A 120-Minute Coup d'Etat

His speech was written on a piece of paper that was shaking like a leaf in the middle of a storm. As he read it before television cameras, former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo’s hands showed anxiety and fear. In a speech that barely lasted three minutes, he announced the dissolution of Congress and the reorganization of the Judiciary, the Attorney General's Office, the Constitutional Court and the National Board of Justice. He called for a constituent assembly to be held in nine months, during which time he would rule by decree laws, and he imposed a curfew from 10 pm to 4 am. He used the same words that Alberto Fujimori had used thirty years earlier when he staged his coup d'état: "dissolve the Congress". Dissolve is a scary word in Peru today.

But unlike the tyrant Fujimori, Castillo did not have a wicked and cunning advisor like Vladimiro Montesinos, currently a prisoner in the Navy Base. We now know that Castillo was advised by ex-Premier Aníbal Torres, an old university professor and renowned lawyer, who failed to anticipate possible scenarios, and by Betssy Chávez, his current Premier, an ambitious and inexperienced 33-year-old lawyer. Shaking as he read his papers, Castillo was not supported by the Armed Forces, the National Police, any political party, any state institution, his own ministers, or the people in general, except for a few pickets of ronderos, women peasants and radical left-wing parties numbering around 50 people gathered outside the Congress. And yes, astonished reader, it was literally a political suicide.

Why? At 3 pm on December 7th, a motion for impeachment had been scheduled to be debated in Congress for "permanent moral incapacity", as stated in the ambiguous article of coup leader Fujimori’s 1993 Constitution. It was the third such attempt. Throughout one year and four months in office, the Congress tried to oust Castillo from the very beginning, and even before his inauguration he was unfairly accused of electoral fraud. Presided over by ex-General Williams Zapata, a former human rights violator, this Congress was made up of three ultra-right-wing parties and several congressmen intent on securing their own benefits and had a mere 8% popular approval rating according to the polls. Apparently influenced by Torres and Chávez, Castillo believed that this time the 87 votes needed to approve the motion might be obtained and hence sought to strike first. And he was foaming at the mouth, as poet César Vallejo said.

But that morning, at an Oversight Committee meeting in that very Congress, the case against Castillo and his ex-premiers was expedited. Ministry of Housing official Sealtiel Marrufo revealed to the Congress television cameras that a few months earlier he had given Castillo a million soles from a bribe he had collected from a land businesswoman. Castillo has been under investigation for several months by the Public Prosecutor's Office for active bribery, influence peddling, collusion, and as the leader of a criminal organisation embedded in the structure of the Executive. This accusation galvanised right-wing congressmen and a few extreme leftists who, for different reasons, wanted to get rid of Castillo. Every day the mainstream media - newspapers, television and radio - reported on corruption in the government and the opposition's desire to vacate the presidency. Yet, the slow-motion decline would not gather momentum.

December 7th was the key date. A clumsy political suicide resulting from a coup d'état not negotiated with the armed forces was the icing on a political cake of indecision, incompetence, underhand deals, corruption, and ministerial changes that amounted to 81 state ministers in just over a year in office. In short, in terms of governance it was an utter disaster.

So preposterous was the decision to stage the coup that not even the presidential family had been taken into safety: only when the third vacancy vote was being held in Congress - this time with a majority of 101 votes - did Pedro Castillo, his wife and children leave the Government Palace for the Mexican Embassy. Traffic can be terrible in Lima the Horrible, as Peruvians and foreigners living there know, so police patrols managed to stop the ex-presidential entourage, and by shouting, threatening with sawed-off machine guns, and giving outrageous orders, the car with Castillo, his family and ex-premier Torres was taken to the Lima Prefecture headquarters, where he was arrested and interrogated by the Public Prosecutor herself.

As if in a meta-reality film, at the same time Castillo was removed from office in Congress for breaching constitutional order, and Vice-President Dina Boluarte was appointed as his successor. A few days earlier, Boluarte had posted a tweet announcing that she would not be part of Betssy Chávez's new cabinet and that she was leaving the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion, where she had been a minister for more than a year. Everyone claims that she had previously spoken with the congressional powers which had withdrawn a constitutional indictment against her a week earlier. So the table was set. After the session, the congressmen cheered, hugged each other, laughed and took selfies pretending to be the heroes of the day while they in fact had played a major role in this political crisis of representation.

Boluarte was sworn in at 3 pm, dressed entirely in yellow, the colour of good luck. In her speech she announced that she would stay in office until July 28th, 2026, thus implicitly ruling out the possibility of a general election and a constituent assembly, as her former Peru Libre party had proposed in its government plan and Castillo himself had initially endorsed. Peru's first female President will rule without a party, congress representation or a supporting population. She will need to gain the trust of the Peruvian people, although a sector of the left calls her a "traitor" and a sector of the right wants her out of office. Meanwhile, former president Castillo spent his first night in the prison that is also home to dictator Alberto Fujimori. 

Rocío Silva-Santisteban is a human rights activist, writer, and professor at the Universidad Ruiz de Montoya and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. She is a former congresswoman and member of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature.

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