Peru president's ouster sparks wave of youth-led protests

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Police officers shield themselves from rocks thrown by protesters who were trying to march to Congress in a demonstration against the removal of President Martin Vizcarra, in Lima, Peru, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. On Tuesday, Manuel Merino was sworn in as the country's president, after the legislature voted Vizcarra out of office Monday. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

LIMA – University student Yessenia Medina was trying to concentrate on her virtual psychology class when a stunning headline popped up on her screen: Peru’s Congress had voted to oust the nation’s popular president.

Furious, the 23-year-old joined the thousands of students, workers and others protesting this week, decrying Congress and refusing to recognize the new president, Manuel Merino.

“I think they removed him out of their own personal interests rather than those of the people,” she said. “Legislators are supposed to watching out for the good of all.”

Peru’s Congress voted overwhelmingly to remove now ex-President Martín Vizcarra on Monday, complaining about his handling of the pandemic and accusing him of corruption. The shock vote drew condemnation from international rights groups who warned that the powerful legislature may have violated the constitution and jeopardized Peru’s democracy.

The move has also sparked protests unlike any seen in recent years, fueled largely by young people typically apathetic to the country’s notoriously turbulent politics who saw the ouster as a power grab by lawmakers, many of whom were being investigated for corruption under Vizcarra's government.

Police repressing the mobilizations with tear gas and rubber bullets have been criticized for excessive use of force. Nineteen people, including officers and civilians, were injured at a large protest Thursday, according to the public defender’s office. Rights groups have also warned about the use of plainclothes officers with no identification and tear gas deployed near homes and hospitals.

Eighteen protesters were detained in the march Thursday.

“Peruvians have a right to protest,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “Police and other authorities should protect peaceful demonstrations and in all situations refrain from using excessive force.”