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Peru declares state of emergency after Castillo removed as president and facing trial for rebellion

Facing his third impeachment trial in the opposition-controlled Congress, leftist Pedro Castillo attempted to dissolve the legislative body but is now facing charges of rebellion.

(CN) — In a long week of political crises, tension is deepening in Peru following former President Pedro Castillo’s impeachment and detention following a failed self-coup. 

Faced with growing unrest and violent clashes between protesters and the police, the new government of Dina Boluarte issued a state of emergency on Wednesday.

The opposition-controlled Congress voted to oust the leftist leader Pedro Castillo on Dec. 7 for “moral incapacity,” its third impeachment attempt since he defeated far-right candidate Keiko Fujimori in presidential elections in June 2021.

Lawmakers gathered to vote despite Castillo announcing earlier in the day plans to dissolve the country’s single legislative body, form an emergency government and call for new congressional elections to draft a new constitution.

After 101 lawmakers in the 130-seat body voted to impeach him, the head of the constitutional court said that Castillo’s attempt to dissolve Congress violated the constitution. The former president left the Government Palace and attempted to reach the Mexico embassy to claim asylum — three years after former Bolivia President Evo Morales fled to Mexico City when the leftist leader was forced to step down.

During the journey to the embassy, the police intercepted Castillo’s vehicle and detained him on suspicion of rebellion and conspiracy. He was replaced by former Vice-President Dina Boluarte, the country’s first female president, who quickly distanced herself from her predecessor and has promised to hold new elections in 2024 — she had originally planned to see out Castillo’s original mandate until 2016.

In response, nationwide protests have been gathering pace and turning violent, with confrontations between the police and protesters resulting in multiple deaths and dozens injured, leading to the government declaring a state of emergency for 30 days. 

With more protests and strikes planned, the U.N. expressed its “deep concern” and called for authorities to “abide by their human rights obligations and allow people to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression.”

Protesters are calling for the immediate release of the former president and new elections. On Monday, Castillo published a handwritten letter on social media addressing the nation. He stated that despite being “mistreated and kidnapped,” he “will not resign” as president, calling Boluarte a “usurper” whose actions are parallel that of a “right-wing coup,” before calling for a constituent assembly.

In a joint statement published on Monday, the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico condemned the removal and arrest of Castillo, claiming that he was “the victim of anti-democratic harassment” that violates the American Convention on Human Rights. The bloc called on the Peruvian institutions to “refrain from reversing the popular will” of voters.

The U.S. and E.U. both recognized Boluarte as the new president the day after Castillo’s political downfall, whose attempted self-coup to counter a combative Congress shadows the 1992 coup carried out by former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, the father of Keiko who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity.

“As Marx said, first as tragedy and then as farce. Castillo’s self-coup was almost a carbon copy of Fujimori’s coup in 1992,” said Nicolás Saldías, analyst for Latin America at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Only that Castillo’s was completely improvised and lacked any support.”

The context between the two are crucial to understand the outcomes. “Castillo’s coup failed immediately. He didn’t have the support of his own cabinet and the Congress, armed forces and civil society acted quickly to quash it. This may reflect two things: that Castillo was very unpopular and few were willing to put their neck out to support a government that many observers felt had its days numbered. Fujimori was a very popular president with a very unpopular Congress,” said Saldías. 

“The second was that Peruvian society is intolerant of any attempt to introduce authoritarian rule and were willing to mobilize to stop Castillo’s efforts,” he added, giving the example of citizens taking to the streets to block entrances to embassies to prevent him seeking asylum.

The roots of Peru’s current political crisis stretch back to 2016, when the country had five presidents in six years. In 2018, Pedro Kuczynski resigned as president ahead of a second impeachment vote. Martín Vizcarra succeeded him yet was removed in 2020 after a second impeached vote found him “morally incompetent.” The year before, Vizcarra dissolved Congress and called for new elections — with the opposition keeping control of the legislature.

“His successor was the President of Congress, Manuel Merino,” Saldías added. “His government lasted less than a week as Peruvians took to the streets to demand his resignation.” Vizcarra’s removal by Congress sparked a series of demonstrations, with many viewing it as a coup. “Following him was Francisco Sagasti, a well-respected economist who ruled Peru as interim president to oversee the 2021 presidential elections,” said Saldías, which Castillo won in the second round by just 0.26% of the vote.

“Castillo is the latest in a line of presidents that have failed to finish their constitutional terms in office,” he added. “He was constantly under threat of being ousted from power by an unrelenting right-wing opposition. The latest of the three motions was the most credible and appeared to have momentum to reach the two-thirds of the votes in Congress to oust him.”

Castillo was facing allegations of corruption submitted by the country’s attorney-general, which was channeled into Congress’ third impeachment attempt. 

“Castillo’s overreach may be an event that may help to break the fever of extreme political polarization and brinkmanship between the legislative and executive branches of government,” said Saldías. “However, that will depend both on the political acumen of the new president and Congress.”

Boluarte’s position as president remains fragile. She was kicked out of the governing Peru Libre party in January 2022 after admitting in an interview that she never embraced its socialist ideology. She also lacks the support from large parts of Congress and society, demonstrated by the protesters across the country.

As for Castillo, he will remain detained until his pre-trial detention hearing, which he has criticized in a written letter asking for the intervention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The former President of the Supreme Court, César San Martín, who sentenced Fujimori to 25 years in prison in 2009, stated that if Castillo is found guilty of rebellion and corruption, he would face a 10-year sentence.

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