Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos named this week five new ministers to his cabinet of ‘peace and unity’ strengthen his government ahead of presidential elections next year and after heavy criticism of his handling of a protest in the farming sector that turned violent last week.
The entire cabinet resigned on Monday, a standard procedure before the president shuffles his cabinet. Santos named Amylkar Acosta as energy minister, Aurelio Iragorri as interior minister, Alfonso Gomez Mendez as justice minister, Ruben Dario Risaralde as agriculture minister and Luz Helena Sarmiento as environment minister.
While Santos has not yet announced whether he will stand for a second term in May, he has said he wants his policies to continue in the next administration.
Santos centre-right government approval slumped in the latest Gallup opinion poll taken at the most agitated point of the farm protest last week and as Colombians become weary of scant progress in peace talks with Marxist drugs-funded FARC rebels.
Santos' public approval more than halved to 21% from 48% at the end of June.
Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas kept his post as did Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.
The joint resignations came just days after Santos was forced to send troops to patrol the streets of Bogota when farmer-led protests became violent and caused havoc across the capital. The nationwide dispute led to the deaths of five people.
“We have to do something that hasn't been done in 80 years” admitted Santos, the scion of one of the nation's most powerful families. “Have an agrarian revolution.”
Santos popularity soared when he first announced talks with the Marxist drug-funded FARC, but a year later patience has worn thin as the rebel leadership takes centre stage in televised statements while continuing to attack military and economic targets.
Still, the rebels have a lot to lose if Santos fails to return to office next year.
His predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, a former ally turned foe, has spent the last few years grooming candidates to run for election in May.
The still-popular Uribe, whose father was killed in a kidnap attempt by the FARC, was responsible for some of the harshest blows against the rebels and would almost certainly support an end to the talks in Havana.
However Santos in another surprise announcement said FARC rebels would be allowed to keep their weapons until a peace agreement was ratified. “No-one could expect the rebels to give up their weapons before a peace accord had been given final approval in a referendum”.
He added that a ceasefire would be implemented once a deal was reached in talks under way in Cuba.
Santos last month surprised the rebels when he proposed legislation demanding that any accord would have to be approved by the Colombian people in a referendum.
“If we have an agreement, then we enter a third phase of implementation,” President Santos said on Friday. “And I have promised that the Colombian people would have the opportunity to have their say.”
If peace negotiators engaged in talks since November last year reach a deal, it is likely that a referendum will be held on the same day of the May 2014 presidential vote.
The rebels have called for a ceasefire throughout the negotiations, which began in Havana in November. But the government said the rebels would use the truce to rearm and vowed to continue fighting until they signed an accord renouncing to the armed struggle.