By FRANKLIN BRICENO
LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru’s president was ousted by Congress and arrested Wednesday on a rebellion charge after he tried to dissolve the legislature and seize unilateral control of the government, sparking a serious constitutional crisis.
Vice President Dina Boluarte replaced Pedro Castillo and became the first woman leader in the republic’s history after hours of wrangling between the legislature and the president, who had tried to avoid an impeachment vote.
Boluarte, a 60-year-old lawyer, called for a political truce and the installation of a government of national unity.
“What I ask for is a space, a time to rescue the country,” he said.
Lawmakers voted 101-6 with 10 abstentions to remove Castillo from office for reasons of “permanent moral incapacity.”
He left the presidential palace in a car that took him through the historic center of Lima. He entered a police station and hours later federal prosecutors announced that Castillo had been arrested on charges of rebellion for an alleged violation of the constitutional order. Witnesses saw some small-scale clashes between the police and some protesters who had gathered near the station.
“We condemn the violation of the constitutional order,” federal prosecutors said in a statement. “The political constitution of Peru enshrines the separation of powers and establishes that Peru is a democratic and sovereign Republic… No authority can place itself above the Constitution and must comply with constitutional mandates.”
Fluent in Spanish and Quechua, Boluarte was elected vice president on the presidential ticket that brought Castillo to power on July 28, 2021. During Castillo’s brief administration, Boluarte was minister of development and social inclusion.
Shortly before the impeachment vote, Castillo announced that he would install a new emergency government and that it would rule by decree. He ordered a nightly curfew starting Wednesday night. Then the head of Peru’s army resigned, along with four ministers, including those of Foreign Affairs and Economy.
The Ombudsman’s Office, an autonomous government institution, said before the congressional vote that Castillo should turn himself in to judicial authorities.
After years of democracy, Peru finds itself in the midst of a constitutional collapse “that cannot be called more than a coup,” the statement said.
The international reaction was sometimes overtaken by events.
US Ambassador Lisa Kenna asked Castillo via Twitter to revoke his decree to dissolve Congress, saying the US government rejected any “extra-constitutional” action by the president to interfere with Congress.
A short time later, Congress voted to remove Castillo.
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said via Twitter that due to recent events in Peru, Mexico had decided to postpone the Pacific Alliance summit scheduled for December 14 in Lima. He said that he regretted the recent events and called for respect for democracy and human rights.
The administration of Chilean President Gabriel Boric regretted the political situation in Peru and hoped that the crisis would be resolved through democratic mechanisms. The Government of Spain strongly condemned the rupture of the constitutional order and congratulated the country for straightening itself out democratically.
Castillo had said in a rare midnight speech on state television before the vote that he would never tarnish “the good name of my honest and exemplary parents, who, like millions of Peruvians, work every day to honestly build a future for their families.” .
The farmer-turned-president said he is paying for mistakes made due to inexperience. But he said that a certain sector of Congress “has the only item on the agenda to remove me from office because they never accepted the results of an election that you, my dear Peruvians, determined with your votes.”
Castillo has denied the corruption allegations against him, saying they are based on “hearsay statements from people who, seeking to lighten their own punishments for alleged crimes by abusing my trust, are trying to involve me without evidence.”
Federal prosecutors are investigating six cases against Castillo, most for alleged corruption, on the theory that he used his power to profit from public works.
The power struggle in Peru’s capital continues as the Andes and its thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in half a century. Without rain, farmers can’t grow potatoes and dying grass can no longer support herds of sheep, alpacas, vicuñas and llamas. To make matters worse, bird flu has killed at least 18,000 seabirds and infected at least one poultry farmer, endangering chickens and turkeys raised for traditional holiday meals.
The government also confirmed that in the last week, the country has suffered a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections. Since the start of the pandemic, 4.3 million Peruvians have been infected and 217,000 of them have died.
The first president from a poor farming community in the nation’s history, Castillo arrived at the presidential palace last year without any political experience. He changed his cabinet five times during his year and a half in office, moving through 60 different cabinet officials, crippling various government agencies.
Although Castillo is the first president to be investigated while still in office, the inquiries are not surprising in a country where nearly every former president in the last 40 years has been accused of corruption linked to multinational corporations, such as the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Since 2016, Peru has been mired in political crises, with congresses and presidents trying to eliminate each other. President Martín Vizcarra (2018-2020) dissolved Congress in 2019 and ordered new elections. That new legislature removed Vizcarra the following year. Then came President Manuel Merino, who lasted less than a week before a crackdown killed two protesters and injured 200 more. His successor, Francisco Sagasti, lasted nine months before Castillo took over.