Peru’s Congress Committed a Coup. Now, Peruvians are Taking their Country Back

On local time November the 9th, Peru’s Congress unconstitutionally deposed President Vizcarra, and President of Congress Manuel Merino took charge. Protests erupted all around the country, which were responded with brutality by police. Five days and three victims later, his coup hangs in the balance as many of the country’s top politicians call for his resignation.

A demonstrator waves a Peruvian flag in front of police officers guarding Peru’s Palace of Justice.

Last Monday, a widely unpopular Congress turned its back on the Peruvian people and unconstitutionally deposed President Martin Vizcarra, effectively committing a coup. Manuel Merino, who was President of Congress, assumed office Tuesday, November 13. Congress abused a provision in Article 113 of the Constitution, declaring Vizcarra ‘morally incapable’ to govern the day before, a provision that was set to be defined by the Constitutional Tribunal, Peru’s highest court, before the end of the year.

Amid a pandemic and a ban on public gatherings, Peruvians made use of their right to insurrection against Merino’s usurper government and took to the streets, being met by tear gas and glass pellets from the police. While several organizations including the UN have denounced the response from the police, Merino’s ministers have denied the accusations of excessive use of force, even with multiple videos showing this having surfaced over the course of the week.

Several institutions have rejected Vizcarra’s ousting, calling it unconstitutional since it misuses Article 113 and goes against a sentence by the Constitutional Tribunal. Congress’ coup is just another chapter in a political crisis that started after the election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in 2016, and the Peruvian people are making their voices heard in an attempt to bring this crisis to an end.

While Peru does not have a procedure like the USA’s impeachment process to hold its leaders accountable, there is a process called ‘vacancia presidencial’, in which the Office of the President can be vacated due to specific reasons detailed in the Peruvian Constitution. The process starts with the debate and voting of a motion to vacate, after which the President is called to Congress for a hearing where he (and/or his lawyer) may speak for an hour in his defense, followed by a debate in Congress. If after this debate 67% of the total number of congressmen vote to vacate, the President is removed from office and the law of presidential succession is followed.

Keiko Fujimori of Fuerza Popular managed to gain a majority in Congress during her campaign in the 2016 General Election. However, she did not become president, losing to Kuczynski (PPK) in the runoff, and used her majority in Congress to create confrontation between Congress and PPK’s cabinet, trying to govern from there. The confrontation went to the extent that PPK survived a vacancy vote in December 2017, and resigned when faced with an imminent second vacancy. Vizcarra, who was vice president and ambassador to Canada, flew back to Peru and assumed office. His first year and a half was marked again by confrontation with Congress, leading him to propose to bring the elections forward to stop it, but was met with more opposition. He then dissolved Congress after they denied a vote of confidence to his cabinet for a second time during his period. Congress then suspended him and swore his vice president, Mercedes Araoz, in, but accepted the dissolution the following day and Araoz resigned, leaving Vizcarra with no vice president for the remainder of his term.

The new Congress was elected January 25, 2020 and took office March 16, after an ongoing state of emergency was declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s effects on the economy led Congress to pursue a populist agenda which included passing unconstitutional bills that would further damage it. The new Congress also modified Vizcarra’s proposed electoral and political reforms, leading again to confrontation with Vizcarra and his cabinet. Vizcarra’s administration acted as a counterweight to Congress’ proposals, often helping them transform them into a more feasible, constitutional option. The climate of confrontation exacerbated when Congress censured Vizcarra’s cabinet August 3, five days after Vizcarra’s power to dissolve Congress expired. The following day Rosa Maria Palacios, a Peruvian lawyer and political commentator predicted that sooner or later, Vizcarra would be vacated because Congress showed they were willing to make anything possible to advance their own agendas.

In May, investigations into the Ministry of Culture found irregularities in contracts made to Richard Swing, a singer who attempted to be Vizcarra’s political aide and said he had a hand in several events concerning the government. However, there are records of his visits to the Government Palace (where Vizcarra’s office was located), and a few months later, former comptroller and congressman Edgar Alarcon unveiled several audio recordings of Vizcarra’s assistants speaking both to Vizcarra and the singer (Albeit in different audios). These audio recordings went to investigation by the prosecutor’s office, and in parallel a vacancy motion was pushed forward by Alarcon’s party (Richard Swing later declared he had previously been visited by Alarcon’s lawyer). President Vizcarra requested a restraining order for the vacancy, stating that the term ‘moral incapacity’ was not properly limited, but it was declined. This motion was pushed through in as little time as possible by Congress, but hit a speedbump after Merino’s calls with the commander of the Navy were reported. As a result, the prime minister released a statement saying the armed forces stood for constitutional order and that the President of Congress had no jurisdiction over them. After this, this vacancy motion was seen by many as a coup attempt and ultimately did not get enough votes to remove Vizcarra.

