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Photo of former Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra. // Photo courtesy of Galería del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores/Wikimedia Commons.

The vacancy of the president Martin Vizcarra: An attack on the Peruvian people

By Andrea Silva Santisteban Fort, March 8 2021—

From Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 to Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, the American dollar rose to S / 3.62 (Peruvian Soles), the highest level reached in eighteen years. This sudden increase in the exchange rate is rooted in the political crisis that developed in Peru. On Nov. 9, 2020, President Martin Vizcarra was removed from office. This act, led by Congress, has had dire consequences for Peru’s position in the international arena. As the economist Alfredo Thorne specifies, radical political changes, “Are a sign of mistrust and uncertainty. If doubts are not cleared, if there is no confidence about how they will manage this transition, the markets will become adverse to Peru, and interest rates of any indebtedness will go to go up.” The Vacancy of President Vizcarra was a politically motivated attack by Congress against the Peruvian people demonstrated not only by the removal procedure invoked against the former president, but also by the political character of the Parliamentarians who used it and the transitional president that was placed in power. 

The presidential Vacancy is a tool established in the written Peruvian Constitution. In Article 113 it is clarified that this course of action may proceed in specific cases such as the death of the current p

resident, his departure of the national territory without permission from Congress, or —  as used in this case — “his permanent moral or physical incapacity” as declared by Congress. On the other hand, Article 89-A of the Bylaw of Congress establishes the steps this constitutional tool must follow: a motion must be presented and approved by at least 40 per cent of Congressmen.  If this threshold is met, the day of the debate and voting on the vacancy request is set. The president (accompanied by his lawyer) will be summoned to make his defense and the voting process will be carried out. A minimum of 87 votes is required. Once vacancy is declared, the holder of a political representative position will be removed.

The first Vacancy procedure requested against Martin Vizcarra was presented on Thursday, Sept. 10 by the President of the Audit Commission, Edgar Alarcon. He presented before Congress three audio recordings in which Vizcarra can be heard coordinating with his advisers Mirian Morales and Karem Roca regarding the statements they would provide in the corruption case of Richard Swing. In May 2020, the Ministry of Culture hired singer Richard Swing on ​​several occasions and paid him 175,400 soles for his services, which were described as “motivational talks.” In June, the newspaper El Comercio revealed that Swing had had meetings with Government Palace officials. Vizcarra denied being involved with the hiring of the singer. Nevertheless, Alarcón argued that the recordings showed proof of illicit association between Vizcarra and Swing. In the end, however, no official accusations were made by the Public Prosecutor and, with 78 votes against it, the Vacancy proposal was rejected.

The second attempt at the presidential Vacancy was successful. On Monday, Nov. 9, the Peruvian Congress approved the removal of President Martín Vizcarra with 105 votes in favor. According to the media, “The measure was taken at the initiative of a group of Parliamentarians after aspiring “Effective Collaborators” of the case known as the “Construction Club” accused Vizcarra of receiving bribes while he was regional President of Moquegua  between 2011 and 2014. According to Renato Ribeiro Bortoletti, the former head of Odebrecht, a company involved in corruption cases in several Latin American countries, as well as six alleged collaborators, Vizcarra received a total of 2,300,000 soles in bribes during his term as a Governor in Moquegua. Allegedly, the former president was a part of a cartel of national and international construction companies dedicated to securing public tenders for large infrastructure projects by bribing authorities. Despite the fact that Vizcarra has not been accused of any specific wrongdoing, and the testimony against him remains to be corroborated, his dismissal was supported by the majority of Congress. 

The accusations by Congress are highly hypocritical given the demonstrated moral and political character of many of its members. Currently, 68 parliamentarians have open criminal files at the Prosecutor’s Office and continue to be investigated by the Public Ministry. The presidential candidate and member of the Alianza Para el Progreso party, Cesar Acuña, has 14 open investigations looking into his activities. Luis Valdez, the appointed first vice-president of Congress, has 52 open investigations, and files for aggravated usurpation, abuse of authority, fraud and corruption of officials. The political organization Accion Popular also faces 12 criminal inspections. 

The most significant consequence of Vizcarra’s presidential Vacancy was the swearing-in of Manuel Merino de Lama as the new president. His political career began in 2001 in Tumbes. 10 years later he was able to establish himself in the Peruvian Parliament and was elected again in 2020. There are some specific instances in Merino’s political career that give an idea of his character that are worth mentioning. In 2017, Merino had a labour law judgment declared against him for arbitrarily dismissing and not paying social benefits to Julio Rodríguez, a worker in his employment. Since 2010, the Prosecutor’s Office has reported multiple cases of labor exploitation of children in properties located in Tumbes and under the name of the Congressman.  Also relevant is the course of action taken by Merino during the first Vacancy attempt in September 2020. Even before the motion for removal was admitted for processing in the Plenary session, the former president of Parliament tried to communicate by telephone with the head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces, César Astudillo, to seek the support of the military in the “eventual vacancy of Martin Vizcarra.” Peruvian media interpreted this measure as an attempt at sedition. Merino has also claimed his “disinterest in moving forward with the investigation against Edgar Alarcon.” In doing so, he is ignoring the multiple indicators that show that Alarcon was involved in corruption during his presidency of the Audit Commission (2016-2017).

