LIMA, Peru — How does a democracy of 32 million people allow a rabble-rousing, former rebel leader to orchestrate, from his prison cell, the impeachment of a popular corruption-busting president?
That’s the question many Peruvians are asking themselves after the shock ousting of Martín Vizcarra this week by a scandal-wracked congress most citizens have long viewed, with a handful of exceptions, as a cesspit of criminal venality.
Vizcarra was fired for “moral incapacity” in a 105-19 vote, a vague term supposedly based on unproven accusations that he accepted bribes. More than half of the 130 members of the legislature that rushed to remove him currently face open criminal investigations of their own, on charges ranging from money laundering to homicide, a fact Vizcarra noted as he sought to defend himself before congress.
The impeachment push was spearheaded by the small, extremist Union for Peru party (UPP by its Spanish initials), led by Antauro Humala, the imprisoned younger brother of former moderate President Ollanta Humala.
Antauro, who routinely makes headlines with his outrageous statements and plans for his own presidential run as soon as he is released, is serving a 19-year sentence for leading a 2005 military uprising, in which several police officers were murdered, against the elected government of then-President Alejandro Toledo.
He has called on his brother to commit suicide, apparently for being too moderate, and been caught smoking cannabis in his cell—an unusual habit for a wannabe authoritarian strongman.
“Ollanta never understood anything about ideology,” Antauro said in a typical outburst during his brother’s 2011-2016 presidency. “He can barely read, his wife less. They are ideological illiterates around whom gather the scum from congress … In the end they accepted the prevalent constitutional neoliberalism.
Variously described as “far left” or “fascist”, ethnocacerism is an idiosyncratic mix of economic populism, xenophobia — especially towards Peru’s southern neighbor Chile — and the mythologizing of the supposed racial superiority of “copper skinned” Andeans. It also takes an old school machista view of women’s rights while Isaac Humala, 89, has called for the summary shooting of homosexuals and corrupt officials.
It was the second attempt to oust Vizcarra in two months. On both occasions, Peruvian media reported how Antauro, 57, directed UPP members of Congress from his cell, both by phone and in person, receiving numerous visits from his parliamentary bloc.
Yet the second motion would have gotten nowhere had other parties in the splintered legislature not been happy to tag along behind UPP’s 13 lawmakers as they sought to bring down a president whose attempts to clean up public life threatened both their grip on power and their bottom lines.
Vizcarra’s reforms included banning candidates with criminal records, forcing members of congress to reveal their assets, and strictly regulating party finances to stop the money-laundering of illegal big check donations, some from organized crime, that are routine here.
Two of the parties that voted to fire the president were the Alliance for Progress (APP) and Podemos (We Can), each led by businessmen who own lucrative low-quality private universities targeted by a major education reform that the Vizcarra administration was continuing from the previous government.
During the impeachment debate, one of the most strident speeches against the president came from Omar Chehade, an APP member and former Vice President. He called Vizcarra a “mythomaniacal psychopath,” adding: “We have a hypocritical president today, who doesn’t mind lying to the nation in order to save his skin.”
Chehade was himself forced to step down as Ollanta Humala’s number two after being involved in an influence-peddling scandal in 2011. Chehade’s brother was eventually jailed but the politician escaped prosecution only because he was also a member of congress and therefore had parliamentary immunity.
Meanwhile, Podemos’ founder, José Luna Gálvez, was arrested on Saturday — just two days before Vizcarra’s ouster — for allegedly bribing functionaries to register his party without the sufficient number of voters’ signatures.
Regulators are in the process of shuttering Luna Gálvez’s Telesup university for failing to meet basic educational standards, a process that could now be reversed by the new government led by Manuel Merino, the dour, little-known speaker of congress who replaces Vizcarra and who facilitated the impeachment push.
Although he is unlikely to extend his appeal beyond a small minority of the rural poor if he ever does run for the presidency, Antauro’s ability to undermine Peru’s fragile democracy could now not be clearer.
“Supposedly, ethnocacerism is about inclusion, but really it excludes so many citizens in a society as diverse as ours,” says Norma Correa, an anthropologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “It’s not just whites. Ethnocacerism has no place for Afro-Peruvians, Amazonian natives or even mestizos.”
Now, with Peru plunged into chaos and protests gathering momentum in Lima and other cities, Antauro remains incommunicado, banned by prison authorities from contact with the outside world.
His ex-president brother believes he has been used as a “useful idiot” by some of the country’s larger political parties. But behind bars and with little to lose, he may be one of the few instigators of Vizcarra’s ouster with nothing to fear from the growing backlash against a new government bereft of legitimacy and public support.