Lima, Peru, November 2020
Clouds of teargas wafted in the toney pedestrian shopping corridors between the presidential palace and the historic Plaza San Martin in the heart of Lima in mid-November. That has been commonplace during most of the past six decades since my first visit to Peru.
Not common was the rapidity with which Peru’s presidents have fallen. The first coup d’etat I experienced there, in 1962, ushered in a military dictatorship guided by a commitment to push through desperately-needed reforms to the feudal system in place since Conquistador Francisco Pizarro destroyed the Incan empire.
Since then, of course, many Peruvian presidents have come and gone. But the intervals shortened dramatically in 2020.
President Manuel Merino assumed the presidency November 10. and was out by November 15. The following day, the national legislature elevated one of its newest members to the presidency. The engineer and professor Francisco Sagasti was the third person to hold the presidency within a week’s time.
Peru has had four presidents in the last four years. The most recent turmoil followed ouster of a fairly popular president, Martín Vizcarra, using a parliamentary measure to find him morally incapable of fulfilling his duties. He had made a name for himself fighting corruption.
More than half of the members of the national legislature were under investigation for corruption. In recent years, Peru’s presidents have been caught up in wide-ranging, multi-national scandals involving “pay-to-play” contracts for big dollar construction projects, including a transcontinental highway. Much of the alleged corruption revolves around dealings with the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.
In 2016, company officials gave sworn statements as part of a plea bargain that they had paid about $800 million in bribes in various Latin American countries. Approximately $29 million went to Peruvian officials.
During the past 20 years, nearly every Peruvian president has been jailed or prosecuted for corruption. The only one who wasn’t charged with corruption, Alan Garcia, shot and killed himself in 2019 when police showed up at his door to arrest him.
Those jailed or investigated include ex-President Alberto Fujimori, the Japanese immigrant agronomist largely credited with destroying domestic terrorism and discredited for political repression and corruption. He remains in prison; he was granted a presidential pardon in 2018, but that was rescinded.
Ex-president Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), who got his start as a shoeshine boy befriended by an American Peace Corps couple, continues to fight extradition from the United States to stand trial for corruption. Charged with taking $35 million in bribes, he has been jailed in California but was released to home confinement in March 2020.
Peru’s first Native American president, former military officer Ollanta Humala, was arrested in July 2017 for corruption. Pedro Pablo Kuczinski, who held dual U.S.-Peruvian citizenship until he ran for the presidency in November 2015, resigned in March 2018. He had been held in pre-trial detention since April 2019 while under investigation for corruption, bribery and money-laundering. Kuczinski is a former general manager of Peru’s central bank and a former official with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Martín Vizcarra, recently ousted by the legislature, was sworn in March 23, 2018, after Kuczinski resigned in disgrace. Disintegration of Peru’s political system has apparently brought a revival of one of the most brutal revolutionary movements in modern history, that of the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.
In March of this year, I was within days of buying airline tickets for yet another trip to Peru in June. The pandemic put a quick halt to those plans, but now, eight months later, I am again eagerly contemplating a resumption, assuming a vaccine is ready in 2021. Topping the itinerary is Cuzco and Machu Picchu for those in the entourage who have not seen it.
But a travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department in November urges extreme caution. “Remnants of the Shining Path terrorist group are active” in areas including Cuzco and vicinity.