Yet another President in Peru has been unceremoniously removed from office before he could complete his term, the fourth to be removed in the past two years. On December 7, the Peruvian Congress, under the control of a right-wing opposition, voted its left-wing President, Pedro Castillo, out of office. In a bid to forestall the inevitable, Castillio earlier that day announced in a televised address to the nation that he was dissolving Congress and going to rule by decree. Parliamentarians were on the verge of successfully impeaching the President anyway in their third attempt in two years.
According to some reports, Castillo was lulled into believing that the army leadership would support his decision. The military leadership instead sided with Congress, which claimed that the President had violated the Constitution and his oath of office. Castillo had alienated many of his close political allies on the Left by backtracking on a lot of his radical campaign promises. He was arrested immediately after he announced the dissolution of the Congress. Peru’s top court ruled that the decision was “unconstitutional” and ordered Castillo’s imprisonment for a year and a half on charges of “rebellion” and “conspiracy”.
Peru’s first female head of state
Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as President at lightning speed, becoming the country’s first female head of state. She had previously stated that she would resign if her boss was impeached. Boluarte has no previous experience in administration, and until recently was an obscure figure in Peruvian politics without a party of her own. She said that she would govern until 2026, when Castillo’s term was constitutionally mandated to end. But after widespread protests broke out in the country calling for Castillo’s release and immediate elections, the new government announced that elections would be held before April 2024.
The announcement did not satisfy Castillo’s supporters, thousands of whom started pouring into the capital from the rural and highland areas. Just before his removal from office, an opinion poll showed that his approval rating of 24 per cent though dismal was much higher than that of Congress, which stood at 11 per cent. After his removal, his popularity ratings crossed the 40 per cent mark. Castillo’s supporters in Peru’s Amazon region, organised under the banner of the country’s largest indigenous federation, AIDESEP (InterEthnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon), announced a mass mobilisation to demand the holding of immediate elections.
In the weeks following the protests, the security forces killed at least 27 people, many of them teenagers. More than 400 protesters were grievously injured. For days, protesters took over or blocked transport networks, including the vital Pan-American highway, and airports. Peru’s lucrative tourism sector was hit as cities such as Cusco were badly affected by violence and strikes. In the third week of December, the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew in 15 of the country’s 24 departments and gave the army and the police a free hand.
When Castillo was produced in the Supreme Court for sentencing, he told the presiding judge that he had been “arbitrarily and unjustly detained” and would “never renounce or abandon the popular cause” that won him the presidency. He called on the security forces to stop killing innocent people.
Many Peruvians were unhappy at the manner in which Castillo was treated after his removal from office. After the passage of the impeachment vote, Castillo along with his immediate family left the presidential palace to take shelter in the Mexican embassy in Lima. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had offered him political asylum. The police on the order of the military leadership intercepted Castillo’s car before it could reach the embassy and arrested him. The left-wing governments of Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia have condemned Castillo’s ouster as illegal and unconstitutional and insisted that he remains the rightful President of Peru. The Presidents of these countries issued a statement calling on Peruvian authorities “to abstain from reverting the people’s will, expressed in free suffrage”. The statement emphasised that many of the lawmakers who voted to impeach Castillo had also refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of his victory in the 2021 election in the first place.
US role in ouster
According to reports in the Peruvian and Latin American media, the US had a role in Castillo’s ouster. Lisa Kenna, the US Ambassador to Peru, met with Defence Secretary Gustavo Bobbio a day before the tumultuous events on December 7. Bobbio had taken over the post earlier in the week after the resignation of the previous incumbent. The army chief too had resigned hours before Castillo made his speech on December 7. Discarding diplomatic norms, Kenna had immediately through a tweet condemned Castillo’s move to dissolve Congress. Within hours, the Peruvian military and police leadership issued a joint statement saying that they would “protect the constitutional order”, along with the President’s expedited impeachment by the Congress and the order for his arrest. The Joe Biden administration did not waste any time recognising the new government. The European Union, as expected, quickly followed suit.
On December 13, the day before the Boluarte government declared “a state of emergency”, Kenna met Boluarte. A statement from the government after the meeting said that the US Ambassador “had reaffirmed her country’s complete support to the democratic institutions in Peru and to the actions of the constitutional government to stabilise the situation”. Castillo had also tried to get into the good books of the Biden administration by siding with the West on the war in Ukraine and issuing statements critical of the Venezuelan government. A month before his ouster, Castillo wrote to the US-dominated Organisation of American States asking it to protect him from “a new type of coup d’état” that was being planned.
