The long-term crisis in Peru

Peru’s current crisis of governance is not the result of a single political action, but rather a long process of democratic weakening.
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Peru has been in a crisis of governance for at least two decades, since Alberto Fujimori’s coup d’état in the 1990s. Fujimori installed a dictatorship, curtailing freedoms, with the open or hidden consensus of the church and the military. He also introduced neoliberal policies, enormous corruption at all levels, and a new constitution with a set of disinformation favoring the market and not the citizenry. The mobilizations against Fujimori grew and spread throughout Peru, and when his capture was imminent, he took refuge in Japan. Soon after, he was arrested in Chile, tried in Peru and is now serving 25 years in prison.

His story, however, does not end there. What remained was neoliberalism, a rigged constitution, growing informality in politics and enormous corruption.

After fleeing the country, a transitional government was installed, which set an example of democratic politics and called for new elections. From then on, the history of mistakes and corruption accumulated. Alejandro Toledo, the first president elected after the transitional government in 2001, is not only accused of corruption, but is in detention in the United States awaiting repatriation to Peruvian prisons.

The next president, Alan García, also accused of high corruption, committed suicide in 2019, as soon as police came to arrest him. The presidents who followed were either removed from office or were also accused of corruption — and one of them is under house arrest; two more are still on trial.

The crisis is therefore not a single one, nor does it correspond to a single period, but to a long process of democratic weakening in the country. In addition to all of the above, from 2016 until today, Peru has had six presidents, all of whom have been short-lived because the right-wing political forces — especially Fujimori’s party (led by his daughter, a candidate for the presidency in three successive and unsuccessful elections) — have made it their policy to either accuse the presidents of fraud or vacate them from the Congress of the Republic.

The government of Pedro Castillo

The most recent president elected, in 2021, was Pedro Castillo — a rural teacher, close to the ronderos, a trade unionist and a leading figure in the teachers’ strike of 2017. He was carried as a candidate by the self-styled leftist Peru Libre party, with a deeply conservative streak. Castillo’s victory was unexpected, with very few resources, with a quickly divided bench, and with a difference of only a few thousand votes in relation to Keiko Fujimori, the other candidate. The widespread anti-Fujimorism that exists in the country had a great influence on his election, and for many the vote was made in the hope that Castillo would be a president representative of this deep Peru that has been so long forgotten.

As soon as Castillo was proclaimed president, the voices claiming electoral fraud began to be heard loud and clear — calling for the intervention of national and international organizations, that clearly endorsed the fairness of the election. After this initially lost battle, Congress began a fierce confrontation with the Executive, both by censuring ministers and by constantly organizing a process of vacancy due to moral incapacity. And, with changes to the constitution, it also managed to modify Peru’s parliamentary presidential regime, turning it into a regime where the parliament acquires much more power, seriously limiting the power of the executive.

It is important to point out that his 18 months in office have been ineffective and at times disastrous. After a questionable first cabinet, the second cabinet was made up of capable people, several of them recognized, several from the center-left, others from the democratic left, including the prime minister, and the conservative left (from Peru Libre, the party that brought Castillo to the presidency and felt it had the right to decide on the cabinet). Peru Libre accused the second cabinet of being neo-liberal left-wing and made them the main enemy (with the nickname “caviar left,” alluding to the fact that they ate and dressed luxuriously and were in agreement with neoIiberalism). From then on, cabinet changes have been permanent; there were times when the council of ministers lasted only three or four months.

Another of Castillo’s limitations was the fact that he surrounded himself with people close to him or people who supported his campaign, and who were labelled a “shadow cabinet.” The enormous process of corruption that began to take place soon became evident, and it reached Castillo directly although he has denied it until the end.

The two coups

In this climate of open confrontation between the weak and limited executive branch and the Congress (with its permanent harassment of the president and a hard right-wing deeply racist core, fueling its own internal coup d’état during the 18 months of Castillo’s government), the Judiciary also joined in with allegations of corruption. At that time, Congress was preparing a third motion of vacancy for moral incapacity, as the previous two had failed to get the necessary votes. It was almost obvious that they were not going to get them this time either. The cabinet was to go to Congress the very day of the dramatic changes, to present its arguments against vacancy.

However, in an inexplicable, unusual and disastrous way, Castillo made the biggest political mistake: He gave a speech announcing the closure of Congress, the closure of the Judiciary and the Constitutional Court, and a state of emergency throughout the country. It was a nefarious Autogolpe (self-done coup d´état). But, just as it was launched, it ceased to exist. It was a coup d’état without weapons, without laws to legitimize it, without institutions to support it, without an army to back it up: It lasted only two hours. The different institutions, including the armed forces, condemned the action and most of their ministers resigned. Congress immediately activated the vacancy request and this time it did get many more votes than necessary.

When the failure was evident, Castillo left to seek asylum in the Mexican Embassy, but was quickly intercepted by the army and taken as a prisoner to one of the army’s prison facilities.A few hours later, Dina Boluarte, who was vice-president in Castillo’s government, was appointed president of the country. She is the first woman president of Peru, and her appointment is legal, but the problem is the orientation she is giving to her government.

The reaction of the people on the streets was almost immediate. First were those who went to the gates of where Castillo was detained (and soon throughout the country), demanding the closure of Congress, early elections and the formation of a Constituent Assembly. Some of those were in defense of Castillo, including calling for his reinstatement as president, but most were simply demanding a fair trial (which is not happening).

The new government’s response has been to call a state of emergency, put a curfew in several regions of the country, and give the armed forces control of national security. And while there have been reprehensible and inexcusable acts of vandalism, the repression has been violent and indiscriminate. The militarization and political persecution in the face of citizen discontent has left 22 dead, many wounded amidst raids and arrests, many of them arbitrary. The army and the government do not recognize the right to protest and accuse all the mobilized people of being terrorists and criminals. The Congress itself, which had already decided to bring forward the elections due to pressure from many congressmen and the clamor of the streets, has still not managed to approve it, and it is not known what will happen next.

A historical knot to deconstruct

In all this political tragedy there is a deep historical knot related to the enormous marginality and coloniality in which the majority of the population lives — especially the Indigenous, peasant, provincial and Andean populations. The asphyxiating centralism that characterizes Peru makes it much less likely that large sectors of the population will be able to exercise their rights.

What is happening now is something very profound. In the mobilizations currently being repressed, there is the presence of a collective voice that, in the past, was weak or dispersed. These are the voices of those considered subordinate, those from the regions outside the capital, those with less education than the rest, those despised with deeply racialized attitudes. Resistance to substantive change often took the form of racist opinions or degrading jokes about their provincial origin. On the contrary, the opinion of many of the mobilized people is different. One woman said: “Yes, we know that Castillo made mistakes in his government, but he is one of us, he is the voice we have never had before.”

That is why this is not just any crisis. Peru’s current crisis is the expression of a historical tragedy for which no one wants to find a solution.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search

Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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