UPDATE: President Garcia swears in new Cabinet led by popular leftist regional president, Yehude Simon

President Alan García swore in a new Cabinet late Tuesday, replacing seven of 17 ministers, and appointing a popular leftist regional leader as premier to shore up an administration rocked by an oil concession kickback scandal.

García swore in Yehude Simon, 61, to replace García’s right-hand man, Jorge del Castillo, under pressure from both Peru’s right- and left-wing opposition to pick a political independent rather than another stalwart from the president’s ruling Apra party.

“This is the beginning of a new era of transparency and of battle against corruption,” Simon told reporters.

Since being tapped for the top ministerial post last week, Simon has been visiting opposition party leaders, groups such as the medical federation, which is still on strike after 20 days, and the Congress to shore up support for this new stage in Garcia’s administration.

One of the most important meetings held by Simon, an independent, was early Tuesday morning with the senior leaders of Garcia’s ruling Aprista party. Their support, both as a party and in Congress, is essential to make this new stage a success. He also visited leaders of the medical federation and the medical association, who have offered to resume negotiations on Wednesday.

The new cabinet ministers include:

  • Minister of Agriculture: Carlos Leyton, vice-president of the Arequipa Region, a sociologist, and formerly vice-president of the Regional Development Studies Institute in Arequipa (CEDER). He succeeds Ismael Benavides.
  • Minister of Health: Oscar Ugarte, a physician and surgeon who was vice-minister of health in Alejandro Toledo’s presidency. He is also secretary general of Simon’s Humanist Party. He succeeds Hernan Garrido-Lecca, who unsuccessfully battled with the medical federation in the state medical strike.
  • Minister of Production: Elena Conterno, an economist and Harvard graduate in public administration who has worked in a number of non-governmental organizations and government institutions, and recently as coordinator for a pro-decentralization program funded by USAID. She succeeds Rafael Rey.
  • Minister of Women and Development: Carmen Vildoso, who has a built a career in the civil service and has specialized in education, employment and citizen’s issues, served in the Toledo government as vice-minister of Labor and later as president of the ethics and transparency commission at the Ministry for Women and Development.
  • Interior: Remigio Hernani, a former general in the Peruvian National Police. He succeeds Luis Alva Castro, who has repeatedly been caught up in a series of controversies ranging from the irregular adquisition of defective police patrol vehicles to the fatal shotgun shooting of unarmed campesinos during a national farmers strike in February allegedly by a police officer.
  • Energy and Mines: Pedro Sánchez Gamarra. He succeeds Juan Valdivia, the first to fall after the Oct. 5 revelation of audio tapes of former Perupetro board member Alberto Quimper and Romulo Leon Alegría, an ex-Aprista congressman, discussing under-the-table payments conditioned on Norwegian Discover Petroleum obtaining oil concessions. Sánchez is an energy expert with experience in the South Asia region for the World Bank and has served as executive director of several Peruvian privatization commissions as well as president of the board of electricity companies before and after their privatization, including the former Electroperu and the current Edegel and Egenor.   

The cabinet members who continue in their posts include:

  • Jose Antonio García Belaunde in Foreign Affairs.
  • Mercedes Aráoz as minister of Foreign Trade.
  • Luis Valdivieso in the Ministry of Economy.
  • Jorge Villasante in the Ministry of Labor.
  • Enrique Cornejo as Housing minister.
  • Rosario Fernández as minister of Justice.
  • Jose Chang in Education.
  • Veronica Zavala in Transport.
  • Antero Flores-Araoz as minister of Defense.
  • Antonio Brack as minister of the Environment.

The new faces indicate a stronger focus on independents, and on decentralization and regional demands. Beyond the “petrogate” corruption scandal that led to the Cabinet shakeup, Garcia’s low approval ratings and an increasing number of protests and strikes clearly meant that Garcia had to consider charting a new course.The choice of Simon as president of the Cabinet certainly points that way. Simon is a popular leader among provincial presidents. He was re-elected president of the Lambayeque Region, once an APRA stronghold, and recently announced plans for a bid to replace García in the 2011 presidential election on the ticket of the Humanist Party, which he heads.

With a few predictable exceptions, opposition leaders from across Peru’s political spectrum responded favorably to Simon’s call for conciliation after an oil concession kickback scandal forced the resignations of nearly all of the government’s ministers.

Simon has a reputation as a good negotiator, a skill he will have to draw on to bring together disenchanted conservative and leftist political opponents, regional governments, and union leaders who feel they have been plowed over by García’s my-way-or-the-highway style of governance. Since taking office García has regularly resorted to legislating by executive decree. He labeled dissenters cowards and traitors, and drafted a series of policy papers depicting his detractors as “perros de hortelano,” rabid dogs who by their nature impede Peru’s progress and development.

Under pressure to appoint a political independent and not a member of his ruling Aprista party, García chose Simon, who has earned a reputation for honesty, transparent governing, and improving health care and education standards in Lambayeque.

Political analyst Alberto Adrianzén  told La Republica that Simon is taking a big risk to his political reputation signing up with García, and will have a hard time pushing a progressive agenda and social programs if the administration continues its conservative fiscal policies.

Reaction to Simon’s call for dialog with the government was met with cautious optimism.

Peruvian Nationalist Party leader Ollanta Humala, the leftist firebrand who lost a presidential bid to García, told daily Peru.21 that Simon’s plan to make his own run for president in 2011 was likely the motivating factor in accepting the Cabinet chief job.  “He is a successful regional governor, but trust isn’t awarded, it must be earned,” he said.

However, Humala said Simon would have his backing, “as long as he tries to correct the government’s course from within.”

In September, Simon, 61, announced his intention to run in Peru’s presidential elections in 2011. He has said his appointment to García’s Cabinet will not stop his party, the Peruvian Humanist Movement, from filing its application with the National Elections Board, JNE, in October, with an initial focus on regional and municipal elections in 2010.

Congressman Raúl Castro Stagnaro, of the conservative National Unity bloc, which pushed the censure motion that forced García’s Cabinet to turn in their resignations en mass, said his party’s leader, Lourdes Flores, would heed Simon’s call for dialog, but ruled out accepting any ministerial appointments.

“We will say what we think and what we believe must be done,” Stagnaro told daily El Comercio. “It is our patriotic duty. Besides, talking is not negotiating an agreement.”

A congressman in the 1980s for the now defunct Izquierda Unida, and later a founder of Patria Libre, Simon was accused in 1992 of ”apology for terrorism,” and sentenced by a secret military court to 20 years in prison.

Amnesty International and local human rights groups worked in his defense and he was released after 8 ½ years with a pardon in 2000 granted by transitional President Valentín Paniagua.

Such pardons were used by the transitional government to obtain the speedy release of more than 300 prisoners who were denied fair trials and sentenced by draconian military tribunals during ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s 10-year authoritarian regime. Later, then-President Alejandro Toledo offered a public apology to Simon for the grave injustice.

Fujimori is now in the final weeks of a year-long human rights abuse trial for allegedly sanctioning the Colina group paramilitary death squad, which prosecutors say also targeted Simon for assassination.

Several hardliners from Fujimori’s political bloc, Alliance for the Future, objected Monday to Simon’s appointment as García’s top government minister.

“Before getting involved in any type of dialog,” said Fujimorista Congressman Carlos Raffo, “we have to clarify the reasons why the new Cabinet chief was sentenced for apology for terrorism and then pardoned.”

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