Coronavirus in Chile OPINION POLITICS

Was a Cabinet Reshuffle Necessary?

President Sebastián Piñera has surprised with his fourth cabinet reshuffle in just over two years. This looked like a repeat of the November 2019 formula, when amidst a social crisis, he reinforced the critical area of government communications, specifically the post of spokesperson. A key confidant, Cecilia Pérez, moved to the Sports Ministry—a true consolation prize—to allow Karla Rubilar become spokesperson. Rubilar received attention as the Metropolitan region’s governor, confronting the social outbreak with a somber voice.

Which aim did the president pursue and which signal did he want to send with the latest change? According to a source from government palace La Moneda, Piñera tried to manifest his goal and interest in moving toward a national agreement. Without doubt, the president has made a risky bet, setting a tight two-month deadline to wrap up a pact that allows him to manage the next 20 months.

He wanted to cover himself as well as possible for the complex period ahead. The president knows that the social outbreak is only on hold, a return of mass protests likely after the pandemic. But this time, most protesters would be in the lowest part of the Maslow pyramid. They would protest hunger and unemployment, not rising household bills.

Piñera has little room for maneuver if the current grand bargain talks fail. Although he knows that in case of failure the opposition would pay an exorbitant price, the government will also be punished. In the remaining two years it would face increased demands, low citizen support, and worse, a progressive alienation from allies who’d seek distance from La Moneda during the upcoming mayoral, councilor and other elections.

This distance would be most starkly pronounced during the presidential elections, though. It would turn out catastrophic for the president because the right has several strong contenders in the race already, like the mayor of Santiago’s Las Condes district, Joaquín Lavín.

Read more about the grand bargain:

In Puente Alto, a Humanitarian Disaster Is Waiting to Happen

With that pressure, Claudio Alvarado, who replaced Felipe Ward as the presidency’s general secretary, can build better bridges than his predecessor. Alvarado is used to negotiating and does not trigger that much rejection, even though he’s a member of UDI party, led by an unapologetic right-wing figure. And although Cristián Monckeberg moved from the Housing to the Social Development Ministry—a key pillar of support for the most vulnerable citizens—he will not just be part of the political committee on a new Constitution. Monckeberg will also sit at the table to reach an agreement with the opposition. The former Renovación Nacional (RN) parliamentarian is from the liberal wing of his party and recognized as someone who seeks dialog.

But beyond La Moneda’s explanation for the reshuffle, the biggest question was if Piñera would remove the main protagonist during the pandemic, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich. The doctor has endured his worst weeks: an explosion of infections, rising deaths, coupled with unfortunate statements that raised doubts about his intentions. Did he really want to assume on behalf of the president the criticisms of the decisions made? Or did he want to be part of those who would leave government and resume their professional lives?

It is evident that beyond any criticism of his strategy or erroneous decisions, Mañalich made a herculean personal effort. He is in the Covid-19 risk group for his age and a chronic pathology that afflicts him since childhood. His wife, also with health problems, even moved to another house, so the minister could keep doing what he does.

Piñera’s Forced About-Face

I think although some truth is somewhere in La Moneda’s narrative, the president mainly wanted to support the Health Minister. Mañalich has been crucial in the sense of helping him move up in the polls, after Piñera’s approval collapsed to 6% during the social outbreak. During the entire first stage of the pandemic, between February and April, the strategy was to show a well-prepared government—”we are better prepared than Italy”—which controlled all the variables, made optimistic forecasts—the peak would be reached in April—and boasted of flexible and limited quarantines that represented a completely different approach than the rest of the world.

Although the minister has many detractors within the government such as Karla Rubilar, the president has always supported him. He ignored his bad temper and permanent disqualifications of the Medical College and some medical associations, among others. The most recent episode included Eduardo Engel, from Espacio Público Foundation. Mañalich clashed with the prestigious academic over the way of counting the dead. Engel demonstrated that the government was wrong, so it had to add 653 fatalities to the official death toll. But Mañalich is skilled and has owned all the mistakes, taking pressure off Piñera. That deserved a public show of support.

Truth be told, this was not a genuine cabinet change. Rather, it was only a minor adjustment. Swapping one minister for another, no fresh faces, and with only one victim: former social development minister Sebastián Sichel, who has consistently been the most popular cabinet member in the polls. Winners besides Mañalich? Yes, the president of Renovación Nacional, Mario Desbordes, who pushed through Monckeberg. For the rest? Nothing.

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