An article in the Mexican newspaper La Journada claimed that the military attaché in the US embassy in Lima along with the Peruvian military high command played a key role in planning the coup. Before her assignment to Lima, Kenna had been a CIA operative for nine years and then executive secretary to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had headed the CIA before that.
Many of the key figures in the new regime have a military background and are known to be close to the US security establishment. In August 2022, Castillo and the Peruvian Congress had approved the entry of US troops into the country for joint exercises in combat, psyops, and intelligence operations with the Peruvian military and police. The new Prime Minister, Alberto Otarola, while serving as Deputy Defence Minister in a previous administration, worked closely with the US to refurbish the image of the Peruvian military. The military was blamed for widespread human rights abuses during the long authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori. Juan Carlos Liendo O’Connor, the new intelligence chief, is a retired colonel. He has worked in the past with the Directorate of Strategy Policy and Plans for the US Southern Command as a liaison officer representing the Peruvian Army. Defence Minister Gen. (retd) Jorge Chavez Cresta is a graduate from a US military institution and has worked closely with the US military. The US would like nothing better than to regain control over Peru’s vast mineral resources such as copper, zinc, and silver. Today, China is Peru’s biggest trading and business partner.
Castillo was elected to office in July 2021. Coming from a rural background, the 52-year-old former teacher and union leader narrowly won the election. His victory took the establishment parties and the Peruvian elite by surprise. His main opponent, Keiko Fujimori, who lost the election by less than a percentage point, had refused to concede defeat. Congress, which is dominated by right-wing parties, never allowed Castillo to settle down and govern. Castillo’s Free Peru Party holds only 37 seats in Congress. Since taking office, he had named five different Cabinets and 80 Ministers.
Charges of corruption
Within months, unsubstantiated charges of corruption started being hurled against him. All Peruvian Presidents who have held office in the last 36 years have faced impeachment proceedings on charges of corruption. Two of them, including Alberto Fujimori, were imprisoned while another former President, Alan Garcia, killed himself as the police came to arrest him.
Unfortunately for Castillo, the start of his presidency coincided with the coronavirus crisis. Peru recorded the world’s highest per capita COVID-related death toll in relation to its population. The international commodity boom on which Peru’s economy depended had also ended. Castillo’s main campaign slogan—“No more poor people in a rich country”—electrified his rural voter base and the working class. The country Castillo took over was a sharply polarised one with its economy in bad shape. Millions of Peruvians lost their jobs during the two pandemic-hit years. To add to the woes of the Castillo administration, the war in Ukraine pushed up the prices of oil and fertilizers.
The people had high expectations of the Castillo administration. Castillo had pledged on the campaign trail that his government would “nationalise” Peru’s rich hydrocarbon and mineral sector if elected, but the machinations of the elite thwarted his ambitious plans to introduce policies aimed at benefiting the majority of Peruvians and he had to backtrack on his commitments. Another of his important election pledges was to rewrite the Constitution, which was adopted during Alberto Fujimori’s authoritarian rule.
But the political establishment and the economic elite in Lima, having smelled blood, were unrelenting in their quest to oust Castillo, whom they viewed as a political interloper from the boondocks unfit to hold high office. They made much of the fact that he had not held any political office of note before he ran for the presidency. His opponents in Congress and the judiciary saw to it that Castillo had the dubious distinction of becoming the first President in the country’s history to be investigated by national prosecutors while still in office. The main charge against him is that he allowed family members to enrich themselves through the award of public works contracts. In all, there were six charges of corruption and misuse of office against Castillo, who has refuted them. No concrete evidence has been produced against him or his family members so far.
- On December 7, left-wing President Pedro Castillo, mistakenly thinking that the army leadership was behind him, announced in a televised address to the nation that he was dissolving the Peruvian Congress and going to rule by decree.
- But hours later, Congress, which is dominated by the right-wing opposition, voted him out of office, and Castillo was arrested.
- Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as President, becoming Peru’s first female head of state.
- She said that she would govern until 2026. But after widespread protests broke out in the country calling for Castillo’s release and immediate elections, the new government announced that elections would be held before April 2024.
- The protests have resulted in the security forces killing at least 27 people, many of them teenagers, and injuring more than 400 others. Peru’s lucrative tourism sector was badly affected by the violence and strikes.
- There is some speculation that the US had a hand in Castillo’s ouster. The US Ambassador to Peru is a former CIA operative and many of the key figures in the new regime have a military background and are known to be close to the US security establishment.
- Castillo is facing six charges of corruption and misuse of office, but so far no concrete evidence has been produced against him or his family members.