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Where Things Stand In Peru After Country's President Steps Down

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The president of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, stepped down last week ahead of what would have been a second impeachment vote. He's been accused of lying about his involvement with a construction firm mired in corruption scandals across Latin America. The firm's called Odebrecht. He's also been accused of trying to buy votes with government contracts. Kuczynski denies all these allegations. And here to talk about where things stand now in Peru is Simeon Tegel. He's a freelance reporter based in Lima. Welcome.

SIMEON TEGEL: Hi, Ailsa. Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: Can you first just walk us through - how did this resignation happen?

TEGEL: Just before Christmas, it started emerging that there appeared to be some kind of economic relationship to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Odebrecht. And then the details of that relationship have been dripping out since then. Then separately, in the run-up to the impeachment vote last week, it also emerged videos of a ally of Kuczynski's in Congress basically offering kickbacks on public works to another member of Congress in return for voting against his impeachment.

CHANG: OK. So the person who's taken over the presidency is the former vice president, Martin Vizcarra. How has the public reacted to having him at the helm now?

TEGEL: There seems to be a positive reaction. I mean, he was only inaugurated on Friday. He gave a short - just over 10 minutes - inauguration speech in which he really was very clear that he wanted to tackle corruption. That was very well received by everyone, including the opposition who have a majority in Congress. Though we'll see how long the honeymoon lasts.

CHANG: Let's step back for a moment. I mean, Kuczynski is not the first president in Peru who has been wrought (ph) with corruption scandals. Can you just tell us a little bit about Peru's history with corruption at the highest levels of government?

TEGEL: So Peru has a rich, you could say, history with corruption, going all the way back to before independence in the early 19th century. But in its modern history, we had Alberto Fujimori, who was president from 1990 to 2000 who was in jail for running death squads and corruption. He was pardoned by Kuczynski on Christmas Eve very controversially, and that pardon probably hastened Kuczynski's own downfall. The immediate successor to Alberto Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo, he's now fighting extradition from the U.S. He's accused of taking $20 million in kickbacks from Odebrecht.

CHANG: And then, just to look more broadly, the Summit of the Americas is coming in three weeks. That's a gathering of all the heads of state in the Americas. And I understand the theme of this year's summit is going to be anti-corruption. How do Peru's problems fit into how the larger region is dealing with corruption in governments?

TEGEL: So that theme was actually proposed by Peru, and it's just a huge irony now that Kuczynski won't be hosting the summit. But this is really - across Latin America from Argentina to Mexico, there is in many countries endemic corruption. Venezuela - Nicolas Maduro is said to have rushed through huge Odebrecht contracts irregularly. We've had lawmakers in Colombia being jailed over the Odebrecht case. The vice president in Ecuador is also behind bars. So this is...

CHANG: Wow.

TEGEL: It's really just a deep, regional problem. And it's really fascinating the way a single case, single huge case, is really now shining a light on these dark corners around the region.

CHANG: Are we at a pivotal moment for Latin America?

TEGEL: You know, when you see all these different cases of corruption, it's not that there's more corruption but that the scrutiny is greater and the tolerance for that corruption is much less than previously. We have increasingly aggressive independent media around the region. There is a growing middle class who are more educated. And also I think it's worth remembering that many Latin American countries only transitioned back to democracy two or three decades ago. And so their institutions, including the judiciary and prosecutors, are still only really maturing now from that transition.

CHANG: Simeon Tegel is a freelance reporter based in Lima. Thank you very much.

TEGEL: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER'S "TEAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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