After being besieged relentlessly throughout his 16 months in office, Pedro Castillo was removed from the presidency on December 7 by Peru’s national Congress after he announced a gutting of the institutional order. Castillo’s attempt to dissolve Congress was followed just hours later by the move to “vacate” him, the third attempt during his term, and the first successful one.
Without informing Cabinet members (except for the president of the Council of Ministers and the Minister of Defense), Castillo ordered the dissolution of Congress, called for elections to create a new one with the authority to draft a new Constitution within nine months, and declared a reorganization of the justice system. He also imposed a curfew and ordered the seizure of all illegal weapons, threatening imprisonment for anyone who failed to deliver such arms to the National Police within 72 hours.
The Armed Forces, law enforcement, Cabinet members, the autonomous People’s Defense office and non-governmental organizations immediately rejected the actions, and Congress voted on a motion to remove the president on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity” without debate. The motion was approved by a majority of 101 out of 130.
As a result, Vice-President Dina Boluarte — who had been expelled from the Free Peru Party (Partido Perú Libre) in January of 2022 over differences with party leader Vladimir Cerrón — became the first female president in Peru’s history. She is also the sixth president in the last six years, a clear indication of the magnitude of Peru’s governing crisis since 2016.
After his attempt failed, Castillo fled the Government Palace to seek asylum in the Mexican Embassy, but was captured on his way there and taken to the same prison where former President Alberto Fujimori is held. A few days later, a judge sentenced Castillo to 18 months of preventive detention.
What led Castillo to carry out such a sudden and seemingly ill-prepared plan behind the backs of his Cabinet members and without support from the military, the de facto powers-that-be or the citizenry? Was he acting on his own? Or had some sector offered to back him only to betray him at the last minute? These questions and others are under investigation.
It’s likely that the serious accusations of corruption aimed at Castillo’s close collaborators that intensified during his final three days in office, in which the president appeared to be involved, explain his sudden leap into the void. He probably feared that the pending third attempt to vacate him would receive the needed 87 votes to pass, even though the press had been indicating that his opponents didn’t even have 80 votes.
Castillo’s government and the Congress had been facing off like two gunslinging cowboys looking to see who would draw first — the Congress with its attempts at vacating the president or the president himself with his calls for votes of confidence, which are constitutionally sanctioned mechanisms by which the executive branch can consult Congress on whether it is in favor of the administration continuing to govern. While a yes vote strengthens the president, a vote to deny that confidence requires the president of the Council of Ministers to resign and the entire Cabinet must be reconstituted. A second denial of confidence in the same presidential term means the president can dissolve Parliament and immediately convoke new Congressional elections.
Congress’s counterweight to the president´s ability to call for a vote of confidence is the power to vote to remove the president from office for “permanent moral incapacity”. That concept is imprecisely defined, which gives Congress leeway to use it arbitrarily. Peru has seated six presidents in the last six years through the use of this concept.
As it turned out, Castillo drew first — but against himself. His institutional assault led him, within a few hours, from the presidency to preliminary detention for rebellion and violation of the constitutional order, as defined in Article 346 of the Penal Code, which carries a possible 10- to 20-year prison sentence.
The legal consequences of Castillo’s precipitous action are real, but so are his reasons for it. The opposition Congress consistently shelved bills presented by the executive branch, especially those linked to a second agrarian reform, tax reform and the massification of natural gas. Congress focused exclusively on investigating Castillo and his team while ignoring criminal acts by its own members. It limited the sovereign power of the people by passing legislation restricting the use of the referendum and upset the balance of powers by modifying the Constitution through ordinary laws that weaken the executive branch while establishing a “Congressional dictatorship.” All of these are reprehensible acts attacking Castillo’s government.
As part of his justification, the now ex-president also denounced Congress for not authorizing his temporary absence from the country to participate in important international events, such as the inauguration of Gustavo Petro as president of Colombia, meetings in the Vatican and with the European Union, and the Summit of the Pacific Alliance. Even the Organization of American States (OAS) criticized the Peruvian Congress’s refusal to allow Castillo to attend Petro’s inauguration. Add to all this Congress’s initial rejection of Peru’s capital (Lima) hosting the 52nd General Assembly of that body due to its requirement for the installation of a gender “neutral bathroom.” The real objective, of course, was to restrict Castillo’s international prestige.
