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Three decades of presidential corruption rattles Peru ahead of referendum

Peruvian newspapers have been working overtime trying to keep up with the latest presidential corruption scandals. The country votes in a referendum on Sunday that’s being seen as a backlash against the political class.
Peruvian newspapers have been working overtime trying to keep up with the latest presidential corruption scandals. The country votes in a referendum on Sunday that’s being seen as a backlash against the political class. Miami Herald

One’s trying to flee the country, one just got out of jail and another one is on the lam. But they all have one thing in common: they were Peruvian presidents.

The South American nation heads to the polls Sunday to vote in a constitutional referendum that’s being seen as backlash against corruption allegations that have decimated the country’s ruling class. Four of the country’s last five presidents are now being investigated for taking bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht or other firms, casting a pall over some of the country’s most powerful politicians and their once indomitable parties.

“Every former president for the last 30 years, from Alan García in 1985 until now, all of them have been compromised in one way or another,” said Fernando Tuesta, the head of the political science department at Perú’s Catholic University.

In Sunday’s four-part referendum voters will be asked to tweak the way judges and prosecutors are appointed, tighten campaign finance laws — including making it a criminal offense to violate them — and prohibit the immediate reelection of congress members. A proposal to turn Perú’s unicameral congress into a bicameral body is expected to fail, in part because people don’t have the stomach for more politicians.

Even though the referendum doesn’t contain the word “corruption” there’s no doubt that’s how Peruvians see it. A November survey by the polling firm IPSOS found that 58 percent said the referendums goal was to “fight against corruption.” Just 19 percent saw it as a way to “reform politics.”

“This is the worst moment in years for the image of Perú’s political class,” said IPSOS Director Guillermo Loli. “And the referendum is seen as an expression of the people’s rejection and protest against these problems.”

For more than a year, the drumbeat of corruption in Perú has been almost constant, and the rogue’s gallery of former presidents has been swelling.

Pedro Pablo Kuczysnki, who took office in 2016, resigned in March amid an avalanche of corruption scandals. In December of 2017, the former Wall Street banker narrowly avoided being impeached after it came to light that he’d received payments from Odebrecht either during or shortly after he had served as prime minister for Alejandro Toledo. Three days after that vote, on Christmas Eve, he pardoned former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who had served eight years of a 25-year sentence for human rights violations, including murder and kidnapping. Kuczynski’s opponents saw the pardon as a thinly veiled bribe for the faction of the Fuerza Popular congressional group led by Fujimori’s son, Kenji Fujimori, that prevented his impeachment. Kuczynski is currently under investigation.

Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) and first lady Nadine Heredia were released from jail in April but are still facing charges that they accepted illicit campaign donations from Brazil and Venezuela during his 2006 and 2011 presidential runs. They’re also facing money-laundering charges.

Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) is in the United States fighting extradition back to Perú where he faces charges of taking $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht. Current President Martín Vizcarra has said it’s one of his goals to make sure that Toledo faces justice.

Alan García, who led the country from 1985-1990 and again in 2006-2011, is fighting allegations that he accepted bribes from Odebrecht under the guise of speaking fees. A defiant García first said he would defend his innocence, daring the courts to “prove it, you imbeciles!” but then sought asylum at the residence of the Uruguayan ambassador. On Monday, Uruguay rejected his asylum request saying it saw no signs that he was a victim of political persecution. Legal experts say his attempt to skip town raises the likelihood that he’ll go to jail as the investigation proceeds.

As if four presidents weren’t enough, Keiko Fujimori — a powerful congresswoman, the runner-up in the 2016 presidential race and the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori — was jailed last month for 36 months awaiting investigation on allegations that Odebrecht and others made illegal campaign contributions to her presidential campaign.

And there’s more. Several Supreme Court judges, lawyers and court employees have been accused of influence peddling and running a bribes-for-rulings scheme that is also threatening to bring down the attorney general.

All the political wrongdoing has given Peruvians a thirst for vengeance, said José Carlos Requena, a Lima-based political analyst and columnist. Even as some wonder if putting Keiko Fujimori, a 43-year-old mother of two, in jail for three years pending investigation is a bit much, there’s little appetite for mercy.

Requena was at a restaurant when news filtered in that Fujimori was going to jail and “the room broke into applause,” he recalls.

“Everybody is talking about corruption and people are willing to accept all sorts of excesses in the name of fighting it,” he said.

The only figure who has escaped the backlash is Vizcarra, the “accidental president,” who took office in March after Kuczynski stepped down. Last month’s IPSOS poll found that Vizcarra has approval ratings of 65 percent — higher than any other minister or political figure in the country.

That an unelected official is now the country’s most esteemed politician is a black mark on Peru’s democracy, Requena said.

Those politicans capable of winning the presidency might be “the most popular candidate [but] they aren’t always the most prepared or most honorable [candidate],” he said. “You add to that that our campaign financing is a black box, that there are no adequate controls…and you get what we have now.”