Peru’s Multidimensional Challenge Review

By Evan Ellis / November 8, 2020

International Affairs Academy

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In an effort to explore new priorities, lets move our attention to South America, specifically Peru. Evan Ellis wrote the following yesterday.


With the beginning of November 2020, Peru’s Congress

returned from a week of recess and member consultation

with constituencies and voted to deliberate on removing

President Martin Vizcarra over corruption charges, to the full body.In the

coming weeks, in a process not unlike impeachment in the United States,

Peru’s Congress will summon the president to respond to corruption

charges, and in the unlikely case that it achieves the required 2/3 majority

(87 votes), could remove him from office. The process will be the second

time in little more than two months that Congress has attempted to

remove Vizcarra—albeit on two completely separate charges—and the

culmination of a very bad year for the president and the nation.

If President Vizcarra, after leaving office, is formally charged for one or

more of the serious crimes for which he is currently being investigated, he

would be the sixth Peruvian president since 2000 to suffer that fate. Even

as Peru’s political crisis plays out, the country, which is strategically

important for its political and economic weight, geographic position as a

gateway to Asia, and as a source of both narcotics and illegal mining

products, is also suffering unprecedented health and socioeconomic stress

from the COVID-19 pandemic.It is also undergoing important

transformations in its criminal economy, and facing a potentially

significant expansion of the economic footprint and associated influence

of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This article is the first in a three-part series examining the

multidimensional and mutually reinforcing challenges facing Peru. The

present article examines the political crisis and prospects for the 2021

elections. The second will examine Peru’s security challenges and the

response of its government. The third will examine the advance of the PRC

and its implications for the country and the region.


President Vizcarra’s current

predicament is ironic given his path

to office and his high popularity just a

year ago. He was widely perceived as

an honest leader, valiantly and

stubbornly struggling against vested

interests in Peruvian politics.

Vizcarra became president in March

2018 when his predecessor, Pedro

Pablo Kuczynski, resigned over

corruption allegations. When the

politically fractured Peruvian

Congress—seen as beholden to special interests—tried to block

consideration of reforms he was proposing, Vizcarra exercised his (then

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uncertain) constitutional right to dissolve Congress and call for new

elections. President Vizcarra’s frontal challenge to a congress seen as

representing the worst of corruption and special interests in Peruvian

politics, made him one of the most positively viewed presidents in the

region, reaching an unprecedented 82 percent popular approval in October


With a favorable ruling by Peru’s constitutional court and the tacit backing

of the military Vizcarra prevailed.In January 2020, Peru elected a new

(even more fragmented) congress, none of whose members had

participated in the prior, and in which the previously most powerful block,

Fuerza Popular, tied to exiled Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and his

presidential candidate daughter Keiko, were greatly reduced.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Vizcarra’s response to the pandemic through an early, stringent lockdown

of the country, coupled with a significant assistance package to help the

most vulnerable, was heralded as good leadership at the time, yet didn’t

work. Peru’s economic and social structure, with public markets and a

large informal sector centered on close human interaction, undercut

government efforts to limit the spread of the virus. The contagion was

compounded by the government’s costly commitment to purchase USD

$267 million in “quick tests”from Orient Gene Biotech and other Chinese

companies. The high rate of false negative results of the tests, many of

which were not even certified by the Chinese government, led many who

had contracted the virus to believe otherwise, allowing them to

unknowingly contaminate others.

Weaknesses in Peru’s healthcare system, compounded by delays in

acquiring needed medical equipment, such as ventilators from China,

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contributed to the nation having the world’s highest per capita COVID-19

fatality rate, 105.35 deaths/100,000 people.

Contributing to the appearance of management, in July 2020, in the

middle of the pandemic, President Vizcarra was forced to reshuffle his

cabinet. As the virus continued to spread despite the lockdown, President

Vizcarra’s measures to control it caused the adverse health impacts of the

disease to be compounded by severe economic contraction and particular

hardship among small businesses and in the informal sector, 71 percent of

the Peruvian economy. By November 2020, Peru had over 890,000 cases of

COVID-19 and more than 34,000 deaths from the virus, plus a GDP that

contracted 30.2 percent in the second quarter—among the worst in the

region, although the situation currently appears to be improving.

In the context of discontent over President Vizcarra’s handling of the

pandemic, the emergence of allegations of corruption against him in

September 2020 substantially undercut his public image as an “honest

politician,” one of his core pillars of support among a population weary

from the effects of COVID-19, as well as the seemingly ubiquitous

corruption and dysfunctionality elsewhere in Peruvian politics.

In September 2020, audio recordings became public capturing President

Vizcarra in a conversation with the Secretary of the Presidency Karem

Roca and the Administrator of the Presidential Palace Mirian Morales over

how to handle an investigation by the Attorney General’s office regarding

his role in the hiring of his friend, a relatively unknown singer named

Richard “Swing” Cisneros, by the Ministry of Culture for a series of

motivational talks for which Cisneros was paid USD $44,000. The

Peruvian Congress voted to conduct a process calling the President

Vizcarra before the body to answer for his actions.

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An attempt by the President of Congress, Manuel Merino Lama, to

coordinate with the Peruvian military on that case generated a negative

reaction both within the public, and within the military, which in the

Peruvian system is oriented to see the president as its Commander in

Chief. Reciprocally, the appearance of senior Peruvian military officials in

photos with the president during the scandal, were perceived in some

quarters as tacit military support for the president’s position.