As a result, Castillo claimed that his political opponents were uniting to undermine his ability to govern, thus allowing them to take power without having won the election. Indeed, the destabilization of his government started during the election, with his opponents investing a million dollars in illuminated signs declaring “No to Communism” and “We Don´t Want to be Another Venezuela.” The sensationalist warnings were backed by Mario Vargas Llosa and Keiko Fujimori.
Despite the provocations, Castillo won the election legitimately. But the destabilization efforts were just beginning. His opponents invented a theory of fraud and protested the certification of his election by the National Elections Board just nine days before he assumed the presidency in July 2021.
Despite international recognition, fraud theories and attempts to remove Castillo from power never stopped during his truncated tenure in office. A sampling of the slogans used in the multiple, though fruitless, demonstrations against him gives an idea of the tone of his attackers: “Vacancy NOW,” “The final battle,” “87 goals for Peru,” “React Peru.”
None of this exempts Castillo from responsibility for his administration’s mismanagement, seen in the frequent turnover of ministers, the high number of officials unqualified for their position, the cronyism in appointments, and the favors and perks offered to members of Congress in exchange for their vote against vacancy. Such unethical practices replaced attention to Peru’s forgotten sectors that Castillo claimed to represent. His lack of a project and of qualified technicians to carry one out meant that the economy continued to be managed by the previously established technocracy.
Pressured by Vladimir Cerrón, head of the Perú Libre party that he rode to the presidency, Castillo imposed his own cadres, most of them unqualified and many involved in small provincial corruption networks. Thus, he was never able to form the Cabinet of qualified professionals he needed to offset the harassment from the right. Castillo took a long time to sever his connection to Cerrón, after which he opted to build parallel powers, thereby dividing the labor and political movement. His purpose was to accumulate power from his faction of the teachers’ union and other allied organizations.
Help From the OAS
Mired in ungovernability, the Castillo administration turned to the Organization of American States and invoked the application of Articles 17 and 18 of that body’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, requesting its presence as a facilitator of the dialogue. The request was accepted by acclamation and the organization sent a High-Level Group (GAN) made up of foreign ministers and vice foreign ministers from Argentina, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Costa Rica. After meeting with all the political forces, state powers, and civil society, among other sectors, they issued a report that failed to satisfy the right-wing opposition. The opposition’s basic complaint was that the report included versions indicating that Peru’s media are concentrated in a few hands, lack objectivity and in some cases are destabilizing. Nor was the right pleased that the OAS report pointed out that there are sectors that promote racism and discrimination and won’t accept as president anyone from outside traditional political circles.
The anti-Castillo right was also upset that the report made no mention of the role of corruption, as if corruption had not been embedded in the bowels of Peruvian politics for 30 years, long pre-dating the current crisis. The report instead attributed the problem to the “civil war” between the Executive and Legislative branches. On this issue in particular the GAN recommended that the impasses between the two branches be resolved by the Constitutional Court. The GAN proposed a 100-day truce and called for dialogue. Neither the administration or the opposition paid any attention to the idea.
No sooner had the OAS mission left the country than Betssy Chávez, a minister previously questioned and censured by Congress after accusations of influence peddling, was appointed president of the Council of Ministers. She replaced Aníbal Torres, who had resigned in mid-November after Congress denied him the vote of confidence he had requested as he sought to repeal the law limiting the use of referendums and restricting citizen participation. The strategy behind Chávez’s appointment was to force Congress to a vote of no-confidence within a maximum period of 30 days. That second no-confidence vote would empower the Executive Branch to dissolve Congress and call new congressional elections.
For its part, the Legislative Branch was loading its pistol. The third vacancy proposal had been presented, debate on which was scheduled for what turned out to be the same day as Castillo’s ill-fated bombshell announcement. Now the opposition in Congress was preparing to modify the law so that only 66, and not 87, votes would be needed to suspend Castillo from the presidency for up to three years. They also called for a trial for treason, which was dismissed by the Constitutional Court, and the opposition National Prosecutor filed a constitutional complaint that also sought to dismiss Castillo.
But the duel ended on December 7.
Dina Boluarte’s assumption of the Presidency was initially seen as a decompression valve for the political crisis, and a welcome respite for a citizenry overwhelmed by the tangle of corruption allegations and the accelerating struggles between the powers of state. Boluarte took up the gauntlet of the OAS mission’s truce-and-dialogue recommendation, and announced that she would form a broad-based Cabinet. Alas, this mirage of closure was short-lived.
