LIMA, Peru – Peru’s new President Martin Vizcarra promised to fight corruption head on as he took power Friday and vowed to heal the bitter wounds left by a vote-buying scandal that abruptly forced his predecessor from office.
In his first address as president, Vizcarra, the relatively unknown former governor of Peru’s second-smallest state, appealed for national unity and urged young Peruvians not to succumb to cynicism.
“Don’t lose faith in our institutions,” he said in remarks to congress shortly after being draped in the red and white presidential sash. “Let us show you that Peru is bigger than its problems.”
Vizcarra’s 15-minute speech was short on specifics. Other than vowing to form a completely new cabinet, he gave little insight into how he would attack Peru’s endemic corruption.
But he received warm applause from lawmakers weary of the months-long effort to oust Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, whose resignation was approved overwhelmingly just a few hours earlier.
Even the leader of that campaign, Keiko Fujimori, whose opposition party dominates congress, wished the soft-spoken engineer success in his new job and echoed his call for unity and optimism.
Vizcarra received something of a hero’s welcome shortly after midnight Friday when he arrived to Peru from Canada, where he had been serving as ambassador, amid one of the most politically turbulent periods in Peru’s recent history.
Supporters greeted him at the airport with a large birthday cake in the red and white colors of Peru’s flag. A marching band was on hand and some people carried signs reading “Peru is with Vizcarra.”
A last-minute hitch Friday had threatened to delay the transition of power.
Kuczynski said in a tweet that the proposed language of a congressional resolution approving his resignation is “unacceptable,” and if lawmakers press forward with the wording he would reverse his decision to quit, forcing congress to go forward with plans to try and impeach him.
In the end, the language was removed. But congress nonetheless rebuked the 79-year-old Kuczynski, scolding him for a “political crisis that that is the result of wrongful acts that the president himself has committed,” according to the final text of the resolution.
Efforts to oust the unpopular Kuczynski led by the daughter of former strongman Alberto Fujimori have been building for months. But the campaign went into overdrive this week after the emergence of secretly shot videos showed allies of Kuczynski, including Fujimori’s son, allegedly attempting to buy the support of an opposition lawmaker to block the president’s impeachment.
To stem off an even more disgraceful exit, Kuczynski delivered a resignation letter to congress Wednesday, blaming relentless attacks by his opponents for making it impossible to govern.
Kuczynski’s downfall was his association with Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant that has admitted to spreading some $800 million in bribes to officials across Latin America, including $29 million in Peru.
For months, even as three of his predecessors became ensnared in the bribery scandal, Kuczynski vehemently denied having any business or political ties to the company. But documents presented by Keiko Fujimori’s Popular Force party showed his consulting firm had received $782,000 in payments from Odebrecht a decade ago, some of them when he was a government minister.
The former Wall Street investor said he wasn’t then managing the day-to-day affairs of his consulting business and denied any wrongdoing.
Stepping into the void left by Kuczynski is Vizcarra, whose name wasn’t recognized by 81 percent of Peruvians in a March poll by Ipsos. His only previous experience in public office before becoming vice president in 2016 was as governor of Peru’s second-least populated province.
While Vizcarra is expected to continue Kuczynski’s pro-business agenda, he will face a tough challenge building consensus with a hostile congress and growing public anger at Peru’s political class. Protesters scuffled with police Thursday night while calling for new elections for both president and congress.
The new president’s first test on the international stage will come in three weeks when he is expected to host President Donald Trump and other Western Hemisphere leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Lima.
Vizcarra made no mention of the summit in his remarks.
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