Peruvians get 3rd president in a week amid cautious hopes

Franklin Briceño
Associated Press

Lima, Peru – Peruvians watched in hope as the nation’s third president in a week was sworn into office Tuesday promising to restore trust in government after the worst constitutional crisis in two decades.

Lawmakers applauded as Francisco Sagasti swore to defend the constitution and donned the red and white presidential sash.

Francisco Sagasti, left, walks out of Congress after being sworn-in as the new interim president in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Sagasti's appointment marks a tumultuous week in which thousands took to the streets outraged by Congress' decision to oust popular ex-President Martín Vizcarra.

In Lima, many were cautiously optimistic the elder statesman will steer the country back to stability. But Sagasti has a steep road ahead in healing Peruvians’ deep mistrust in government and working with Congress, which has pushed out two presidents in four years.

“In my 63 years I’ve never seen a good president,” said Victor Mezzarina, who works in downtown Lima exchanging the Peruvian currency, the sol, for dollars. “I hope this one is different.”

The nation is emerging from its worst constitutional crisis in two decades. A decision by Congress to oust popular ex-President Martín Vizcarra last week sparked widespread protests. His successor – a little known politician and rice farmer – lasted just six days in office. But there was hope Sagasti will steer Peru back on course.

The 76-year-old centrist lawmaker spent the initial hours after being voted in as head of Congress Monday visiting hospitals where injured protesters were recovering and promising to do everything in his power to restore trust in the government.

“We will do everything possible to return hope,” he said.

An engineer by training, Sagasti by default becomes Peru’s president because Merino had no vice president – making him next in line. He is a respected scholar whose works include a book titled, “Democracy and Good Governance.” In 1996, he was among those taken hostage by Tupac Amaru rebels at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima.

A biography on Sagasti’s website says he works while listening to classical music, has been married three times and keeps a piece of cardboard from a box of mineral water with the signatures of his former Tupac Amaru captors on a wall.

“It was an interesting experience,” he says of his captivity in the text.

Still, for many Peruvians he is a relative unknown, one more in a steady succession of presidents that has drawn frustration, confusion and anxiety. The man Peruvians elected in 2016 – Pedro Pablo Kuczynski – was supposed to be in power until 2021. Instead, repeated corruption scandals and strong arming by Congress has brought the nation three – and with Sagasti, soon to be four – leaders before the term expires.

“For me they’re all the same,” said Ernesto Minaya, 52, a shoe shiner. “I don’t know him.”

The blocks surrounding the legislative palace were calm Tuesday afternoon, though nearby several buses filled with riot police stood on standby. In cities around the country, Peruvians paid tribute to two young men who died in the protests. But there was no clamoring outside the gates of Congress against Sagasti.

Sagasti voted against Vizcarra’s ouster – a move likely to win him at least some backing from those who took to the streets in protest. Unlike Vizcarra, he also has a party representing him in Congress. Analysts believe the legislature will still try to stymie any major reforms – particularly to combat corruption – but will have a harder time removing him.

Lawmakers used a 19th century-era clause to oust Vizcarra for “moral incapacity,” accusing him of taking bribes years ago when he was a governor. Vizcarra denies the allegations. The country’s highest court is evaluating whether Congress acted legally. Their ruling is not retroactive but could have an influence going forward.

For many, the ordeal was a blatant display of why Peru’s political system need reform. Congress is full of small, fractured political parties. Many of the politicians have little experience – and about half are themselves are under investigation. But they also wield enormous power and can oust the president with a two-thirds majority vote.

Peruvians have lost trust in politicians in a country where every living former president is being investigated or has been charged with corruption.

As she perused the tabloid headlines Tuesday, Ana Lizardo, 61, said she was cautiously optimistic that Sagasti might be a break from the past.

“At my age I’ve seen many presidents and they’ve all been corrupt,” she said. “I hope he’s better.”