The fact that Castillo’s removal by Congress had been planned from the beginning of his term with hidden racist and anti-democratic motivations sparked a social protest movement throughout the country. The population was outraged that a legitimately elected president was taken handcuffed to prison, crushed by a right-wing Congress that used every possible trick to remove him, as if they were crusaders for democracy.
Though his latest approval rating was only 30%, Castillo’s arrest sent large swathes of the population into the streets across almost the entire country to demand his release, closure of Congress (with an even lower approval of less than 10%), new elections and a Constituent Assembly. Labor unions and student organizations participate in these still ongoing protests and indigenous communities blocked a highway that was key to the Las Bambas company, one of the most important mining enterprises in South America. Indigenous communities also had announced an indefinite strike in that region.
The response to the peaceful demonstrations has been violent, and left more than 60 protesters dead to date. There have been some acts of vandalism against banks, stores and small restaurants, and fires at judicial sites and prosecutor’s offices in the provinces. Two international airports (Arequipa and Cusco) were closed by protests, television channels and print media locations pelted with rocks, the country’s most important dairy seized, and national land routes blocked, among other actions of a popular rage that has grown beyond government control. On Dec. 14, the government declared a national state of emergency for 30 days, which allows for the suspension of the freedoms of assembly, transit, and inviolability of the home, and permits deployment of the Armed Forces in support of the police.
Clearly, President Boluarte’s offer to move up the next general election to 2024, has not reassured the population. Rather, she is seen as a kind of “secretary” serving Congress and the de facto powers. Many consider the very act of assuming the presidency to be a betrayal of Castillo’s legitimate claim to it, even though Article 115 of Peru’s Constitution states that, “due to temporary or permanent impediment of the President of the Republic, the first vice president assumes his functions.”
Meanwhile, Castillo’s decision to dissolve Congress cost him the support he had won from the OAS, the United States and almost the entire international community. The presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Chile, members along with Peru of the Pacific Alliance, had supported Castillo without hesitation giventhe obvious harassment he was receiving from Congress. That support was confirmed on Nov. 20 when they decided, while already in Mexico for the planned Pacific Alliance Summit, to suspend the event since Peru’s Congress would not let him leave the country to attend. The three leaders stated that they would instead hold the summit in Lima on December 14 so that Castillo could participate and receive the pro tempore presidency from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obviously, given the ensuing events, that idea was scrapped and the summit suspended again.
The governments of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia issued a joint communiqué on Dec. 12 in which they expressed their deep concern over the dismissal and detention of Pedro Castillo, whom they referred to as President of the Republic, ignoring Boluarte’s constitutionally legitimate claim to that title. In the statement, the four leaders pointed out, accurately, that the Peruvian leader had been subjected to “undemocratic harassment” that led to his dismissal as head of state on December 7. They asked the authorities to fully respect Castillo’s human rights and to guarantee him judicial protection in accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights. They also urged political actors to respect the “will of the citizenry as expressed in the vote of the Peruvian people.”
Peru’s new Foreign Ministry responded by pointing out in a statement that “the decisions contrary to the constitutional and democratic order adopted by former President Pedro Castillo Terrones on December 7 generated the decision of Congress to declare his vacancy within the framework of the strictest respect for the Political Constitution of Peru.” The statement also specified that the former president “tried to dissolve the Congress of the Republic and intervene in the Judiciary, the Public Ministry, the National Board of Justice, among other measures that constitute a coup d’état.”
President Pedro Castillo leapt into the void with his unconstitutional move to dissolve Congress and intervene in the judicial system, and he did so without taking measure of the political forces involved. At the same time, however, Congress’s rush to vacate him from the presidency effectively resulted in a coup d’état, putting the right wing in power while the democratically elected left wing president leader languishes in prison.
Such a clear demonstration of the primacy of the power held by long-established political forces has exacerbated citizen fury. Peru is undeniably wracked by a crisis of leadership.
Unfortunately, given the failure of the political parties to represent anything other than their own fortunes, new general elections will surely bring more of the same unless true political reform is enacted before they are held. Peru’s crisis is long-term, with no solutions in sight.