ROSARIO, Argentina – Peru’s interim president lasted only six days: Facing growing opposition from the supporters of his ousted predecessor, he stood down Sunday night pushing the country further into a power vacuum.
The Catholic bishops responded by calling on politics to leave personal interests aside and work for the common good.
President Manuel Merino resigned on Sunday, having taken power on Tuesday. He came to the presidency after legislators shocked the country by voting to remove Martin Vizcarra, a popular incumbent.
This plunged Peru into a constitutional crisis while it’s already in the midst of an economic tailspin and is one of the worst affected countries for the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless Vizcarra resumes power, Merino’s successor would become the fifth president in five years.
Archbishop Carlos Castillo Mattasoglio of Lima called on politicians to build peace by giving up their personal interests and demanded an investigation into the death of two young people killed on Saturday during protests against Merino.
“Peace is built by doing the work of peace, the effort of peace, dialogue and the renunciation of one’s own interests,” he said on Monday. “It’s a difficult path, but not impossible if we are in tune with the God who loves us.”
Speaking during Mass at the Cathedral of Lima, he called on “those who have encouraged all this, to give up and acknowledge the evils they have done.”
“Today is a day to delve deeply into how we build peace among ourselves,” Castillo said, before thanking the young people “who have shown in these demonstrations that they have not had any intention of violence.”
During his homily, the prelate also called for the death of two young students during a protests against Merino on Saturday to be investigated, pointing not towards the police but “special forces.”
“We have seen how our police and our people have helped each other throughout this pandemic and it couldn’t be that this came from the police,” he said. “My father has been a policeman, a servant and not a destroyer of people. At this time, there are dark people who are moving this so that the whole project of having hope fails. Pope Francis told us ‘don’t let your hope be stolen’.”
He added that Catholics “cannot applaud violence” and recalled that “God’s law says ‘you shall not kill’.”
Castillo also claimed that there’s a “group of lazy people who fatten themselves with the money of the entire nation, and who’ve learned, systematically, to corrupt the lives of our people and to corrupt the development possibilities of our entire nation, especially the poor.”
“Today, the Lord invites us not to be lazy, to instead risk giving our lives to others, serving those in need with our goods and not through corrupt or laundered money, but through honesty and recognition of serious crimes and sins committed, which until now we still suffer.”
Though the corruption of Peru’s political class is not unique within the frame of Latin America, there’s something that makes it particularly grave. In the words of Pope Francis, who visited this nation back in 2018: “What happens to Peru that every time a president leaves, they imprison him? Humala is imprisoned, Toledo is imprisoned [technically, he’s on the run in the U.S.], Fujimori was imprisoned, Alan García had a foot in prison at the time, but committed suicide before going to jail.”
Vizcarra today is banned from leaving the country, as he was ousted under allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the country’s response to the pandemic. However, there are many who believe that his removal from office was illegal. Among those sounding the alarm is the Organization of American States and the Peruvian bishops conference.
In a video statement issued Nov. 15, the bishops urged the Congressional Tribunal to issue a “strong and forceful” statement regarding the legality of the presidential vacancy. Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos of Trujillo, the president of the Peruvian bishops conference, said that a “social dialogue” is essential to solve the ongoing confrontations in the country.
He emphasized the importance of safeguarding the institutional order that guarantees the independence of government institutions and said that the “fight against all faces of corruption” is urgent.
Cabrejos also said that authorities are called to serve those who elected them, and this includes guaranteeing the freedom of expression and peaceful protests.
“This crisis must not lead us to increasingly impoverish our beloved homeland, where the most affected are children, the poorest and most vulnerable,” he said. “The common good must always be our priority option.”
The task of resolving Peru’s power vacuum has fallen to Congress, deeply unpopular in contrast to Vizcarra, and relatively inexperienced: Congressional elections were only in January. According to several observers, thus far lawmakers have proven more interested in pushing through their business interests than governing a nation in crisis.
And it’s not only Peru’s presidents who face corruption charges: About half of those in Congress today are being investigated for corruption and other crimes, and many of the banners seen in the weeklong protests blamed their political opportunism for the current turmoil.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma