CALEMAR, Peru (AP) — Martin Vizcarra stepped down from a military helicopter into a small Peruvian jungle village where no president had ventured before.
Donning thick-soled boots, he journeyed across the banks of an Amazonian tributary to inaugurate a new bridge replacing a rope-and-basket system people had used for decades to cross the churning current below.
“If you’ve always been forgotten, that’s changed,” Vizcarra said to applause. “From now on, you have a president who cares.”
The president is on a crusade to clean up Peru’s corrupt politics and become a voice for the poor and forgotten after his surprising ascension earlier this year with the resignation of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski over corruption allegations.
Initially dismissed by critics as a weak leader who would struggle to mend a divided nation, Vizcarra has instead won the praise of a jaded public.
He’s now pushing forward a referendum on Dec. 9 aimed at preventing abuse of power following a series of corruption scandals that ended the careers of some of the nation’s highest profile judges and politicians. The vote is expected to sail through as Vizcarra channels a growing wave of anger over misbehaving leaders.
Vizcarra’s sudden rise from little-known vice president to popular chief of state is in fact an ascent he spent years preparing for while serving as governor of one of Peru’s most sparsely populated regions.
“How do you make big decisions? By first being tested at a small scale,” ” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press while touring the countryside.
The civil engineer-turned-politico took the reins of one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies in March after Kuczynski stepped down amid accusations by opposition lawmakers that he had failed to reveal financial ties to Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction firm at the center of the region’s biggest graft scandal.
Few thought the bespectacled substitute president, who had no political party and faced a hostile opposition majority in Congress, would last very long or leave a mark. Indeed, in his first four months in office, polls showed Vizcarra’s approval rating dropping 25 points.
Then came the release of dozens of secretly recorded audio files capturing crooked judges, lawmakers and businessmen negotiating behind-the-scenes deals — one on the sentence of a man charged with raping an 11-year-old girl.
The recordings rocked an Andean nation already accustomed to revelations of graft, where five still-living presidents have either been convicted or are under investigation for corruption. Thousands of Peruvians poured onto the streets and even burned case files stolen from a local prosecutors’ office in protest.
Seizing the moment, Vizcarra vowed he would do everything in his power to put an end to bribery, nepotism and fraud.
He compared the leaked audios to another secret recording that spurred political change: a video released in 2000 showing one of former strongman Alberto Fujimori’s aides trying to bribe a congressman. Fujimori resigned soon after and fled the country amid mounting allegations of corruption and human rights abuses.
“I am with those who want to eradicate corruption,” Vizcarra said during the annual presidential address to the nation.
The push for a referendum appears to have marked a sea change for Vizcarra, whose approval rating quickly soared past those of his rivals in Congress and now stands at 61 percent — a major feat in a nation where most leaders leave office in the single digits.
Seeking to capitalize on the public outrage, the referendum asks voters whether they want to impose term limits on legislators and make campaign financing more transparent, among other measures.
Fernando Tuesta, a political science professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, likened Vizcarra’s trajectory to that of “a falling plane that rebounds and then soars.”
Vizcarra has been helped by the demise of Peru’s most-powerful political clan: the Fujimoris. A court this month ordered the former president, who was pardoned last year by Kuczynski in what was widely seen as a closed-door deal to stave off impeachment, back to jail to finish a long sentence for human rights abuses. A few days later, Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, leader of the biggest bloc in congress, was arrested as part of a money-laundering probe.
On a typical day, Vizcarra is up by 5 a.m. and reading the newspapers. Determined to extend his popularity through some of Peru’s remote lands, he is making a point to travel outside Lima twice a week — deciding where to go by asking aides which towns a president has never visited.
From his perch in the cabin of an Mi-17 helicopter, he peers at the landscape below with an engineer’s eye and asks technical questions about public infrastructure. When inaugurating new bridges and buildings, he frequently mentions corruption that the comptroller’s office estimates costs Peruvians $3 billion a year, much of it skimmed off public works contracts.
Vizcarra tells supporters it is “the poorest Peruvians” who suffer most.
Analysts say that while Vizcarra may have defied expectations, he will need to show he can bring results quickly to keep enjoying popularity. Peru is struggling to rebuild from deadly coastal storms in 2017 that flooded cities and destroyed thousands of homes. Nearly a quarter of the nation lives in poverty and millions still lack access to safe drinking water.
“If he and his government don’t deliver in a more or less reasonable time, that support he’s built up could fall,” Tuesta said.
Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.