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Francisco Sagasti, former president of Peru: ‘My role is to contribute to early elections’

The predecessor of Pedro Castillo says in this interview with EL PAÍS that at the age of 78 he is working for a political renewal in his country

Francisco Sagasti, former president of Peru, on July 26, 2023, in Lima.
Francisco Sagasti, former president of Peru, on July 26, 2023, in Lima.ANGELA PONCE
Renzo Gómez Vega

Francisco Sagasti, 78, was president of Peru for eight months and 10 days. Congress appointed him in November of 2020 as the successor to Martin Vizcarra – impeached for reasons of “moral incapacity” – to lead the country. This was after Manuel Merino – the former president of Congress, who replaced Vizcarra for six days – was forced to resign after widespread protests broke out. Sagasti, a respected congressman, was seen as a more acceptable interim president to govern the country until the 2021 election that gave power to Pedro Castillo (who was later impeached and imprisoned following a failed self-coup).

A former manager of the World Bank with decades of experience in public policy, Sagasti was chosen precisely because of his career away from politics. Along with Valentín Paniagua – who served as president from 2000 until 2001, following the resignation of Alberto Fujimori – he is one of only two Peruvian leaders in the 21st century who were never marred by allegations of corruption. Sagasti’s management skills have also been lauded.

The former president received EL PAÍS at his residence in Lima. He has just published Governing in Times of Crisis: Politics and Ideas in the Transition and Emergency Government, Peru 2020-2021, a book where he analyzes his time in power during the Covid pandemic.

In recent months, Sagasti has returned to playing the piano. He’s also been trying to pick up his camera again and capture the landscapes of his country, even if it’s impossible for him to walk the streets unnoticed. He’s also writing his next book. He’ll turn 79 in October, but he’s still not planning to write his memoirs. A member of the Partido Morado (the Purple Party), he continues to be active in politics. He has been criticized for not being tougher on the current government of President Dina Boluarte, Peru’s first female president.

Francisco Sagasti
Francisco Sagasti.ANGELA PONCE

Question. The fact that you’re an ex-president who isn’t in prison draws a lot of attention in Peru.

Answer. It’s normal, actually. The other [cases] are an aberration.

Q. An aberration that has been repeated quite often

A. But that doesn’t mean that governing honestly, with integrity, is a miracle. Not even in this country. We’ve had presidents like [Valentín] Panigua (2000-2001), [Fernando] Belaúnde (1963-68, 1980-85), José Luis Bustamante and Rivero (1945-1948) who have given the office stature.

Q. How do you explain the fact that the only two presidents who left office in Peru with high approval ratings – you and Paniagua – were transitional presidents that were not elected by the people?

A. It has to do with how the system and political leadership work. A series of distortions are created in a campaign, because, in many cases, those who support [a candidate] expect something in return. Neither Paniagua nor I arrived by that route and, therefore, we had no debts to settle.

Q. In your book, you write that you had five meetings with former President Pedro Castillo when he was already in government, You talked about leadership. Was Castillo lacking in that area?

A. It was an effort to try to raise some ideas about how to exercise power. Apparently, there wasn’t enough receptiveness on his part, or perhaps enough understanding of what he wanted to do. We made one last try… I thought I’d leave him some notes. Unfortunately, that meeting was delayed and we didn’t have more than three-quarters of an hour. It was very brief and there I realized that no more could be done [to salvage his government].

Q. Could the early end of the Castillo government be seen at that time?

A. I didn’t expect it to come to this. We’re in a country with so much distrust… if one person doesn’t grant a minimum of trust to the other, it’s practically impossible to establish a sensible and lasting relationship. I never expected the combination of inappropriate designations of unqualified people [to ministerial posts] and people involved in acts of corruption. Long before his incomprehensible coup, in March and April of 2022, I published two articles indicating that the most convenient way out [of the political crisis] was via early elections and a new transitional government. It had been clear to me for a long time that [Castillo] was not the right person. What surprised me was his total incompetence and a failed coup that made [no sense].

Q. Should early elections be the way out of the current crisis?

A. I think so. Let’s remember that moving up the elections was already raised in Congress… I think the president of the Republic also raised it. We’re not talking about an idea that came out of thin air – it has been put on the table by various political actors.

Q. You affirm in your book that you understood the character of a transitional government.

A. Of course. I was very clearly aware that it was a temporary government, that we were in a tremendous health crisis due to the pandemic, that we didn’t have vaccines or enough oxygen, that we hadn’t organized a reasonable process to contain the spread of the virus. In addition to the fact that we were months away from an extremely polarized electoral process [and] in the midst of an economic crisis with the worst GDP decline in the region.

Q. Why has President Boluarte not acknowledged the transitory nature of her government?

A. As a former president of the Republic, I don’t make judgements about who is currently holding office.

Q. How is Peru doing around Independence Day (July 28)?

A. [The country] is hurt, there are a lot of questions… there’s a certain degree of skepticism about the behavior of Congress, the executive branch and some authorities in other branches of the state. [Peru’s] spirits are slightly low.

Q. Is the country more disunited than usual?

A. I don’t think we’re more disunited, but the political fragmentation is more clearly visible.

Q. Have you ever wondered what your government would have been like if it had lasted five years and not eight months?

A. Frankly, no. During the [administration], there was no time, [problems] had to be resolved. Today, I’ve been more dedicated to seeing what we did and what lessons one can draw for the future. But let me make myself clear: if the house is on fire, you’re not going to think about what color hose you want to put out the fire.

What would have been different in a longer period? Obviously, much more could have been done. But, at the same time, the resistance would have been worse.

Q. Have you considered joining the latest protests?

A. Tell me: in which country in the world has a former president been seen marching for a variety of issues that have no consensus? I can contribute much more in other spaces than by taking to the streets. My role is to [see to it that there are] early elections, that there’s no impunity in the cases of the people who died in the demonstrations and that there’s a political renewal.

Q. Your critics consider your position to be tepid.

A. [My position] is one of radical moderation. I refuse to take one extreme or the other. If they consider it tepid to speak clearly, that’s the way it is. I respect those who go out to march, call for a strike, go on hunger strike, those who tweet. But I refuse to believe that there’s only one way to express dissatisfaction.

Q. So you won’t be running for public office again in the future?

A. I’m not considering it. The issue now is to see how this situation is resolved, how to get out of the political impasse.

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