Peru plunges into political crisis as president ousted

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Peru’s president Pedro Castillo was ousted by lawmakers on Wednesday after trying to shut down congress before a vote on his impeachment, bringing to a boil a long-simmering political crisis.

Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice-president, was later sworn in as Peru’s first female president. “There has been an attempted coup d’état,” she said during a hastily arranged ceremony. “I assume the position of president aware of the responsibility required of me.”

Castillo was taken into custody at Lima’s town hall on Wednesday afternoon and accused of “rebellion”, the office of Peru’s public prosecutor said. “We condemn the breach of constitutional order,” it said in a statement. “No authority can place itself above the constitution.”

Earlier on Wednesday, just hours before lawmakers were set to begin debating whether to impeach Castillo on grounds of “moral incapacity”, the president delivered a televised speech declaring congress dissolved. “We took the decision to establish a state of emergency,” he said.

But what political opponents described as a coup fizzled almost immediately, as it became clear that the army, the police and Castillo’s own cabinet were not prepared to support him.

Shortly after Castillo’s attempt to dissolve congress, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to remove him from office. The president of Peru’s constitutional court said in a live broadcast that Castillo was attempting a “coup”.

The armed forces and police distanced themselves from Castillo. In a joint statement, they said the president was only able to dissolve congress after two votes of no-confidence in one government — and that anything else would be a “violation of the constitution”.

Castillo and members of his family have been under investigation for months after repeated accusations of corruption and influence peddling. The president’s lack of political experience has meant a chaotic administration, with dozens of cabinet changes since he took power in July 2021 and government remaining largely paralysed.

Lisa Kenna, US ambassador to Peru, quickly condemned Castillo’s attempt on Wednesday to shut down congress. “The United States categorically rejects any extra-constitutional act by President Castillo to prevent Congress from fulfilling its mandate,” she wrote on Twitter.

Castillo’s prime minister and nine of his cabinet ministers announced their resignations almost immediately, saying they could not support the move.

Castillo had survived two previous impeachment attempts, thanks to his ability to keep a third of the opposition-led congress on his side. Eighty-seven votes in the 130-seat chamber are needed to secure a president’s removal.

Dina Boluarte addresses lawmakers after being sworn-in as the new president
Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice-president, was sworn in as president on Wednesday afternoon © Guadalupe Pardo/AP

“The democratic system in Peru has broken down,” said Denisse Rodriguez-Olivari, a policy leader fellow at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, describing Castillo’s move as a “self-coup”.

The sol, Peru’s currency, initially weakened 2 per cent to trade at 3.9128 per US dollar, its softest level in almost a month. It reversed course in afternoon trading, trading up 0.3 per cent on the day at 3.8226 to the dollar.

But instability in Peru — which has now had eight presidents since 2011 — is likely to continue. More than 70 ministers have passed through the revolving doors of Castillo’s government, of which the new president Boluarte was a crucial member.

Castillo has denied the allegations against him and characterised the impeachment proceedings as the latest attempt to subvert the will of voters. He narrowly won a five-year term last year on a radical left manifesto, defeating rightwing candidate Keiko Fujimori in a run-off.

His attempt to seize absolute power by closing congress was reminiscent of a similar move by Fujimori’s authoritarian father in 1992, Alberto Fujimori, who succeeded after receiving backing from the military and governed for another eight years but eventually ended up in jail.

“Thirty years later, we doubt that the military will want blood on its hands for this,” said Eileen Gavin, principal analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, in reference to the army’s lack of support for Castillo.

His third finance minister of the year, Kurt Burneo, was among those who quit on Wednesday. Burneo had acknowledged last month that political dysfunction was damaging the business climate in Peru, which once boasted one of Latin America’s most robust economies and is the world’s second-largest copper producer. In October, credit rating agency Fitch revised Peru’s outlook from “stable” to “negative”.

A report published last week after a high-level visit from the Organization of American States found that “political fragmentation” has put democratic institutions at risk, and recommended a “truce” while “a minimum consensus is reached to ensure governability”.

The foreign ministries of Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia all put out statements expressing concern. A summit of the Pacific Alliance — a trade bloc comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru — that was scheduled for December 14 in Lima — has been postponed, Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, suggested in a radio interview that his country would be open to granting Castillo asylum if he requested it.

Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York and David Agren in Mexico City

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