It’s been only three months since former Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra was impeached by his country’s Congress and removed from office over corruption allegations which he has repeatedly denied. Yet there he was again on Monday, making a public statement blaming ‘a political class that is only interested in generating chaos’ for his implication in a vaccine scandal that has riled up the Andean nation.
The wide-ranging in question scandal involves current and government officials, including the former President, who were vaccinated against the coronavirus even though they were not eligible, a scandal that has prompted the resignations of several ministers.
Peru is currently grappling with a resurgence of the virus, reporting more than 6,000 cases a day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. It is also facing a dangerous shortage of intensive care unit beds and oxygen as cases rise.
Vizcarra appears on a list of nearly 500 people who “took advantage of their position” to get access to the Chinese-made vaccine, current interim President Francisco Sagasti said earlier this week. The list, which has been made public, includes the crème-de-la-crème of Peruvian politics, including Sagasti’s Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti and Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete.
Vizcarra tweeted Sunday that his decision to get the vaccine had “not caused any injury to anybody and much less the State.” He added that he “didn’t take advantage of the situation because it was a project [to develop] a vaccine that had not yet gone through all the phases of approval.”
“I had valid reasons not to make my participation [in the clinical trials], because that would’ve put at risk the normal development of phase III, so much so that I was warned about the possible counterproductive effects to my health,” the former president wrote.
And then again Monday, he complained the press continued to publish “distorted information” about what happened.
In an open letter, Mazzetti called the decision to get vaccinated the worst mistake of her life. “It won’t be enough to ask for forgiveness to all of those I have disappointed,” she wrote.
In a statement published on Twitter, Astete said that she’s “[…] aware of the grave error I made, and that’s the reason why I decided not to receive a second dose. For all the reasons previusly discussed, I have informed the president of our Republic that I’m resigning my post as Minister of Foreign Relations.”
Peru is facing “a critical moment,” Sagasti said. “In addition to the health crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis, and instability and political crisis that we have lived over the last few months, we now have a crisis of ethics and morality.”
His own presidency is testimony to Peru’s recent string of crises; Sagasti has been the country’s president for less than three months, appointed as an interim leader in the wake of political upheaval last fall.
He took office after predecessor Manuel Merino was forced to resign amid mass demonstrations against Peru’s political class. Merino himself had only just replaced Vizcarra; between November 9 and 17, Perú had three different presidents: Vizcarra, Merino and Sagasti.
The vaccine scandal — that some in the Andean country are already calling “Vacuna-gate” (vacuna means vaccine in Spanish) — emerged last week after an investigation by local news organization Willax TV.
Many Peruvians say they’re outraged, but not surprised that government official and their inner circles, including relatives, allegedly took advantage of their positions to access a vaccine to which they were not entitled.
José Ugaz, a Peruvian human rights attorney and former chairman of Transparency International, called it “a chronicle of scandal foretold,” echoing the words of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “I had already asked, and several organizations had done the same, that there should be great care in how vaccines should be handled,” he told CNN.
Ugaz said that many Peruvians are accustomed to “disappointment after disappointment” from their elected leaders by now.
“We have seen governments deeply entrenched in corruption, with weak governing abilities, lying permanently and systematically to the people, and putting the interests of themselves and those of their parties and inner circles ahead of the country; which has also happened during the pandemic.”
The list of disappointing national leaders is indeed long, and in that sense, Vizcarra is not wrong that chaos reigns in the political class. All of the last six presidents of Perú have been in trouble with the law.
Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations. Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), who is currently in the United States, faces an extradition request for money laundering charges, which he denies. Alan García (1985-1990 and 2006-2011) died by suicide in April 2019 as he was about to be arrested for accusations related to the Odebrecht corruption scandal.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (2016-18) is currently under house arrest for his related role in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, which he denies. Ollanta Humala (2011-16) was arrested in 2017 on similar allegations — he not only disputes the charges, but plans to run again for President. And finally, the Peruvian Attorney General’s Office announced Monday it is investigating Martín Vizcarra for the vaccine scandal.
Many Peruvians still remember the Vladi-Videos scandal, a series of video-recordings that came to light in 2000. The videos showed Vladimiro Montesinos, then-head of Peru’s Intelligence Service, bribing opposition members of congress so that they would switch sides and support the policies of then-President Alberto Fujimori, whose campaign motto was “honesty, technology and jobs”.
Montesinos has been found guilty of numerous crimes that go beyond the Vladi-Videos scandal. In 2016 he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for kidnapping and murdering three people. In 2019, Peru’s Supreme Court confirmed an increase of his 15-year sentence to 17 years, for his role in the 1992 kidnapping of businessman Samuel Dyer.
Still, for Ugaz, there’s reason to hope. Peru’s justice system still works in spite of the odds, he says. Authorities are moving forward with an investigation against Vizcarra over the vaccine scandal and Toledo will likely be tried if he returns to the country. The same applies to the others, although accusations of political persecution and vendettas go back and forth.
On April 11, Peruvians have a chance at a reset, when they go back to the polls to choose a new president and all 130 members of its unicameral Congress. Like many Peruvians, Ugaz is hoping for a major change from Peru’s political turmoil and much-criticized handling of the coronavirus.
“The scandals could be representative of a political class that is breathing its last gasps of air,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct José Ugaz's title as former chairman of Transparency International.
Jimena de la Quintana in Lima and Claudia Rebaza in London contributed to this report