By FRANKLIN BRICEÑO and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru’s stunning political crisis grinded forward Thursday, as former President Pedro Castillo appeared in court following a failed attempt to close a hostile congress and his successor looked for ways to unite the country behind institutions already hollowed out by endemic corruption and mistrust.
At his initial court appearance, Castillo looked downcast as he gave simple yes or no answers and his attorney argued that he had been arbitrarily detained and ousted from Peru’s presidency on trumped-up charges of rebellion.
The U.S. condemned Castillo’s power grab as illegal and even leftist allies in the region have refused to come to his rescue.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Thursday called Castillo’s removal a “soft coup” fueled by deep-seated racism against the former school teacher from the heavily indigenous Andean highlands. López Obrador said that he had greenlighted Castillo’s request for asylum that he made in a phone call to the Mexican president’s office. But he said those plans were frustrated when Castillo was intercepted by police on his way to the Mexican Embassy in Lima, where a group of protesters awaited.
“It is no longer military intervention,” said López Obrador. “It’s done with control of the media by the oligarchs, undermining legal and legitimately constituted authorities, especially if they want to do something for the benefit of the long-suffering people who do not belong to the elites.”
In just three tumultuous hours, Castillo went from decreeing the dissolution of Peru’s Congress to being replaced by his vice president, but the threats against his government had been building throughout his nearly 17-month presidency.
The political outsider, who won a runoff election in June 2021 by just 44,000 votes, stepped onto a no-holds-barred political battlefield in Peru, the South American country now on its sixth president in six years. By nightfall Wednesday, after a day of high political drama, prosecutors had announced Castillo was under arrest, facing charges of rebellion.
From the start, Castillo’s presidency seemed destined to be short-lived.
Castillo was considered a clear underdog when he joined the race to replace President Francisco Sagasti, who had been appointed by Congress in November 2020 — the last of three heads of state Peru cycled through in one week that November.
He campaigned on promises to nationalize Peru’s key mining industry and rewrite the constitution, gaining support in rural Peru. But upon taking office in July 2021, Castillo immediately struggled with his Cabinet choices, a number of whom have been accused of wrongdoing.
The first attempt to impeach Castillo came last December At the time, a relatively small group of opposition lawmakers cited an investigation by prosecutors into illicit financing of the governing party. To remove the president requires two-thirds of the 130 lawmakers to vote in favor. Only 46 voted in favor.
Congress tried to impeach Castillo again in March for “permanent moral incapacity,” a term incorporated into Peruvian constitutional law that experts say lacks an objective definition and that Congress has used more than a half dozen times since 2017 to try to remove presidents. The effort failed, this time with only 55 votes in favor.
Each time, Castillo defended himself, arguing he had done nothing wrong.
“I salute that common sense, responsibility and democracy prevailed,” Castillo tweeted after the second attempt.
On Wednesday, Peru was girding itself for a third impeachment vote. The night before, the president said in an unusual midnight address on state television that a certain sector of Congress had it out for him and that he was paying for mistakes made due to inexperience.
Then shortly before noon Wednesday, Castillo went on state television and announced the dissolution of Congress. He said elections would be held to choose new lawmakers and a new constitution would be written.
Various members of his Cabinet resigned immediately. Vice President Dina Boluarte said via Twitter that the move only contributed to Peru’s political crisis. The Supreme Court, Constitutional Tribunal and national ombudsman rejected it as an attempted coup.
The president can dissolve congress to end a political standoff but only in limited circumstances — after losing two votes of confidence in Congress, which last occurred in 2019, when then President Martin Vizcarra dismissed lawmakers.
Boluarte, a 60-year-old lawyer, was sworn in as Peru’s first female president. She said her first order of business would be to address corruption, ostensibly what led to Castillo’s downfall.
But she takes office with a weak mandate and no party.
“She has to begin to govern in a way that outreaches to political opponents and also seeks to unify a coalition of supporters,” said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas in Washington. “In order to have a working government, you have to have a coalition big enough to advance policies and legislators behind you.”
Hanging over the political crisis is the question of what to do with Castillo.
In the streets, despite the tumult, only small clashes erupted between a handful of Castillo supporters and riot police — outside a police station where Castillo was taken.
Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers María Verza in Mexico City and Gisela Salomon and Joshua Goodman in Miami and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.