National and local leaders say that Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios is disengaged from his constituents and has failed to build constructive relationships with the the municipal council and the national government.
Following a visit to Cuenca in early January, Ecuador Interior Minister María Paula Romo said that Cuenca’s relationship with Quito has deteriorated since Palacios took office in May. “There are ongoing difficulties in communication between national officials and the mayor’s office,” she said. “We are also very concerned about projects that do not materialize. At this point, I’m afraid that the relationship is not very healthy.”
Among Romo’s specific criticisms was the delay in operations of the city’s tram system. “There is a great deal of money invested in this project and beginning service should have been a priority for the mayor’s office,” she said. “I’m glad we are finally seeing real progress.”
According to University of Cuenca political science professor Xavier Solís, Palacios lack of engagement with the national government could have dire consequences for the city. “Much of the funding for the municipality comes from Quito so lines of communication must be open and active,” he says. “As of today, national officials do not see the strong leadership shown by the mayors of Guayaquil and Quito and this affects Cuenca’s bottom line.”
Members of the municipal council also complain about Palacios lack of leadership. “Pedro is a very likeable guy but he rarely shows strong positions on major issues,” says Roque Ordonez. “Sometimes, you have to take positions that make people mad and he is very reluctant to do that.”
Councilman Cristian Zamora agrees and says it is urgent for Palacios to mend relations with Quito. “I don’t think he cares much for politics but he has been elected to a political position and must play the game for the sake of the community. At the national government, there’s a bad attitude toward Cuenca that needs to be changed as soon as possible.”
Palacios has defended himself in several recent radio and television interviews, claiming that he inherited a government in financial distress when he took office. “My first and most important job was to put the budget in order, to impose an austerity regime that should have been in place years before,” he said, pointing to cutbacks he ordered in personnel and the cancellation of projects planned by the administration of former mayor Marcelo Cabrera.
Palacios admits he should have provided more information about his plans for the tram in the first weeks in office. “Again, the previous administration left the program in a mess and there was a great amount of work to do before we could go into operation,” he said. “We were unable to provide a schedule due to unresolved issues but I probably should have done a better job of explaining this.”
Among those problems, Palacios says, were a lack of liability insurance for the system and its conductors. “It was unconscionable to begin tests with this not in place since it puts the city in jeopardy. There was other unfinished business regarding construction and operations contracts that also needed to be resolved.”
The mayor says that now, it’s “full steam ahead” for the tram. “With the problems behind us, we can put all our energy into launching the tranvia without distraction.”
Solís believes part of Palacios leadership problem stems from his lack of political experience and an over-reliance on his talents for running businesses. “He came into office thinking the city could be run like a company and it cannot. He was right to reduce the budget but he didn’t seem to understand the political, social and cultural demands of the office,” he says.
Before his election, Palacios managed large appliance and tile manufacturing companies and claimed, during the campaign, that his business background would lead to more effective government.
“The problem,” says Solís, “was that his previous experience was in very confined environments. He was successful there but it is very different than managing a large city.”