By Greg Ross
The Trump presidency has been an unusually busy season for impeachments in the United States. Before Mr. Trump, in more than 200 years the House of Representatives had only twice deployed what Thomas Jefferson called “the most formidable weapon” in American politics, impeaching Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. (Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid impeachment.) Mr. Trump was the only president ever impeached twice.
Mr. Trump, however, need not travel far to find other leaders targeted for removal by lawmakers in recent years. Indeed, though Latin American constitutions are generally modeled after the U.S. charter, impeachment is a far more common phenomenon in parts of the region.
In Peru, for example, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski survived an impeachment vote in 2017, only to resign the following year to avoid a second impeachment attempt related to alleged corruption. In November 2020, Peruvian lawmakers impeached Mr. Kuczynski’s successor, Martín Vizcarra, over alleged bribery. The impeachment followed a failed attempt to remove the widely admired president just two months earlier, orchestrated by the lawmaker Manuel Merino who was next in line for the throne. After Mr. Vizcarra’s November impeachment, Mr. Merino assumed the presidency, only to resign days later amid mass demonstrations.
The Peruvian case is extreme, and a product of rampant corruption and a particularly dysfunctional relationship between the presidency and the congress. But impeachment is surprisingly common in many of Latin America’s young democracies and at times so dizzyingly fast it provokes complaints about “legislative coups.”
The U.S. Congress has approved three impeachments in the past quarter century, none of which ended in a president’s removal. (Mr. Trump, if convicted by the Senate, would already have left office.) Latin American lawmakers impeached and removed nine presidents in the same period. Prior to Peru, Brazil was the last country in the region to impeach and remove a president. In 2016, the Brazilian Senate convicted President Dilma Rousseff of manipulating the federal budget to hide shortfalls. Unlike in Peru, her removal, two years into her second term, involved a drawn-out legislative debate. But critics said the punishment did not fit the crime and complained that lawmakers had overruled voters.
Ecuador has impeached two presidents since the late 1990s, Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 for “mental incapacity” and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005 for “abandoning his position.” The region’s impeachment tally, meanwhile, would be even higher had Mr. Kuczynski stayed and fought the charges or if President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala had not resigned in 2015 amid mass demonstrations over corruption.
For Latin American legislators, the itchy impeachment trigger finger reflects both the region’s political culture and the structure of Latin America’s political systems. The region is home to 40 percent of the world’s presidential systems. In most countries, the constitution gives the president strong powers and a fixed term, creating tension and paralysis should the president lose the confidence of congress. But lawmakers are not helpless: The region’s founding fathers, recently removed from colonial rule, constrained executive power through term limits, and impeachment powers became common after the region emerged from its 20th century dictatorships.
Strengthening parliamentary powers in a region prone to hyperpresidentialism made sense. Impeachment, after all, is a more orderly approach to a problematic leader than a public uprising or coup d’état. Still, in many cases, impeachment has eroded confidence in the region’s democratic institutions and undermined support for democracy. That occurred when Peru’s unpopular congress unseated the popular Mr. Vizcarra, and in Paraguay, when in 2012 lawmakers seemed utterly disinterested in the election that had brought to power Fernando Lugo, the country’s first opposition leader in over 60 years. Ms. Rousseff’s removal also worsened cynicism in Brazil. The congressional ringleader, Eduardo Cunha, was later removed from office for his involvement in the “Lava Jato” corruption scandal. Ms. Rousseff’s successor, President Michel Temer, was also implicated in the Odebrecht investigation.
Not every Latin American president lives in fear of a congressional uprising. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay, among Latin America’s most vibrant democracies, have never impeached a president in the democratic era. That said, the absence of impeachment does not alone signal political stability. In Argentina, for example, members of congress have introduced 87 unsuccessful impeachment resolutions since the return of democracy in 1983. Conversely, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has avoided removal thanks to a rubber stamp legislature and the repression of the opposition.
The right balance is not always easy to strike. As the Spanish translation for impeachment, juicio político, makes clear, impeachment is a political, not a legal, process. Some political scientists say it approximates a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Others, however, insist on ample due process, given the gravity of superseding the expressed preference of voters. Latin America’s most recent impeachment, in Peru, surely strengthened the latter argument: Just two weeks before lawmakers expelled Mr. Vizcarra, polls showed only one-in-five Peruvians supported his removal.
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