Even though Vizcarra had survived the vote, the confrontation continued. In mid-October, a protected witness in the Lava Jato case (a corruption scandal involving many important politicians throughout Latin America) stated that Vizcarra had taken bribes during his time as Governor of Moquegua. The prosecutor’s office subsequently announced an investigation starting July 29, 2021, the day after his term would end, as contemplated in Article 117 of the Constitution. However, Congress would once again push through a motion authored by Union por el Peru (‘Union for Peru’ or UPP) and Frente Amplio (a leftist party) to vacate him on the grounds of permanent moral incapacity. For this second process, Vizcarra chose not to take any legal actions and appeared before congress for a hearing widely believed to be merely symbolic, since it was not believed Congress had the votes to remove him. During his speech, he stated that he should not be investigated or judged twice for the same matter, and that the correct procedure was to start the investigation the day after his term would end, since the allegations did not fall under the violations listed in Article 117 of the Constitution. However, his office was declared vacant with 105 votes in favor.

After the voting was confirmed and Vizcarra was set to be officially removed from office, he gave farewell remarks outside the Government Palace as demonstrators gathered outside. In his speech, he stated that while he did not agree with Congress’ decision and was able to take legal action, he would not, opting instead to voluntarily leave office and go home. He also stated that the decision taken by Congress was not made in the interest of the country, but in the individual interest of congressmen and the leaders of their parties, something that during the first days of Merino’s period started to show.

People took to the streets to protest Merino and Congress, many with posters reading messages like ‘Congress does not represent me’, or ‘Merino is not my President’, all while calling Vizcarra’s ousting a coup (which quite frankly, it is). So far, only Paraguay has congratulated Merino, and two of the three other countries that released statements said Merino had ‘assumed the presidency’, and that there was an ‘ongoing political process’ that refrained them from recognizing Merino. The Organization of American States (OAS) has called on the Constitutional Tribunal (CT) to rule on the matter, but Eloy Espinosa-Saldaña, one of its magistrates, said last Wednesday that the CT could only rule on the first vacancy process and not on the second one, since Vizcarra failed to take legal action. However, the ruling (the hearing is set to take place November 18) may declare Vizcarra’s ousting null and void because the sentence could specify a timeframe for which it is valid. Several universities also showed their rejection towards Merino in several statements. Perhaps the most notorious one is the statement released by the professors of constitutional law at Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP), in which they stated that the vacancy process was unconstitutional since it was violating Article 103 of the Constitution, by using ‘moral incapacity’ for a purpose it was not intended to and applied irrationally as per the CT’s 2003 Resolution. Furthermore, several politicians have also called the move unconstitutional, and called upon the people to invoke Article 46 of the Constitution and stand against the usurper.

Merino swore his cabinet in at noon Thursday, November 12. That same afternoon, even larger demonstrations erupted nationwide, all of them peaceful. However, police responded the same way they have responded since the protests after the ousting. They responded by throwing tear gas at protesters, into buses and dangerously close to a hospital. They also shot pellets at demonstrators and used undercover policemen to detain them, even though doing so is illegal. Several paramedics, journalists and cameramen have also been shot with pellets, and in some places real guns were reported to have been used. Most broadcast TV channels told their personnel they would not show their stories, as their aim was to portray demonstrators as troublemakers, rather than as subjects of police brutality. Several journalists and high-ranking employees at TV Peru, a state-owned network, resigned citing attempts from the government to censor the protests. Other cable TV stations did report on the protests, some reporters even having to go off air because they were unable to breathe properly due to tear gas. Merino’s Minister of the Interior denied that police were acting violently in an interview for Radio Programas del Peru (RPP), the most prestigious news outlet in the country. After the interview, several videos were published on different social media platforms showing police throwing tear gas and shooting pellets at protesters, including a video of an undercover policeman shooting his gun into the air after being discovered, and another of one officer telling another who was firing a pellet gun to ‘kill them’. Later that night, Plaza San Martin (the main area where people were protesting) was fenced off with demonstrators still inside while tear gas grenades were being thrown. Several human rights groups have called on Peru’s National Police to stop their repressive tactics, but the police still maintain that protesters are being violent and they are just responding in the way they should.

Saturday night the protests reached a new level, when the police shot and killed two demonstrators and a journalist with pellets and tear gas. After this, several politicians, including the vice president of Congress and the Mayor of Lima, have called for Merino’s resignation. Because Merino is still President of Congress, a simple majority vote to censure him and his vice presidents would remove him from office.

As this article is being written, Antero Flores-Araoz was giving an interview to RPP, in which he stated he will not resign and Merino was not answering the phone. Now, Merino has blood on his hands, and his coup’s legitimacy is decreasing even more. The people have spoken, and sooner rather than later Merino’s usurper government will come to an end. Congress betrayed Peruvians and stole Peru from us for their own interests, leaving no guarantees for the quality of university education and the 2021 general elections. It is time for Peruvians to make our voices heard, and so far, the world is listening. We have to live up to the first lines of our national anthem: Somos libres, seámoslo siempre (we are free, let’s forever be). ¡Viva el Perú!

This article was written by Andres Malaga, currently based in Lima, Peru. Please send an email to arm912@nyu.edu or via Instagram @Amalaga19 to get in touch.

Photo CreditMax Nina

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