Lima, Peru (AP) – Undergraduate student Jesenia Medina was trying to focus on her virtual psychology class when a stunning title popped up on her screen: The Voice of Peru’s Congress to Overthrow the Country’s Popular President.
Furious, the 23-year-old joined the thousands of students, workers and others who protested this week, denouncing Congress and refusing to recognize the new president, Manuel Merino.
“I think they kept him away from their personal interests instead of the people’s interests,” she said. “Legislators are supposed to watch for the good of everyone.”
The Peruvian Congress voted overwhelmingly on Monday to sack former President Martin Vizcarra, complained about his handling of the pandemic and accused him of corruption. The shock drew condemnation from international rights groups, who warned that the powerful legislature may have violated the constitution and endangered Peru’s democracy.
The move also sparked protests unlike what we have seen in recent years, fueled largely by young people usually indifferent to the country’s turbulent politics, who saw the overthrow as a takeover of power by lawmakers, many of whom are under investigation for corruption cases under the Vizcarra government.
Police repression of the mobilization with tear gas and rubber bullets has been criticized for the excessive use of force. Nineteen people, including officers and civilians, were wounded in a large demonstration Thursday, according to the Public Defender’s Office. Human rights groups also warned against the unidentified use of plainclothes officers, and the use of tear gas near homes and hospitals.
Eighteen demonstrators were arrested in the Thursday rally.
“Peruvians have the right to protest,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. The police and other authorities must protect peaceful demonstrations and in all circumstances refrain from using excessive force. “
Analysts say the demonstrations – and the police response – a clear indication that Merino will struggle to judge. Few countries in the region offered their congratulations to the new leader, and many called on him to keep the elections scheduled for April.
Merino stated that the presidential elections would go ahead as scheduled and defended Vizcarra’s impeachment, saying it was an “act of absolute responsibility” and even describing the former president as a “thief”.
The protests come a year after a wave of demonstrations that rocked Latin America, as protesters in Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere took to the streets to protest their governments and demand better conditions for the poor and the working class. Like those protests, the Peruvian demonstrations are loosely organized, driven by notices posted on social media and fueled in large part by the demands of the youth.
“Young people sympathize with the anti-corruption movement,” said Carlos Fernandez, a political analyst. “They are in the street, which increases the pressure.”
Prosecutors are investigating allegations that Vizcarra received more than $ 630,000 in bribes for two construction projects when he was the governor of a small county years ago.
Vizcarra – who has made fighting rampant corruption in the country the mission of his government – vehemently denied the allegations. But members of Congress – half of whom are under investigation themselves – pressed forward, citing a 19th-century clause that would allow them to fire a president for “moral incompetence”.
The former president has not been charged.
While polls show that most Peruvians wanted Vizcarra to remain in office until his term ends in July and then face an investigation into the allegations, some segments of society have supported his poverty.
A group of about 50 lawyers, conservative politicians, and retired military officers published an open letter welcoming the new president and denying a coup. The group also sent a message to the international community saying that the move “strengthened our democracy”.
The political turmoil comes as Peru has the highest death rate for both COVID-19 globally and one of the most severe economic downturns in the region. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Peru’s gross domestic product may fall by 14% this year.
“Merino, look, people reject you!” Crowds cheered this week
Lisbeth Obregon, 22, said she cried while watching Vizcarra was being expelled with her family.
“My father said it was always like this,” she said. “The nation has been overtaken by rats.”
She is now among the demonstrators, worried about the collapse of the balance of power in the country.
Protests broke out in cities across the country. In the capital, the historic San Martin Square has become a central gathering point. The large open space features a towering statue of a Peruvian liberator riding a horse.
“Merino, you messed with the wrong generation,” she read several placards at one of this week’s meetings.
Despite the police response severely, many vowed to continue the protest.
On Thursday, 20-year-old Abigail Callock ran while trying to escape from a cloud of tear gas, coughing while holding up a sign reading “Coup.”
She said, “I am tired of this situation.” “They do whatever they want and we’ve always been silent. Nothing more.”