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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Peru’s president quickly ousted after moving to dissolve Congress

President Pedro Castillo of Peru addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 20, 2022.

By Mitra Taj

Peru’s president Wednesday announced the dissolution of Congress and the installation of an emergency government to rule by decree, in a stunning move that political leaders across the spectrum were quick to denounce as a coup attempt.

President Pedro Castillo, who spoke just hours before Congress was scheduled to vote on whether to impeach him, also imposed an immediate national curfew and called for all citizens to turn in illegal firearms.

“We have taken the decision to establish an emergency government, to reestablish the rule of law and democracy to which effect the following measures are dictated: to dissolve Congress temporarily, to install a government of exceptional emergency, to call to the shortest term possible to elections for a new Congress with the ability to draft a new constitution,” Castillo said.

Castillo’s declaration plunged the fragile democracy into its biggest political crisis in years.

But it quickly became apparent that Castillo’s announcement had little support, prompting the mass resignation of much of his government and a joint statement from Peru’s armed forces and police suggesting that Castillo did not have the legal authority to carry out his decree and would not support him.

The U.S. Embassy in Lima also issued a statement condemning Castillo. “The United States emphatically urges President Castillo to reverse his attempt to close Congress and allow democratic institutions in Peru to work according to the constitution,’’ the embassy said in a tweet. “We encourage the Peruvian public to stay calm during this uncertain time.”

In a swift vote two hours after Castillo’s announcement, Congress voted to impeach and remove the president from office. Local television showed images of Castillo and his family leaving the presidential palace.

Vice President Dina Boluarte was scheduled to be sworn in as president at 3 p.m. local time.

Castillo’s announcement echoed a move by President Alberto Fujimori, who was elected democratically in 1990 and then two years later staged a coup with the support of the military and ruled as a dictator until 2000. He is now in prison on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

Following Castillo’s announcement, his personal attorney and several members of his administration resigned, including the ministers of economy, justice and human rights, environment, transportation, culture and women; the ambassador at the Organization of American States; and the minister of foreign affairs, who tweeted that the president’s decision was “violating the constitution.”

“A coup d’état has been produced,” said Francisco Morales, head of the Constitutional Court. He called on the armed forces to help reestablish order.

The Ombudsman’s office demanded “the immediate resignation” of Castillo and called on the Peruvian leader to turn himself in to the judicial authorities.

Following a fresh batch of corruption allegations, Congress had scheduled a vote for Wednesday afternoon on a motion to impeach Castillo, the third such attempt, which would have led to his immediate removal from office.

Since the beginning of his tenure, Castillo has been plagued by high-level corruption scandals, criminal investigations and Cabinet turnover. Prosecutors have accused him of leading a criminal organization with lawmakers and family members to profit off government contracts, and of repeatedly obstructing justice.

Last month, the Peruvian leader threatened to dissolve Congress using a contentious constitutional maneuver, and local media outlets recently reported that he tried to survey military leaders about supporting such a move.

Peru has already been hobbled by years of high-level corruption scandals resulting in five presidents since 2016. Castillo’s tenure has only deepened the sense that the country’s political system is broken.

During his tenure, he churned through more than 80 ministers and filled many posts with political allies lacking relevant experience, some of whom have faced investigations for corruption, domestic violence and murder.

After Castillo’s defense minister resigned Saturday, citing personal reasons, rumors of a military coup — in favor and against Castillo — went viral on social media, leading some opposition lawmakers to stay the night in Congress on Sunday for fear of a violent attempt by armed forces to close the chamber. No such attempt was made.

On Tuesday, the head of Peru’s army submitted his resignation, citing personal reasons, in a letter made public Wednesday.

Castillo, a former farmer, schoolteacher and union activist with no previous governing experience, narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori, a career right-wing politician, in last year’s election after campaigning to support poor Peruvians who had been left behind by the country’s economic expansion this century.

His victory reflected the growing disillusionment in Peru of an elite political class that has been tainted by years of back-to-back graft scandals and infighting. Two of Castillo’s predecessors faced two impeachment motions each, and both considered them unlawful.

Former President Martín Vizcarra, the only Peruvian leader to be successfully ousted before Castillo, left office after the vote in 2020 but filed an appeal before the Constitutional Tribunal, which declined to weigh in on its legality.

In a televised message to the nation late Tuesday, Castillo said the impeachment motion was part of the same bid to keep him from governing that has dogged him since his victory over Fujimori, who led a weekslong campaign to overturn the election results based on unfounded claims of fraud.

“Throughout the 17 months of my administration, a certain sector of Congress has focused solely on removing me from office, because they never accepted the results of an election that you, dear Peruvians, defined with your votes,” Castillo said.

“I’m not corrupt,” he added. “I’m a man from the countryside who has been paying the mistakes for his inexperience but who has never committed a crime.”

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