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Peru swears in a new president amid constitutional crisis

Congress President Jose Williams gives thumbs up after lawmakers verbally voted to remove President Pedro Castillo from office in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Peru's Congress voted to remove Castillo from office Wednesday and replace him with the vice president, shortly after Castillo tried to dissolve the legislature ahead of a scheduled vote to remove him.
Guadalupe Pardo
/
AP
Congress President Jose Williams gives thumbs up after lawmakers verbally voted to remove President Pedro Castillo from office in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Peru's Congress voted to remove Castillo from office Wednesday and replace him with the vice president, shortly after Castillo tried to dissolve the legislature ahead of a scheduled vote to remove him.

Updated December 7, 2022 at 4:34 PM ET

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in Wednesday as Peru's next president after Congress voted out President Pedro Castillo shortly after he dissolved the legislative body.

The 60-year-old lawyer took the oath of office and became the first female leader in the more than 200-year history of the independent republic.

Her swearing in capped hours of uncertainty as both the president and Congress appeared to exercise their constitutional powers to do away with each other.

Boluarte said her first order of business would be to address government corruption, ostensibly what felled Castillo.

"There has been an attempted coup ... that has not found an echo in the institutions, nor in the street," Boluarte said. She called for a political truce to install a national unity government.

"What I ask for is a space, a time to rescue the country," she said.

Bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, Boluarte was elected as vice president on the presidential ticket that brought Castillo to power July 28, 2021. During Castillo's brief administration, Boluarte was minister of development and social inclusion.

Earlier Wednesday, Peru's Congress removed Castillo from office shortly after he had decreed the dissolution of the legislature ahead of a scheduled vote o oust him.

The national ombudsman's office, Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court called Castillo's move to dissolve the Congress a coup, although at least one expert disagreed.

Peru's Congress has the ability to remove the president and the president has the ability to dissolve the Congress, so "technically, it is not a coup," said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science and international relations professor at Florida International University.

"The confusion is in the 15,000 interpretations that exist about who prevails, the Congress or the president," he said. The one who wins will be the one with more power, he said.

Lawmakers voted 101-6 with 10 abstentions to remove Castillo from office for reasons of "permanent moral incapacity."

Castillo left the presidential palace in an automobile that carried him through Lima's historic downtown and later entered a police station, where his status was not immediately clear. In a photograph circulated by the national police on Twitter, which was later erased, Castillo was visible seated inside the station surrounded by officers.

Shortly before the vote, Castillo announced that he was installing a new emergency government and called for the next round of lawmakers to develop a new constitution for the Andean nation. He said during a televised address that he would rule by decree meanwhile, and ordered a nightly curfew starting Wednesday night.

Castillo also announced that he would make changes in the leadership of the judiciary, police and constitutional court. The head of Peru's army then resigned, along with four ministers, including those over foreign affairs and the economy.

Castillo took action as his opponents in Congress moved toward a third attempt to remove him from office.

The Ombudsman's Office, an autonomous government institution, said before the congressional vote that Castillo should resign and turn himself in to judicial authorities. After years of democracy, Peru is in the midst of a constitutional collapse "that can't be called anything but a coup," the statement said.

"Mr. Castillo must remember that he was not only elected president of the republic, but also that the people elected representatives for public service," the statement said. "Castillo's actions ignore the will of the people and are invalid."

The congressional vote called for Vice President Dina Boluarte to assume the presidency. Boluarte via Twitter rejected Castillo's actions, saying "it worsens the political and institutional crisis that Peruvian society will have to overcome with strict adherence to the law."

Boluarte, a 60-year-old lawyer, is the first woman to reach the presidency in Peru's more than 200 years as an independent republic. Bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, she was on the same ticket when voters chose Castillo in July 2021. She also served as minister of development and social inclusion.

Peru's Joint Chiefs and National Police rejected the constitutionality of Castillo's dissolution of the Congress in a statement.

International reaction was at times outpaced by events.

United States Amb. Lisa Kenna called on Castillo via Twitter to reverse his decree to dissolve Congress, saying the U.S. government rejected any "extra-constitutional" actions by the president to interfere with Congress.

A short time later the Congress voted to remove Castillo.

Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said via Twitter that given recent events in Peru, Mexico had decided to postpone the Pacific Alliance summit scheduled for Dec. 14 in Lima. He said he regretted the recent developments and called for democracy and human rights to be respected.

Chile and Spain also took a neutral stance. The administration of Chilean President Gabriel Boric lamented the political situation in Peru and trusted that the crisis would be resolved through democratic mechanisms.

Spain's government strongly condemned the break in constitutional order and congratulated the country on righting itself democratically.

Castillo had said in an unusual midnight address on state television ahead of the vote that he would never stain "the good name of my honest and exemplary parents, who like millions of Peruvians, work every day to build honestly a future for their families."

The peasant-turned-president said he's paying for mistakes made due to inexperience. But he said a certain sector of Congress "has as its only agenda item removing me from office because they never accepted the results of an election that you, my dear Peruvians, determined with your votes."

Castillo has denied allegations of corruption against him, saying they're based on "hearsay statements by people who, seeking to lighten their own punishments for supposed crimes by abusing my confidence, are trying to involve me without evidence."

Federal prosecutors are investigating six cases against Castillo, most of them for alleged corruption, under the theory that he has used his power to profit from public works.

The power struggle in Perú's capital has continued as the Andes and its thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in a half-century. Without rain, farmers can't plant potatoes, and the dying grass can no longer sustain herds of sheep, alpacas, vicuñas and llamas. Making matters worse, avian flu has killed at least 18,000 sea birds and infected at least one poultry producer, endangering the chicken and turkeys raised for traditional holiday meals.

The government also confirmed that in the past week, the country has suffered a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 4.3 million Peruvians have been infected, and 217,000 of them have died.

The first president to come from a poor farming community in the nation's history, Castillo arrived in the presidential palace last year without any political experience. He changed his cabinet five times during his year and a half in office, running through 60 different cabinet officials, leaving various government agencies paralyzed.

Although Castillo is the first president to be investigated while still in office, the probes are no surprise in a country where nearly every former president in the last 40 years have been charged with corruption linked to multinational corporations, such as the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

Since 2016, Perú has been entrenched in political crises, with congresses and presidents trying to eliminate each other in turn. President Martín Vizcarra (2018-2020) dissolved Congress in 2019 and ordered new elections. That new legislature removed Vizcarra the next year. Then came President Manuel Merino, who lasted less than a week before a crackdown killed two protesters and injured 200 more. His successor, Francisco Sagasti, lasted nine months before Castillo took over.

Castillo on Wednesday became the second ex-president currently in custody in the country. A former Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, is serving a 25-year sentence for murder and corruption charges dating to his 1990-2000 rule.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press