Could Colombian Government’s Crisis Derail President Petro’s Proposed Reforms?

Two of President Gustavo Petro’s closest allies, Laura Sarabia and Armando Benedetti, have left the government. Bloomberg Línea looks at how the walkout could affect the president’s plans

Colombian President Gustavo Petro.
June 05, 2023 | 12:45 PM

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Bogotá — Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s government had experienced some setbacks during the first months of his administration, with some ministers leaving and unfavorable economic indicators, but last week a crisis broke out with the departure of two more of Petro’s inner circle, revealing cracks within his team.

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Petro has historically been a critic of illegal phone interceptions, and was a victim of these during the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. And now, Marelbys Meza, nanny of the son of the head of the cabinet, Laura Sarabia, denounced having been a victim of phone tapping and of abuse of power after having been subjected to a polygraph test in a basement in front of Casa de Nariño presidential palace.

As a result, it was revealed that there was an exchange of messages between Sarabia and Colombia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, related to conversations between the nanny and the media.

The exchanges of messages between Sarabia and Benedetti led to mutual accusations of blackmail and foul play regarding the handling of the denunciations made by Meza.


This opened the door for new allegations to emerge. Cambio magazine cited illegal interceptions of Meza with the intention of uncovering links to a criminal gang linked to the Clan del Golfo.

Opponents of the Government have immediately questioned these moved, questioning the government as to whether the wiretapping of Meza uncovered illegal interceptions of political opponents and journalists who oppose the government.

Petro loses key allies

The wiretapping scandal began with a complaint over the theft of $7,000 and led to Sarabia and Benedetti, the latter a prominent figure during Petro’s presidential campaign, being removed from the government.


Sarabia was an unknown character in the political world until the beginning of the Petro governmen, however.

She was appointed by the president as his right-hand figure, and during the investiture ceremony of the new government was in charge of ensuring that Simón Bolívar’s sword arrived at the Plaza de Bolívar as ordered by the president.

Since then, she has been a protagonist in the shadows. When Alejandro Gaviria, Petro’s former education minister, who held that post until February, criticized Petro’s health reform plans, it was reported that Sarabia suggested he retire from his post.

As a trusted confidant of Petro, Sarabia was, until her departure, a key player in the relationship between the Government and the political parties and different sectors of power.


Benedetti was key during the Petro campaign and was appointed ambassador to Venezuela upon Petro’s entry into office, and who entrusted him with the task of reestablishing relations with that country, a mission that the former senator considers has been accomplished.

In a tweet containing his resignation letter, Benedetti thanked Petro and confirmed that the reestablishment of relations between the two countries has been successfully achieved.

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Will there be aftershocks for Petro’s plans?

The Government is advancing three major reforms in Congress, for health, pensions and labor. The health reform has achieved the greatest progress, but the proposed changes are losing more and more support in the legislative branch and it is doubtful that it will pass in the plenary sessions of the Senate and the lower house.


In fact, the Alianza Verde, one of the parties supporting the government, has requested that the initiative be shelved, and some former ministers, such as Alejandro Gaviria, and the parties openly in opposition, have joined their voices to this request.

In a tweet on June 1, Gaviria claimed that Petro’s health reforms “would not improve the offering of services and represents a grave risk to patients”.

But the problems are not only for the health bill. Tthe labor and pension reforms have not yet had their first debate and will arrive at the committee discussions with a politically weakened government, with the president’s image at its worst level since he took office last year, and with an opposition on the lookout to trip up the government when it takes the slightest false step.

Taking advantage of a weakened government?

In view of the current government crisis, the opposition has an ideal scenario to make the government look even weaker.


Carlos Arias, manager of public and political communications of marketing consultancy Estrategia y Poder, told Bloomberg Línea that “they [the opposition] have started to dig into people’s emotions to exacerbate the feeling of repudiation and distrust, and to generate delegitimization”.

However, if what the opposition would like is for the government to face greater difficulty in getting its proposals approved, Arias believes that what they should focus on is “creating a narrative in which it is evident why, today, issues such as education and especially security, due to the mistakes and scandals of the government, have worsened”.

“What they should do is to stop focusing on the scandal as such and focus on the lack of management, the lack of articulation and the lack of implementation of the few reforms of the government, to show, that more than the government being unpopular, people are hungrier, more afraid of insecurity and with more doubts regarding health issues,” Arias said.


“To explain it with an analogy, the opposition today is seeing the wound and is throwing more salt to the wound, and what they should see is why the bone was fractured by the wound, the moment they show that they will achieve a greater penetration of what will be the electoral behavior in what will be a kind of plebiscite for Petro, on October 29″.

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How is the crisis affecting Petro?

Since Petro’s victory last June, there has been talk of his difficulty in consolidating a government team, and there was reference to his time as Bogotá mayor, where he suffered several changes at key secretariats, and only Ricardo Bonilla, now the minister of finance, remained in office for the duration of his term.

“What is happening with Petro is unusual in any type of government. It has been unusual in recent years, even in [former president Iván] Duque’s government, which everyone thought would be the worst government in history. We are talking about a government which had to suffer the pandemic and not even at that time something like this happened,” Arias said in reference to the crisis being endured by Petro following the departure of his trusted officials.

In addition, Arias concludes that “my reading is that Gustavo Petro confirms that he is the same as when he was mayor. He has not managed to put together a team, he looks for people to applaud him, and when that happens is when mistakes are made. When you have a chorus of approval and no ministers or advisors who can tell you that you are making a mistake, those people who applaud you end up making mistakes because they are making a fanfare for everything you do”.

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