A 120-minute coup d’état

By Rocío Silva Santisteban

The paper on which the speech he read that morning was written trembled like a tree in the middle of a storm. The hands of the former president of Peru, Pedro Castillo, reading in front of the television cameras betrayed anxiety and fear. His speech did not even last three minutes and in it he shut down Congress and proposed restructuring the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Office, the Constitutional Court and the National Justice Board, called for a constituent assembly in nine months during which he would govern by decree laws and ordered a curfew from 10 pm to 4 am. He used the same word that, thirty years earlier, Alberto Fujimori had used when he perpetrated his self-coup d’état: «dissolve the congress». Dissolve is a scary word in Peru today.

But unlike the satrap Fujimori, Castillo did not have an evil and cunning advisor like Vladimiro Montesinos, now a prisoner in the Naval Base. Castillo was advised, as we now know, by his former premier Aníbal Torres, an old university professor and renowned lawyer, who did not calculate the possible scenarios, and by the ambitious and inexperienced Betssy Chávez, his current premier, a 33-year-old lawyer. As he read his papers trembling, Castillo did not have the support of the Armed Forces, nor of the National Police, nor of any political party, nor of any state institution, nor of his own ministers, nor of the people in general, except for a few pickets of ronderos, peasant women or radical left-wing parties who, among 50 people, were stationed outside the congress. Yes, astonished reader, it was literally political suicide.

Why? Congress had scheduled for 3 pm on 7 December the discussion of a motion for presidential vacancy -impeachment- for «permanent moral incapacity» as stated in the ambiguous article of the Peruvian Constitution, approved by a coup leader Fujimori in 1993. It was the third attempt. During this year and four months of government, the congress tried to oust Castillo from office from the very beginning, even before he took office he was unjustly accused of electoral fraud. A congress made up of three far-right parties, with a former military human rights violator in the presidency, former General Williams Zapata, and with a series of congressmen willing to accommodate for various benefits, and with barely 8% popular approval (according to polls). Castillo, apparently advised by Torres and Chávez, thought that this time he could get the 87 votes to consummate the vacancy, and tried to strike first. And he was foaming at the mouth… as the poet César Vallejo would say.

But that same morning an act that took place in the same congress, in the Audit Commission, managed to accelerate Castillo and his former premiers. Sealtiel Marrufo, an official of the Ministry of Housing, revealed to the congressional television cameras that, a few months earlier, he had given Castillo himself one million soles from a bribe he had collected from a land businesswoman. For several months, Castillo has been under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for active bribery, influence peddling, collusion and directing a criminal organisation that infiltrated the structure of the executive branch. This accusation set in motion right-wing congressmen and some left-wing radicals who, for various reasons, wanted to get rid of Castillo. Every day the more traditional press, print, television and radio, commented on the corruption within the government and the opposition’s desire for vacancy. But the slow-motion decline was not accelerating.

7 December was the key date. The clumsy political suicide of a coup d’état without negotiating with the armed forces is the cherry on a political cake of indecision, incompetence, under-the-table pacts, retail corruption, and ministerial changes that amounted to 81 ministers of state in just over a year of government. In short, as governance, it was an unmitigated disaster.

So absurd was the decision to carry out the coup that the presidential family had not even been taken into custody: when the third vacancy vote was being held in Congress, this time with a majority of 101 votes, Pedro Castillo, his wife and children left the Government Palace on their way to the Mexican Embassy. As Peruvians and foreigners who live in Lima know, the traffic was terrible and the police patrols were able to intercept the ex-presidential retinue, and at the point of shouting, threats with sawed-off machine guns, and crazy orders, they drove the car with Castillo, his family and the ex-premier Torres to the Lima Prefecture, where he was arrested and interrogated by the Attorney General herself.

As if in a meta-reality movie, at the same time the congress proceeded to vacate Castillo, this time for disrupting constitutional order, and to appoint Dina Boluarte, the vice-president, as his successor. Boluarte had days earlier issued a tweet disassociating herself from Betssy Chávez’s new cabinet and claiming that she was stepping aside from the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion, where she had been minister for more than a year. Everyone claims that she had previously spoken with the forces in Congress who, a week ago, had filed a constitutional accusation against her. The table was set. After the session, the congressmen shouted, hugged, laughed and took selfies, as if they were the heroes of the day, when they are a substantial part of this political crisis of representation.

Boluarte was sworn in at 3pm, dressed entirely in yellow, the colour of good luck. In her speech she mentioned that she would stay until 28 July 2026, thus implicitly denying the possibility of a call for general elections and a constituent assembly as her former Peru Libre Party proposed in its government plan and Castillo himself initially endorsed. Peru’s first female president will govern without a party, without a bench and without a people to back her. She will have to win the trust of the Peruvian people, even though a certain sector of the left calls her a «traitor» and a certain sector of the right wants her out of office. Meanwhile, in the same prison where the dictator Alberto Fujimori lives, former president Castillo spent his first night in prison.

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