In Peru, political upheaval fuels long-simmering frustration

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Over the last four decades, Peruvian lawmakers have stepped into Heyne Dávila’s brightly lit jewelry shop on a dusty street near congress to buy gemstone rings, gold necklaces and even a specially designed pin with the words, “Congress of the Republic.”

But on Wednesday as riot police blocked access to the stately legislature a short walk from his shop, the longtime businessman was shedding no tears over President Martín Vizcarra’s decision to dissolve congress and remove legislators from their seats.

The institution that Dávila once held in esteem has in his mind fallen far from grace.

“They had their chance,” he said inside the store, where business has slowed to a trickle amid the chaos of recent days. “It has been many years since they worried about what is best for all Peruvians.”

Peru is in the throes of its deepest constitutional crisis in nearly three decades as Vizcarra and the opposition-controlled congress engage in an acrimonious tug of war over who should lead the South American nation. The president ordered the legislature dissolved Monday and called new congressional elections, characterizing it as a necessary step to root out entrenched corruption. Lawmakers likened the move to a coup and defiantly voted to suspend Vizcarra, swearing in one of Peru’s vice presidents as his replacement.

Vizcarra thus far has the upper hand, with backing from the country’s governors and military leaders, and lawmakers appeared to cede ground Wednesday. Hours after the opposition’s chief of state pick resigned, congressional leaders convoked the first meeting of a special commission that by law is expected to continue limited operations if the legislature is dissolved.

In the chaotic business district surrounding congress that is filled with pet shops selling dog toys like rubber chickens, vendors hawking fake gold watches and party supply stores stuffed to the brim with piñatas and Hawaiian leis, frustrated Peruvians expressed dismay at the country’s state of affairs and hope that new elections could be the solution.

When one congressman tried to enter the legislature a day earlier, vendors threw oranges, boxes of fruit and bottles of pineapple juice in his direction.

“They went after him like a piñata,” said Brandon Buques, who runs a store selling Halloween decorations with his father near congress.

Steadily simmering anger in the country of 32 million people has now evolved into a potentially explosive pressure cooker situation.

Nearly every living former president has been ensnared by the sprawling Odebrecht corruption scandal, in which the Brazilian construction giant admitted to funneling money to politicians across Latin America in return for lucrative public works contracts. Peruvians have also grown incensed by a parade of judges, lawmakers and businessmen caught on wiretaps negotiating backroom deals.

Vizcarra himself became president last year after Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign over ties to Odebrecht.

The feud between president and legislature has been months in the making, with Vizcarra accusing lawmakers of stonewalling his attempts to curb widespread official corruption and legislators lashing back that he has overstepped his executive powers.

The quarrel came to a head Monday when congress moved forward with a controversial vote to select new magistrates to the Constitutional Tribunal, an act that Vizcarra said was a crudely disguised attempt to tip the balance of power in the opposition’s direction.

The president argued that lawmakers rejected a proposed vote of confidence in his administration when they began selecting the magistrates in defiance of his repeated pleas to slow the process and first consider reforms on how judges are selected. Peruvian law allows a president to dissolve congress after two negative votes of confidence, and Vizcarra contends one such confidence vote had already occurred.

His interpretation of the law is now likely to be the focus of a lengthy legal dispute.

Polls indicate the public overwhelming supports Vizcarra, with some indicating that up to 75% are in favor of dissolving congress. But political analyst Iván García warned that Peruvians will expect the president to bring about changes quickly.

“Citizens are going to begin demanding immediate, concrete results,” García said.

In Lima’s historic district, people tried to carry on with daily life but found police still blocking many streets around congress as a security measure.

Beatriz Salazar was thwarted by riot police when she tried to reach a jewelry shop on a closed off avenue to pick up gold wedding bands for her sister’s upcoming wedding. Exasperated, she equated Peru’s current state to “a jungle.”

“We’re at fault because we voted for them,” Salazar said.

She said she has struggled with how to explain events to her curious, worried children, who repeatedly ask what is happening.

“Have patience,” she said she tells them. “Adults make mistakes, too.”

But privately, Salazar said, she wonders how long she can keep repeating those lines.

“Until when am I supposed to try and keep calming them, basically lying to them?” she said.

María Sulca, who has a shop selling artisanal Peruvian goods, said she is supporting the president, who often walks by without his bodyguards, greeting her and other vendors with a simple, “Hi, neighbor.”

“This should have been done a long time ago,” she said of the closure.

For Dávila, the jewelry vendor, there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel if Vizcarra succeeds in going through with the congressional elections he has called for January.

“I have faith,” Dávila said. “After a short pause, the heart will start to beat again.”


Associated Press writer Franklin Briceño contributed to this report.