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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.
Did you hear about the president who encouraged violating the constitution so that he could retain power?
I’m talking about Pedro Castillo, the now-former president of Peru. Who did you think I was talking about?
Castillo was a left-wing politician in Peru. He took office on July 28, 2021. He was embroiled in controversy from the get-go. The domestic politics of Peru are complex, to say the least.
Regardless, Castillo found himself at odds with the Peruvian Congress. In November 2021 and March 2022, the Congress voted whether or not to impeach Castillo. The president survived both votes.
This week, the Peruvian Congress was preparing for a third vote, with Castillo’s opposition hoping the third time would be the charm. Castillo tried to beat them to the punch, claiming he had the power to dissolve Congress and run the country by “exception” — read, executive decree. He tried to impose a nationwide curfew.
He also ordered citizens to turn in their firearms and claimed he was “reorganizing” the judiciary.
The Constitutional Court said he did not have that authority. The Peruvian Congress voted for impeachment, 101 in favor, 6 against. The military sided with Congress and the court, police took Castillo into custody, and the vice president was inaugurated.
Peru’s crisis is over for the time being. But it is a good cautionary tale.
Dictators, successful or otherwise, do not rise to power twirling mustaches and avowing evil. They wrap their rhetoric in simple explanations for complex things. They appeal to passion, not reason. They are like most politicians.
However, they then take things a step too far. The strictures of government get in the way of their desired outcome, so they try to break them.
Declaring an “emergency” is often the first step. As we saw during COVID, “emergencies” unlock a lot of powers for elected executives. They can order people to “stay at home” or close businesses.
Whether those powers are deemed legitimate depends on court systems. Even if the dictator might get one or two judges in their corner, a legitimate judiciary will adhere to the rule of law. That holds true regardless of whatever political philosophy the jurists might share with the executive. So an attempt to wholesale discard — or, euphemistically, “reform” — courts is a tally in the tyranny column.
The biggest tell of a would-be dictator is an attempt to disarm the citizenry. When the public has weapons at their disposal, it gets significantly harder for a government security apparatus to subdue the populace.
In 1960, Fidel Castro advocated for widespread firearms ownership in Cuba to feed his communist revolution. By 1965, he decreed that every citizen should turn their firearms into police.
Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator, banned private firearm ownership in 2012. The government’s alleged purpose was to combat violent crime.
Cambodia’s homicidal Khmer Rouge outlawed private firearms ownership, requiring weapons to be turned into regime officials.
Peru’s Castillo took a shot at all three efforts. But the Peruvian Congress rejected his emergency, the Peruvian courts denied his authority, and the citizenry blocked his attempt to flee to the Mexican Embassy.
This is an important, real-world, real-time lesson for those of us in the United States. Castillo’s effort is what a real attempted coup looks like. Made-up emergencies that lead to an effort to dissolve a legislature and confiscate private guns are “tells” for would-be dictators.
But Peru’s government was robust enough to beat back the very real attempt. And I have the utmost confidence that the United States, governed by our Constitution, is strong enough to do the same here should it ever become necessary.