January 27, 2021

Latam

COLOMBIA: Minister’s death puts spotlight on pandemic and succession challenges

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

The death from Covid-19 of Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo yesterday, 26 January, highlights two challenges facing President Ivan Duque’s government. Most immediately, the public health situation is very serious, while the government is increasingly under fire for being slow off the mark with its vaccine plan. Second, Uribismo faces a divisive internal battle to succeed Duque in 2022, which is likely to distract from a legislative agenda that includes a crucial fiscal reform.

Pandemic problems

Holmes Trujillo was not the only high-profile Covid death yesterday; the head of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) umbrella union, Julio Roberto Gomez, died on the same day. These high-profile deaths come as the country reaches two grim milestones. The Covid-19 death toll recently passed the 50,000 mark, while the overall confirmed caseload is now over 2mn since the pandemic began. The outlook remains complex. The rolling seven-day average for Covid-19 deaths has been steadily increasing and is now close to 400, higher than during the previous July-August peak. In this context, and amid signs that the health system is struggling to cope, the perception that Duque has generally handled the pandemic competently is at risk.

The parallel problem that Duque faces is that the vaccine roll-out has yet to begin. The government has been less than upfront about its plan and start date. The plan is for 850,000 Pfizer doses to be delivered in February; given supply bottlenecks, it is not clear whether this is achievable. Health Minister Fernando Ruiz did not participate in a Senate questioning session yesterday, 26 January, over the vaccine plan. Opposition senators seized the opportunity to rail against the lack of transparency in pricing, contracts, and roll-out plans. Keep in mind that former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) at the beginning of the year publicly advised his protégé Duque that the government’s top priority in 2021 should be to deploy vaccines as quickly as possible.

Uribismo’s future

The loss of Holmes Trujillo’s experience and flexibility (he served under different governments, holding a variety of portfolios) is an immediate setback for the Duque administration, though the impact should not be exaggerated. Holmes Trujillo was likely to step down soon to contest the Democratic Center (CD) party’s presidential nomination ahead of the 2022 elections (for which Duque is ineligible). It is in this arena where the late-minister’s loss may in fact be most apparent.

Holmes Trujillo was by no means a shoo-in for the CD nomination. There is a crowded field of putative candidates seeking Uribe’s blessing to represent the party in 2022. However, given that Uribismo cannot win next year on its own and will need to build alliances with the Conservatives and others on the center-right if it is to win, the veteran minister could have been a real contender. His experience would also have been an asset after four years’ drift under the ineffectual Duque. CD in-fighting is likely to increase over the coming months, which could impact the scope for agreement on a politically complicated fiscal reform that Duque apparently still intends to pursue this year, perhaps as soon as Q2/2020. Uribe has already signalled that any tax reform needs to be “moderate”, or just enough to avoid a credit rating downgrade.

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