Colombia's Santos names 'unity and peace' cabinet

BOGOTA Thu Sep 5, 2013 11:24pm EDT

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a news conference at Japan National Press Club in Tokyo September 13, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a news conference at Japan National Press Club in Tokyo September 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos named five new ministers on Thursday to strengthen his government before presidential elections next year and after heavy criticism of his handling of a protest in the farming sector that turned violent last week.

Santos dubbed the new line-up a "cabinet of unity and peace" and called on each new minister to help him bring an end to five decades of war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and resolve problems in the agriculture sector.

While Santos has not yet said whether he will run for a second term next year, his re-election has become more difficult in recent weeks and hinges on securing peace with the Marxist FARC during talks underway in Cuba.

"Constructing peace will require a great mobilization among citizens, it will require participation in new areas to plan and execute agreements reached in Havana," with the FARC, said Santos, 62, after naming his new team at the presidential palace.

The entire cabinet resigned on Monday, 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.

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas kept his post as did Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.

The changes to ministerial posts like agriculture and energy are likely aimed at calming tempers after labor disputes across Colombia's vast rural areas and in the mining sector.

APPROVAL HALVED

The cabinet shuffle comes just days after Santos was forced to send troops to patrol the streets of Bogota when protests led by farmers 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," said Santos, the scion of one of the nation's most powerful families. "Have an agrarian revolution."

Approval for the center-right Santos slumped in the latest Gallup opinion poll taken at the most agitated point of the protest and as Colombians become weary of scant progress in the talks with the FARC.

Santos' public approval more than halved to 21 percent from 48 percent at the end of June.

His popularity soared when he first announced talks with the drug-funded FARC, but a year later patience has worn thin as the rebel leadership takes center 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 botched kidnapping 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.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy, Luis Jaime Acosta and Peter Murphy; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Christopher Wilson)

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