LIMA, Peru – President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will testify before Peruvian opposition lawmakers intent on throwing him out of office Thursday in a sudden impeachment proceeding that threatens to make him the region's first president to be ousted over the Odebrecht corruption scandal.
The 79-year-old former Wall Street banker is in a fight for his political survival after an opposition-led investigative committee revealed documents showing the Brazilian construction giant at the center of Latin America's largest corruption scandal made $782,000 in payments to his private consulting firm a decade ago. Some of the payments overlap with years that Kuczynski spent as a government minister.
Kuczynski has denied any wrongdoing, stating in repeated appeals to the public that he left control of his firm in the hands of a business partner and knew nothing of the Odebrecht contract.
Analysts worry the impeachment vote could usher in a new period of uncertainty for Peru, which is one of South America's most politically volatile nations. The vote is scheduled to come just eight days after the Odebrecht documents were first disclosed and is being pushed by the opposition Popular Force party led by Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori and who narrowly lost to Kuczynski in last year's presidential election.
"That they would impeach the president is not an unthinkable thing," said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has spent years studying Peru. "It's that they would do it in a week without serious investigation, without a serious process of public debate."
High-ranking politicians across Latin America are being charged and sentenced to jail for taking bribes from Odebrecht. In a 2016 plea deal with the U.S. Justice Department, the construction giant admitted to paying nearly $800 million to politicians, their campaigns and political parties in return for lucrative public works contracts that earned the company some $3.3 billion in profits.
In Ecuador, Vice President Jorge Glas has been sentenced to six years in jail for orchestrating an Odebrecht bribery scheme. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is appealing his conviction on charges of corruption and money laundering related to the plot. In Peru, two former presidents stand accused of accepting money from Odebrecht. One is behind bars and the other in the U.S. seeking to avoid extradition.
In a letter to a Peruvian newspaper Saturday, Odebrecht confirmed Kuczynski's assertion that the payments in question were all handled by his colleague, Gerardo Sepulveda. Though little has been shared regarding exactly what services Kuczynski's First Capital provided, Odebrecht officials said the money was taxed, accounted for and not part of the corruption investigation.
"These are contracts that I didn't sign, that were completely legal and accounted for," Kuczynski said in an hour-long televised interview with a half dozen Peruvian journalists Sunday. "If this was a bribe would it have been done like that? Of course not."
On Tuesday, Kuczynski wrote to the Organization of American States requesting that the Washington-based group send an observer to monitor impeachment proceedings, arguing that Peru's democratic stability is at risk. The OAS said it was sending two delegates to Lima for Thursday's vote.
The president's detractors contend he should have disclosed the payments before taking office and that, at the very least, as a high-ranking government minister when the money was paid he should have done a better job to shield himself from potential conflicts of interest. Polls within Peru suggest a majority of Peruvians want the already deeply unpopular president out of office.
As a senior business leader and statesman with many ties to the private sector, Kuczynski was "sort of Trump-like in not clearly breaking those ties. And he's paying a price for it," Levitsky said.
In order to oust Kuczynski, opposition lawmakers would need to secure 87 of 130 votes. The Popular Force party holds 71 seats in congress. Party spokesman Daniel Salaverry said that if Kuczynski appears Thursday, "It should be to submit his resignation letter."
If Kuczynski should be removed, First Vice President Martin Vizcarra would be next in line. The former engineer has relatively little political experience at a national level and it is likely he would face many of the same difficulties Kuczynski has encountered in governing.
Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno reported this story in Lima and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.