President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru
In late December, just three days after narrowly avoiding impeachment on corruption charges, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru pardoned Alberto Fujimori, the authoritarian leader who presided over the country from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori, whose policies and ideology are known as Fujimorismo, had served 10 of a 25-year sentence for human rights violations linked to kidnapping, torture and murder. Peruvians immediately showed their indignation through street protests, op-eds, public letters, news programs and social media. In addition, several of Kuczynski’s Cabinet members and legislators representing his political party resigned in protest.
Fujimori has always been a controversial figure. To his supporters, he is the man who put an end to the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement insurgencies, and who restored Peru to macroeconomic stability. To his opponents, he is a strongman who disbanded the country’s Congress and courts to stay in power, and who was found guilty of authorizing military death squad killings and human rights abuses.
Kuczynski won the presidency in 2016 by a very slim margin after promising to fight corruption and assuring Peruvians that Alberto Fujimori would not be pardoned. The possibility of a pardon was an especially contentious campaign issue because the other presidential frontrunner was Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko. Although she lost the race for the presidency, her party, Fuerza Popular, won the majority in Peru’s Congress with 71 out of 130 seats. The congressional vote on Kuczynski’s impeachment on corruption charges would have passed if not for 10 legislators from Fuerza Popular who broke ranks with the party and abstained from voting. Congressman Kenji Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s son, was one of them.
The public’s perception is that to keep himself in office, Kuczynski made a deal with Kenji Fujimori — or perhaps with Alberto Fujimori himself — to issue the pardon on humanitarian grounds if some Fujimoristas did not vote for impeachment.
The charges brought against Kuczynski involve the giant Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, whose massive network of corruption has resulted in the prosecution and imprisonment of public officials throughout Latin America. In 2017, as part of a plea bargain in a related U.S. Department of Justice case, Marcelo Odebrecht — the company’s former executive director — and other high-ranking executives revealed the company had paid close to $800 million in bribes and kickbacks to public officials across Latin America in return for government contracts worth billions of dollars. Peruvian authorities were no exception, receiving up to $29 million between 2005 and 2014, according to Marcelo Odebrecht’s testimony. Since then, former Peruvian president Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) and his wife have been held in pre-trial detention for their alleged involvement in the scheme. His predecessors Alan García (2006-2011) and Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) are also under investigation. The Odebrecht scandal has also implicated Keiko Fujimori for allegedly receiving illegal contributions from the company for her 2011 and 2016 presidential campaigns.
The case against Kuczynski seemed to strengthen in early December 2017, when Peru’s attorney general’s office reopened an investigation after documents showed that Odebrecht paid nearly $800,000 to Westfield Capital, a financial services company owned by Kuczynski. At the time of the payments, Kuczynski was Peru’s Minister of Finance and Economy; he claims he had nothing to do with Westfield Capital while he was in office, and that his former partner managed the company during those years. However, the partner was not scheduled to testify about his role until January — weeks after the president stood to be impeached. Furthermore, Odebrecht executives later clarified they legally paid the $800,000 for financial consulting services.
Both the motion for impeachment and the presidential pardon have been questioned by constitutional experts, who believe neither seem to have followed the correct procedures. As for the impeachment initiative, Francisco Panizza — an expert in Latin American comparative politics at the London School of Economics — points out that similar cases have arisen in neighboring countries where a weak president faced a large opposition majority in Congress. Two examples are the impeachment of Dilma Rouseff in Brazil last year and of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012. What’s more, several of Kuczynski’s political opponents who do not necessarily agree with his policies opposed the impeachment. They argued that the proceeding abridged his right to the presumption of innocence and his ability to defend himself after a fair judicial investigation. They saw the motion to impeach as a move by the Fujimorismo legislators to get rid of Kuczynski and increase their power.
Regarding the presidential pardon of Fujimori for humanitarian reasons, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, along with other international and national human rights organizations, has expressed serious concerns since the pardon does not meet fundamental legal requirements. For example, the medical board that evaluated Fujimori’s health and recommended his pardon included the former president’s personal doctor. This violates the independence and objectivity requirement expected of the medical board. On February 2, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will also review the case. Although Peru’s constitution grants the president the power to issue pardons, it also states that this right should be carried out in accordance with international treaties ratified by Peru. The court’s judgments based on the American Convention on Human Rights are binding on Peru.
Will there be impunity for the political class? Will Kuczynski become hostage to the Fujimoristas to get anything done during his administration? Despite the uncertainty surrounding Peruvian politics, one thing is clear: Kuczynski was a weak president before the pardon and will now have an even harder time governing. His government, now discredited, will have difficulty building alliances in Congress. The vast majority of the Fujimoristas in Congress voted in favor of his impeachment and will most likely continue blocking his administration’s initiatives. In addition, several opposition parties that supported him by abstaining from a vote or voting against impeachment feel betrayed by the pardon and what appears to be a political pact between Kuczynski and the Fujimorismo. Regardless of what he may be able to achieve during the balance of his term, Kuczynski will go down in history as the president who pardoned Alberto Fujimori.
Erika de la Garza is the program director of the Latin America Initiative at the Baker Institute. Her chief areas of interest include U.S.-Latin America relations; emerging leadership; coalition building between public, private and civil society actors; and trade and business development in Latin America.