LIMA – University student Yessenia Medina was trying to concentrate on her virtual psychology class when a stunning headline popped up on her screen: Peru’s Congress had voted to oust the nation’s popular president.
Furious, the 23-year-old joined the thousands of students, workers and others protesting this week, decrying Congress and refusing to recognize the new president, Manuel Merino.
“I think they removed him out of their own personal interests rather than those of the people,” she said. “Legislators are supposed to watching out for the good of all.”
Peru’s Congress voted overwhelmingly to remove now ex-President Martín Vizcarra on Monday, complaining about his handling of the pandemic and accusing him of corruption. The shock vote drew condemnation from international rights groups who warned that the powerful legislature may have violated the constitution and jeopardized Peru’s democracy.
The move has also sparked protests unlike any seen in recent years, fueled largely by young people typically apathetic to the country’s notoriously turbulent politics who saw the ouster as a power grab by lawmakers, many of whom were being investigated for corruption under Vizcarra's government.
Police repressing the mobilizations with tear gas and rubber bullets have been criticized for excessive use of force. Nineteen people, including officers and civilians, were injured at a large protest Thursday, according to the public defender’s office. Rights groups have also warned about the use of plainclothes officers with no identification and tear gas deployed near homes and hospitals.
Eighteen protesters were detained in the march Thursday.
“Peruvians have a right to protest,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “Police and other authorities should protect peaceful demonstrations and in all situations refrain from using excessive force.”
Analysts say the demonstrations – and the heavy-handed police response - are a clear sign that Merino will have difficulty governing. Few countries in the region extended congratulations to the new leader and many are calling on him to keep in place a planned April election.
Merino has stated the presidential vote will take place as scheduled and defended Vizcarra's ouster, saying it was an “act of absolute responsibility” and even calling the former president “a thief.”
The protests come a year after a wave of demonstrations shook Latin America, with protesters in Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere taking to the streets to protest their governments and demand better conditions for the poor and working class. Like those protests, the Peru demonstrations are loosely organized, driven by notices posted on social media and fueled in large part by the demands of young people.
“The youth identifies with the anti-corruption movement,” said Carlos Fernández, a political analyst. “They’re out on the street adding pressure.”
Prosecutors are investigating allegations Vizcarra took over $630,000 in bribes in exchange for two construction projects while governor of a small province years ago.
Vizcarra – who made combatting the nation’s widespread corruption the mission of his government – vehemently denied the allegations. But members of Congress - half of whom are under investigation themselves – pressed forward, invoking a clause dating to the 19th century that allows them to remove a president for “moral incapacity.”
The ex-president has not been charged.
While polls show most Peruvians wanted Vizcarra to remain in office until his term ends in July and then face a probe into the allegations, some segments of society supported his destitution.
A group of about 50 lawyers, conservative politicians and retired military officers published an open letter welcoming the new president and denying that a coup had taken place. The group also sent a message to the international community saying the move had “strengthened our democracy.”
The political turbulence comes as Peru has the highest per capital COVID-19 mortality rate globally and one of the region’s most severe economic contractions. The International Monetary Fund estimates Peru’s GDP could decline 14% this year.
“Merino, listen up, the people reject you!” crowds chanted this week.
Lizbeth Obregón, 22, said she cried while watching Vizcarra’s ouster with her family.
“My dad said it’s always been like that,” she said. “That the nation has been taken over by rats.”
Now she’s among those demonstrating, worried that the country’s balance of power is broken.
The protests have taken place in cities around the nation. In the capital, the historic San Martin plaza has become a central gathering point. The large open space features a towering statue of Peru’s liberator riding on a horse.
“Merino, you messed with the wrong generation,” several signs read at one of this week's gathering.
Despite the heavy police response, many have vowed to keep protesting.
Abigail Calluque, 20, ran Thursday as she tried to escape from a cloud of tear gas, coughing while holding up a sign that read, “coup d’état.”
“I’m so tired of this situation,” she said. “They do whatever they want and we’ve always stayed quiet. No more.”