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Petro’s government reaches a new low in tough times for Colombian president

Caught in the crossfire between his two closest confidants and fixated on conspiracies, the leftist leader is unable to get anything done

Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro at the South American summit in Brazil.UESLEI MARCELINO (REUTERS)

No matter where he is, Gustavo Petro’s Twitter account is chirping with activity. These are tough times for the president, who, despite being in Brazil, is keeping an eye on simmering troubles at home. Non-political issues are starting to overwhelm his so-called “Government of Change.” Overlapping crises and strategy pivots are clouding the horizon for the Petro administration. For the past month, the president has been fueling an ideological bonfire, hoping to awaken the left from its post-election lethargy. Shortly after meeting with President Lula da Silva in Brasília, Petro announced he would march in the streets to protest against impunity next week. But will he be protesting against his own government, or the alleged “soft coup” that threatens his presidency? In addition, two of his closest collaborators have recently been involved in an embarrassing spat played out in the media, compelling him to step in as referee. Ironically, though the quarrel is all over the news, Petro has chosen to remain silent about it on Twitter.

If there are days when it seems like nothing happens, there are also days when it seems like everything is happening. The atmosphere has been heated since Petro reshuffled his cabinet a month ago and fired seven ministers. His efforts to shift his government to the left and push reforms have faced resistance from moderate and right-wing sectors, stalling progress. When he first took office, he formed a fragile majority in Congress with tepid support from conservative parties. But these alliances have now unraveled, and instead of moving forward, Petro’s administration seems to be spinning its wheels.

The coups d’état

The president sees conspiracies everywhere — one day it’s the military, the next day it’s the courts. Petro says the generals want to overthrow him, like Salvador Allende in Chile, yet there’s not the slightest indication of any such thing. Powerful judges allegedly seek to govern from their courthouses by removing politicians within Petro’s movement from their roles, a move the president calls a “soft coup.” Petro is convinced that the change he promised is generating a lot of resistance in a conservative, accommodating state structure. The establishment in its purest concept, which includes the media. He hasn’t forgotten how the Attorney General removed him as mayor of Bogotá over an administrative issue, and disqualified him from holding public office for 15 years. Petro took his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which ultimately ruled in his favor. Without that fateful turn of events, Petro would never have become president. It forever marked his political career and framed his perception of reality. He now wants the IACHR to prevent the opposition from kicking his allies out of Congress, including a key supporter, Roy Barreras. An administrative court, known as the Council of State, declared that Barreras did not leave his old political party soon enough to seek re-election with his current party, violating electoral rules. Petro will now take to the streets to protest these supposedly politically motivated moves against his presidency.The former protester has returned as president, denouncing the opposition and waving his banners.

The stalemate in Congress

Petro began his term forging alliances in Congress that raised hopes of advancing the reforms he envisioned — fiscal, labor and healthcare reforms, and much more. However, the wheels of Congress have ground to a halt, and its chambers are often deserted. The president severed ties with conservative and moderate parties alleging they were completely diluting his proposed reforms, which left him somewhat isolated. Congress has been paralyzed for the past 45 days. Petro risks losing support if he does not quickly rebuild his coalition. Members of his party have urged him to speed up, but he appears to have lost faith in Congress. He sees it as being controlled by conservative forces that only pretend to bring change while maintaining the status quo. He no longer believes his government’s success depends on the institution.

The Benedetti soap opera

Armando Benedetti — Petro’s loyal wingman — has stirred up a storm and no one knows how the people involved will escape unscathed. Benedetti, Colombia’s ambassador to Venezuela, says he has wiretap evidence that Petro’s closest confidante — Chief of Staff Laura Sarabia — forced her child’s nanny to take a polygraph test regarding the disappearance of $7,000 from Sarabia’s home. The nanny incident exploded in the media and Sarabia believes that Benedetti, her former boss, was the one who leaked it. Petro finds himself torn between two loyalties. Benedetti had been at his side throughout the grueling campaign that catapulted him to power. Sarabia, on the other hand, has become his most trusted aide. The spat between Benedetti and Sarabia has been nothing but detrimental, especially for the president. The two adversaries had been close until recent disagreements on how to counsel Petro spawned a rift. While he was in Brazil, the president phoned Benedetti and asked him to stop fanning the flames on social media. He then summoned the ambassador for an urgent meeting: Petro doesn’t want any fires in his kitchen.

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