The public response to the removal of Martin Vizcarra and the swearing-in ceremony of Manuel Merino was immediate. Despite the current public health crisis, protests and permanent cacerolazos were organized through social media at a national level. Nevertheless, peaceful protests were disrupted by undercover police officers, also known as Urban Operational Tactical Intelligence Unit, or, Ternas, who initiated violence in order to allow the police to respond aggressively with tear gas and pellet weapons. By Sunday morning, Nov. 15,  the disappearance of 41 university students and the murder of  Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado were announced. The Health Ministry also reported the injuries of 102 people that were being treated in medical centers. In spite of the violent and repressive response of the National Policy, more protests were organized. This continuing course of action, taken by the protesters, is supported by Article 45 of the Peruvian Constitution which stipulates that: “The power of the State emanates from the people. Those who exercise it do so with the limitations and responsibilities that the Constitution and the laws establish. No person, organization, Armed Forces, National Police, or sector of the population can claim the exercise of that power.”

The violence spread during the protests produced immediate consequences in the political arena. Between Saturday night, Nov. 14, and Sunday morning, Nov. 15, there was an avalanche of resignations from Ministers of different sectors. The Ministers of Health, Interior, Justice, Defense, Economy, Development and Social Inclusion and Culture renounced their position. So did the holders of the Ministries of Education, Foreign Trade, Energy and Mines, Housing and Women’s Rights. Twelve vice-ministers also presented their resignations. They argued that the basis of their resignation was their rejection of the illegitimate government of Merino — they refused to work for a dictator.

Hours later, the President of the Congress of the Republic, Luiz Valdez, announced at a press conference that the Congress had, “Agreed to urge the president, Manuel Merino, to immediately present his letter of resignation to the Presidency of the Republic of Peru.” This decision, he insisted, was made, “With the sole purpose of safeguarding the life, health and integrity of all Peruvians.” Valdez also warned that if Merino did not remove himself from power, the Congress would proceed with the constitutional precepts of presidential censorship, also known as the motion of no confidence, established in Article 132 of the Peruvian Constitution. Less than an hour after the statement of the President of Congress, Manuel Merino, announced his irrevocable resignation to the Presidency of the Republic.  In his speech, he communicated that, “The country is going through one of the greatest political crises. Therefore, I want to declare my irrevocable resignation from office and invoke peace and unity for all Peruvians.”

One can argue that the course of action taken by Congress and Merino were based on the Constitutional responsibility of the Government for the crimes committed during its administration. In this case, the former president and Congress could be charged for compromising the security of the Nation, the violence exerted in the marches and the murder of two protestors.

With 120 votes in favor, the Congress approved the legislative resolution by which the letter of resignation presented by Merino was accepted. Nonetheless, Sunday night, Nov. 15, and Monday morning, Nov. 16, were characterized by an emptiness in power. Despite the uncertainty, one thing was clear — the future president of Peru was going to be a member of the Purple Party, a congressional bench that opposed the vacancy of Martin Vizcarra and whose members supported the protests. After hours of discussion, Francisco Sagasti was elected president of the Peruvian Congress and the holder of the position of transitional president in charge. Analysts agree in describing the Congressman as a, “Sensible person who managed to convince the majority and who, since he arrived in Congress eight months ago, has stood out for his conciliatory and honest character.”

The appointment of Sagasti as the country’s representative reassured the population. However, the protests continued to demand a government free of corruption, and justice for the injured and the families of Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado, the two young men who were killed by police repression. As the week progressed, students who went missing on Saturday night appeared and testified that they had been detained and abducted by Terna. One student claimed that he was tortured by them.  Luis Fernando Araujo reported that, “Four men forced me to get into a car, I told them to take me to a police station, but they ignored me and took me to a house. It was a closed place. They slapped me as if they wanted to show authority.” He remembers spending three days in a house without food or water.

The violence exerted during the marches by the police also left victims with irreparable injuries. Albert Yosemir Ñahui’s skull was perforated by one pellet, shot by the Terna group. Another victim, Rubén Guevara, suffered internal bleeding and retinal detachment from a shotgun impact. According to his statements, a hospital doctor tried to trick him into signing a document stating that he himself had generated these injuries. He claimed that in the medical center, “They wanted me to sign a document where I would declare to have injured myself. At that moment they took advantage of the fact that I could not see well. They told me to just sign, but I refused to do it.” The circumstances of the events are being investigated by the Specialized Division of the Peruvian Police and the Prosecutor’s Office.

It is reasonable to argue that the Vacancy of Vizcarra and the change of government that proceeded was problematic on many levels.  Firstly, the political crisis has shown to be detrimental to the Peruvian economy. The COVID-19 crisis generated a drop and deterioration in the quality of employment and growth of an informal black market. This situation can be worsened by political instability that directly affects the financial situation of millions of Peruvian families. Further, I personally consider the presidential Vacancy and the installation of Manuel Merino as the new President of the Republic to be an attack on democracy and the rule of law in Peru. As César Landa, former president of the Constitutional Tribunal points out: “Democracy is the pillar on which the Constitutional Rule of Law rests. However, the semi-presidential democratic model of government has been developing with a strong tension between the parliamentary opposition and the president, which explains — but does not justify — the removal of President Martín Vizcarra on Nov. 9.”

The Congress took advantage of the constitutional tool of Vacancy to dismiss Vizcarra. This was done without the support of an official accusation and ignoring the fact that the majority of the legislators themselves have open investigation files in the Prosecutor’s Office. This decision was made against democracy, the rule of law and the Peruvian People. However, the response of the population was quick and effective. Citizens took the streets to oppose corruption and the illegitimate government of Merino, which resulted in the election of a new and preferred president. This was accomplished despite police oppression that violated the right to protest and free speech of the People. Overall, the week from Nov. 9 to Nov. 17 can be summarized by the administration of three presidents, the violent death of two citizens and the defeat of a dictator.

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