Congress deliberated and voted on removing President Vizcarra for “moral

incapacity,” a charge normally reserved for situations such as insanity.

Debate arose over whether the charge could be used to remove a president

over corruption, and “how corrupt” a president had to be for the statute to

apply (e.g. could a president be removed for marital infidelity).In the end,

key blocks in Congress, including Fuerza Popular, whose maneuverings

against the president backfired in 2019, chose not to vote against him, and

the motion failed to achieve the 2/3 majority required for impeachment.

The second set of corruption charges to emerge against President Vizcarra,

which came to light in October, are more serious. They include first-hand

testimony from persons alleging that they personally gave the president

USD$280,000 in bribes in order to win construction contracts while he

was governor of the Department of Moquegua from 2013-2014. Further

allegations emerged that Vizcarra had also accepted bribes as Minister of

Construction from 2016-2017.

The case quickly became complicated by apparent political maneuverings

by multiple institutions. Publications of recorded conversations between

jailed radical Peruvian politician Antaruo Humala and members of his

party (which has supported Vizcarra’s impeachment) gave the impression

that the party could use its vote against Vizcarra to pressure for Humala’s

release (not unlike Fuerza Popular’s use of its prior position against the

president to press for the pardon of Alberto Fujimori). Reciprocally, for

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some, the government’s plans to move Humala to a colder, less accessible

jail, suggested reciprocity for his party’s support of the investigation.

Creating even more political tension, Peru’s cabinet chief and retired

General Walter Matos generated controversy when he suggested that the

Armed Forces would not tolerate improper congressional action to remove

the president. The comment tied into sensitivities over a perceived

support by the Armed Forces for the president, prompting a motion and

calls in the Congress to bring the Matos before the body to account for his


Finally, the decision by Prosecutor General Daniel Soria not to assign

investigation of the cases to anti-corruption prosecutor Amado Enco, but

instead to Silvana Carrión, prompted Enco’s resignation, giving the

impression that the Vizcarra government was attempting to shape the

outcome of the case.

With widespread discontent over the president’s handling of COVID-19,

and the corruption scandals seriously undercutting his image as an honest

politician, by November 2020 President Vizcarra’s approval rating had

fallen to 22 percent.

Prospects for the Current Crisis

Vizcarra’s survival until the end of his term in July 2021 has less to do with

the substance of the constitutional and criminal challenges raised against

him, than whether Congress believes the stability and well-being of the

country—and their respective parties’ political interests—are better served

by keeping him in office whilst navigating the pandemic. Besides, elections

to choose his successor are just five months away.

Political parties, such as Fuerza Popular, are calculating whether their

support for removing the president will be seen as opportunistic, and hurt

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them at the polls, or as a matter of principle, and help them.

Parties who believe they will do well in the upcoming elections, fear that

ousting Vizcarra and elevating parliamentary head Mario Merino Lama to

the presidency, would set the stage to allow him to postpone elections until

the pandemic is brought under control giving himself a full, four-year term

in office.Indeed, the current congress has already proposed returning the

body to a two house structure,(despite the public’s rejection in a 2018

referendum). The change would circumvent the prohibition against

running for reelection since the congress would then technically be

seeking a term in a different legislative body.

Assuming the first round of Peru’s national elections go forward in April

2021 as scheduled, virtually anything could happen as the parties and their

“pre-candidates”formally define their positions this month. Although

there has been wide variation across polling organizations, as of November

2020 there were 33 “precandidatos”for the presidency. None had

consistent support from more than 15 percent of the population suggesting

that the presidential election will go to an unpredictable second round

runoff in June.

Respected Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto is an early favorite, yet

his choice to run as candidate of Avanza Pais, which is aligned with the

radical nationalist Union por el Peru party of Antaruo Humala, and a

meeting with Jorge Paredes, a former congressman affiliated with the

Sendero Luminoso (terrorist) affiliated social movement has raised

questions about his judgement.

Leftist leader Veronika Mendoza, who almost made it to the final round of

balloting in the prior presidential election, is the leading contender among

leftist candidates, although others such as Marco Arana, pre-candidate of

Frente Amplio, divide the left vote.

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Former presidential contender Keiko Fujimori is another potentially

significant candidate, and has declared her intention to be back in

Peruvian politics “100 percent.” However, she is currently under

investigation by the Peruvian Attorney General’s office, and under

Peruvian law, she will be excluded from the race if she is formally charged

with wrongdoing.

Georges Forsythe, the young mayor of La Victoria, has emerged as a dark

horse candidate. His charisma and effective use of social media has even

dominated some polls. However, he appears to be losing momentum as his

inexperience on the national stage has become evident in public


Daniel Urresti, a former Army General who served as Interior Minister

under Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, and who ran unsuccessfully for

president in 2016, is another leading figure. He has charisma, name

recognition, and his focus on security resonates among Peruvians at a time

of unprecedented difficulty, political chaos, and criminal activity.

However, his own past is clouded by accusations of serious human rights

violations and it is unclear whether he can attract a broad enough support

base which hampered his 2016 candidacy.

If there is a saving grace for Peruvian political stability, it is that the

fragmentation of the Peruvian left, and weak connection between its

parties and the people, decrease the likelihood of mass mobilizations,

which have generated political instability in Ecuador, Chile and Colombia.

Even with the enormous suffering and economic contraction produced by

the pandemic, and constitutionally questionable moves by the Peruvian

government mass demonstrations appear unlikely.

The next article in this series will examine those growing challenges and

the government’s response to date.


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