LIMA, Peru — Peru is suddenly rudderless in its response to surging coronavirus cases after Congress voted the Cabinet out of office late Tuesday in a spat over university reform.
During the debate, lawmakers from across the political spectrum criticized the administration of President Martín Vizcarra for a range of alleged sins: from failing to take the pandemic seriously to bungling a rescue package for an economy paralyzed by one of Latin America’s strictest lockdowns.
But many observers accused Peru’s Congress of trying to undermine a government crackdown on the country’s lucrative but low-quality private universities.
Prominent figures in several political parties own schools that have been targeted under the reform, while many lawmakers have charged large fees for supposedly teaching and researching at the universities.
In his recent newspaper column, Augosto Alvarez Rodrich, a normally restrained journalist who has previously chaired presidential debates, wrote: “With very few exceptions, members of Congress have shown themselves to be a band of unpresentable dunces, irremediable shit-for-brains, soulless nonentities, monkeys with an Uzi.”
Fernando Tuesta, a political scientist who chaired a government commission that recently proposed a series of political reforms to clean up politics, condemned the 54-37 vote in the 130-member single-chamber Congress as “the worst of politics.”
“All of this in the middle of the pandemic, in which the ministers were rushing to take up their jobs while the virus infects and kills people every day,” Tuesta said. “Congress’s irresponsibility is not just explained by the extreme mediocrity of its members but also by the high dose of mercantilist interests, above all in education.”
Many lawmakers had been targeting education minister Martín Benavides, who previously led SUNEDU, the new agency tasked with raising university standards.
SUNEDU had denied a license to Telesup, a university owned by a conservative evangelist who leads the Podemos Peru party. It also forced the César Vallejo University, belonging to the leader of the Alliance For Progress party (APP by its Spanish initials), into a series of reforms that have curbed its profits.
Podemos voted against the government, while APP, the largest party in Congress, abstained.
The move comes just as COVID-19 cases trend up again, following a partial reopening of the economy. They are now averaging around 5,000 per day, comparable to the previous high-water mark back in May. In total, Peru has had nearly 440,000 cases, the seventh-highest national total in the world.
Last week, the health minister Pilar Mazetti — who is now out of a job — had said that the country’s official death toll of 18,000 was a severe undercount and that the real number was more likely 43,000.
Her plain speaking had been viewed by many as a breath of fresh air as Peru scrambles to overhaul its healthcare from years of underfunding, including everything from a shortage of intensive care beds to an inadequate national system for registering deaths.
Under Peru’s unusual presidential-parliamentary hybrid system, cabinets must be approved by Congress. Vizcarra now has until Friday to name a new cabinet. In theory, he only needs to change his prime minister but could keep his other ministers. In practice, that would seem unlikely to fly with Congress.
In a defiant speech, Vizcarra, whose anti-corruption strategy has seen his approval ratings soar as high as 80%, accused lawmakers of toying “with the destiny of the country.” He added that the university reform was “not up for negotiation.”
Cover: Alberto Alonso comforts his mother Candelaria Salvador crying over the coffin of her husband Joaquin Alonso, 58, who they said died of COVID-19, as they bury him at the cemetery “Martires 19 de Julio” in Comas on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, Tuesday, July 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)