changes that the country voted for,” Petro said in a speech in which he referred to the reforms promoted by his government but did not explain the reasons for the changes.

The president said that Aurora Vergara, a sociologist vice-minister of Higher Education, will be the new head of Education.

Palacio de Nariño, Colombia's presidenital palace in Bogotá. (Photo internet reproduction)
Palacio de Nariño, Colombia’s presidenital palace in Bogotá. (Photo internet reproduction)

He named Astrid Rodríguez the new minister of Sports “so that with new energy they can complete the reform process that has been started.” Petro, however, did not say who will replace Ariza as culture minister, although the presidency noted that musician Ignacio Zorro will be in charge for now.

What triggered the crisis was the health reform that the government presented to Congress in mid-February.

Alejandro Gaviria, a seven-year health minister under President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), has been a harsh critic.

The Colombian government wants to transform the health system to strengthen primary care and bring care to “abandoned territories,” those remote communities where the nearest health center is several hours away by boat or over rough roads.

The controversial initiative caused deep discussions in the cabinet. One of the most critical voices was that of Gaviria, who also had differences with Health Minister Carolina Corcho, even before Petro appointed both as ministers.

Last Saturday, Gaviria issued “an invitation to assume the complexity of social reforms.” “Slogans, oversimplifications, radical ideologies, and empty phrases contribute little to finding solutions,” the now-former Education Minister added on Twitter, where he posted a graduation speech given to doctors at the University of the Andes in 2017 when he was rector of the institution.

Petro assured on Monday that “this government of change will not give up on reform to improve health, pensions, and fair working conditions for all Colombians (…) The goal is simple, the ways and means are complex: we want any sick person to be cared for, and illness avoided, any elderly person to have a pension bonus, any worker to have job stability,” the president emphasized.

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