When a former Trump administration official told me last year that Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro suffered from depression or an addiction problem that often led him to skip scheduled meetings, I didn’t take it seriously. It sounded like cheap political gossip, perhaps aimed at discrediting the first leftist president in Colombia’s history.
But now, a year into Petro’s presidency, the Colombian leader’s frequent unexplained absences from public appearances have become a front-page story. More important, they are the subject of a petition by Colombian opposition legislators that he subject himself to a medical test, and that he make it public.
According to Colombia’s daily El Tiempo, Petro has failed to show up at almost 100 official meetings since he took office on Aug. 7, 2022. His critics have already given him the nickname “el ausente” — the absentee — and say Colombia has a “part-time” president.
Among Petro’s most recent unexplained no-shows were an Aug. 8 breakfast meeting and official group photo shoot with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other leaders at a global environmental summit in Belem, Brazil. Petro was at the summit, but didn’t show up for that morning’s activities.
On Aug. 18, Petro failed to show up at a scheduled convention of Andi, Colombia’s leading industrialists’ association, in Cartagena.
Speculation that Petro’s frequent absences are because of personal problems soared after Semana magazine disclosed an explosive tape, in which Petro’s former close aide and ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, could be heard suggesting that the president has a cocaine problem.
In a later interview with Semana, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt reiterated her 2022 statements that she had found Petro “in a big depression, lying on the floor,” during a visit to his home in Belgium around 1995. Petro has denied such claims.
“No, I don’t have any of that,” the president told Cambio magazine. He added that his frequent absences from public meetings were due to several factors, including inexperienced staffers who often overloaded his agenda, “as if one didn’t need to sleep.”
But Juan Espinal, one of the opposition legislators who introduced a petition to the Colombian Senate asking for a voluntary medical examination of the president, told me that such a probe is necessary because Petro’s erratic behavior “is producing total chaos” in the country.
In addition to not showing up for almost 100 official functions during the past year, the president has changed 11 ministers and fired more than 96 senior officials, he said.
“We don’t have any intentions to overthrow the president,” Espinal told me. He added that the opposition’s petition only seeks to find out whether the president has a mental problem and to ask him to seek treatment if that’s the case.
In Colombia, like in the United States, presidents are not required to release their medical records. But, unlike in the United States, there is no tradition of presidents revealing their medical exams, he added.
Skeptics about presidential mental-health exams note that psychological tests are subjective and can be used as a political weapon to discredit a leader. They can also indirectly stigmatize hundreds of millions of people who have mental problems.
Indeed, there is a question about whether mental problems should preclude a person from holding office.
A 2006 study by Duke University academics found that 18 U.S. presidents from 1776 to 1974, or 49% of all who served during that period, met the criteria suggesting psychiatric disorders.
But, as Colombia’s University of the Andes professor Sandra Borda pointed out to me, if Petro were in the private sector and failed to show up repeatedly for work, his company would probably arrange for him to see a therapist.
A former senior Colombian official with access to domestic intelligence information assured me that Petro suffers from no serious mental or physical disease, but has a long-time habit of late-night partying and hard drinking, an accusation that the Petro government denies.
But Colombia’s opposition is right to demand that Petro attend scheduled meetings. His mysterious disappearing acts don’t project an image of seriousness — for the president or for Colombia.
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