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Peru’s president makes forceful plea against impeachment

Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, center, arrives to congress with his first Vice-President Martin Vizcarra, left and second Vice-President Mercedes Araoz, in Lima, Peru, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. (Martin Mejia / Associated Press)
Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, center, arrives to congress with his first Vice-President Martin Vizcarra, left and second Vice-President Mercedes Araoz, in Lima, Peru, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. (Martin Mejia / Associated Press)
By Franklin Briceno and Christine Armario Associated Press

LIMA, Peru – Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski made a forceful plea to lawmakers Thursday, insisting he had no involvement in payments by Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to his private consulting firm and that a rushed impeachment proceeding would threaten the nation’s democracy.

“I am here to look you in the eye,” he said, speaking slowly and assertively. “And tell you that I am not corrupt and I have not lied.”

The 79-year-old former Wall Street banker is in a fight for his political survival after an opposition-led investigative committee revealed documents showing the Brazilian construction giant at the center of Latin America’s largest corruption scandal made $782,000 in payments to his consulting firm a decade ago. Some of the payments overlap with years that Kuczynski spent as a government minister.

If lawmakers succeed in removing him, Kuczynski would become the region’s first sitting president ousted over the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Analysts worry the impeachment vote could usher in a new period of uncertainty for Peru, which is one of South America’s most politically volatile nations. The vote is scheduled to come just eight days after the Odebrecht documents were first disclosed and is being pushed by the opposition Popular Force party led by Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori. She narrowly lost to Kuczynski in last year’s presidential election.

“That they would impeach the president is not an unthinkable thing,” said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has spent years studying Peru. “It’s that they would do it in a week without serious investigation, without a serious process of public debate.”

High-ranking politicians across Latin America are being charged and sentenced to jail for taking bribes from Odebrecht. In a 2016 plea deal with the U.S. Justice Department, the construction giant admitted to paying nearly $800 million to politicians, their campaigns and political parties in return for lucrative public works contracts that earned the company some $3.3 billion in profits.

In Ecuador, Vice President Jorge Glas has been sentenced to six years in jail for orchestrating an Odebrecht bribery scheme. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is appealing his conviction on charges of corruption and money laundering related to the plot. In Peru, two former presidents stand accused of accepting money from Odebrecht. One is behind bars and the other in the U.S. seeking to avoid extradition.

In a letter to a Peruvian newspaper Saturday, Odebrecht confirmed Kuczynski’s assertion that the payments in question were all handled by his colleague, Gerardo Sepulveda. Though little has been shared regarding exactly what services Kuczynski’s Westfield Capital provided, Odebrecht officials said the money was taxed, accounted for and not part of the corruption investigation.

During his 30-minute testimony Thursday, Kuczynski showed the contracts in question on an overhead screen, pointing out that none contained his signature. He reiterated earlier assertions that he had no knowledge of the payments and that he never favored any company while minister or president. He characterized the transactions as part of a legal contract between two private companies and said his opponents are trying to force him from power without due process.

“What’s in play here is not the impeachment of a president but the democracy that cost Peru so much to recover,” he said.

On Tuesday, Kuczynski wrote to the Organization of American States requesting that the Washington-based group send an observer to monitor impeachment proceedings. The OAS said it was sending two delegates to Lima for Thursday’s vote.

Kuczynski’s testimony was followed by a two-hour speech from his attorney, Alberto Borea, who urged lawmakers to punish the president only after determining if he indeed committed of a crime. The legislators are accusing Kuczynski of “moral incapacity,” for which no trial is required.

Borea implored the legislators to conduct a thorough investigation first.

“If afterward you conclude this man is guilty, crucify him,” Borea said, pointing to the stoic president dressed in a gray suit beside him. “But don’t crucify him before.”

The president’s detractors contend he should have disclosed the payments before taking office and that, at the very least, as a high-ranking government minister when the money was paid he should have done a better job to shield himself from potential conflicts of interest. Polls within Peru suggest a majority of Peruvians want the already deeply unpopular president out of office.

As a senior business leader and statesman with many ties to the private sector, Kuczynski was “sort of Trump-like in not clearly breaking those ties. And he’s paying a price for it,” Levitsky said.

In order to oust Kuczynski, opposition lawmakers would need to secure 87 of 130 votes. The Popular Force party holds 71 seats in congress. Party spokesman Daniel Salaverry said that if Kuczynski appears Thursday, “It should be to submit his resignation letter.”

Lawmakers are expected to debate Kuczynski’s potential removal for several hours before holding a vote later Thursday.

Hundreds of the president’s supporters were gathered outside congress during his testimony, waving giant posters with the bespectacled leader’s photo.

If Kuczynski should be removed, First Vice President Martin Vizcarra would be next in line. The former engineer has relatively little political experience at a national level and it is likely he would face many of the same difficulties Kuczynski has encountered in governing.

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