Peru: Endless Protest and Indolent Elites

At the time of writing these lines, Peru has been through two months of massive protests in at least twelve of the country's twenty-five regions. The tragic nature of the events is expressed in the killing of over sixty people in the repression perpetrated by the government of President Dina Boluarte. These protests are of an unprecedented scope in the country's history, and unlike other regional demonstrations, they bear a strong political character: they call for the resignation of the president, early elections, and a referendum to consult the population on the convening of a constituent assembly.

The direct origin is the failed coup d'état by former President Pedro Castillo on December 7th, 2022, beleaguered and besieged in the face of the multiple accusations of corruption and the threat of impeachment. The reaction was a backlash from the right wing, which controls the Peruvian Congress and had questioned Castillo's legitimacy prior to his inauguration and voiced their opposition to him day after day. The former President’s arrest and subsequent "preventive detention" decreed by the courts did not guarantee due process and in particular his right to a parliamentary impeachment trial. The reaction provided the Peruvian right-wing with the political space it had lacked months before, co-opting Castillo's vice-president and unleashing the murderous repression described above.

However, this crisis does not date from Castillo's presidency: it stems from way back and needs to be analyzed in three stages: the current situation that is unfolding before our eyes and whose origins lie in the corruption scandals of the Lava Jato case in 2016; the period between the neoliberal hegemony established after the coup d'état of  April 5th  1992 and the fraudulent approval of the 1993 Constitution; and the long period that harks back to the fragile independence of 1821 and the Creole state, whose latest revival seems to be collapsing these days.

Both current and historical times reveal a crisis at the three levels of politics: the government, the regime, and the state. The six Presidents and three Congresses of the last five years are indicative of the fact that the change of ruling figures has not brought a political solution to the situation. Additionally, the inability to govern has brought about serious institutional degradation. Peruvians have lost confidence not only in their leaders, but also in their institutions, which, due to a widespread lack of legitimacy, no longer have the capacity to represent their citizens. Given the loss of both government and regime, the state is trembling. After several reformist initiatives, the oligarchic takeover of the state following the 1992 coup has been called into question. 

This crisis, which spans three periods, has thus become an organic one. Its convergence and depth enable us to see our structural problems.

The protests stem from a feeling of usurpation of the will of the people. Regardless of Castillo’s serious shortcomings and the accusations of corruption against his leadership, a significant sector of the population shared a social sense of personal identification with him as a poor, provincial, rural teacher, a cholo like most Peruvians. Such commonality was much stronger than anyone would be ready to admit. Hence, his successor, Dina Boluarte, is seen as someone who betrayed the teacher for not leaving with him in the event of a coup as she had promised in her campaign.

The large-scale demonstrations have been marked by popular rage, which in turn has led to brutal repression and an alleged lack of connection between the two sides. The movement is for the most part spontaneous, with some external intervention, admittedly more sporadic than permanent and/or centralised. The establishment’s initial response was twofold: firstly, it was stated that the protesters were led by terrorists who unleashed a "war" against Peru, and secondly, it was said that the former’s only claim concerned specific issues, such as prices and services, which should be addressed by the state. Albeit extreme in some cases and condemnable as a resource, violence has not been pervasive, and I believe that provocation and effective repression are much more conducive to it. Accusations of terrorism, so far without evidence in any case, are a standard practice of the Peruvian right-wing to discredit social protest.

Yet, after many years of partial demands, what is really happening is that the popular uprisings now have an agenda that directly challenges the power of the state and not only aims at the immediate change of its incumbents, the President and Congress, but also the political charter that has legitimised and supported the neo-liberal hegemony: the 1993 Constitution. Moreover, the mobilisations have grown. From regional movements, they have spread to Lima, where they are now made up not only of representatives from the interior of the country, but also of mobilisations emerging from the working-class quarters of the capital. Hence the apparent dialogue of the deaf, "we want to negotiate" repeats the government, "we want you out" retort the activists. However, the government's initial reaction gave way to the recognition of some of the demands, such as holding early elections and the possibility of putting the constituent assembly on the political agenda, albeit in a stigmatised form.

Popular rage can also be attributed to three structural issues: the plundering of our natural resources, which has escalated as never before over the last thirty years; the overexploitation of labour, with 80% of the economically active population working on an informal basis; and the return of oligarchic abuse, especially in the form of rampant racism, in particular today as the protesters are mainly Quechua and Aymara. No wonder the mobilisation is concentrated in the regions of the mining corridor and the gas fields, from Huancavelica to Puno, particularly affected by the neo-liberal assault.

Against this backdrop, the popular movement has become the main political player in Peru and mobilisation the great institution of democracy. This comes as a surprise to the elites who have always controlled (almost) everything in this country. This has led to fury from above. As I have already pointed out, this violence has already claimed the lives of more than 60 people, although the figures are not easy to verify. But this anger in the opposite direction has to do with how much is at stake for these elites, not only in terms of public resources, controlled at will through recycled patriarchal imperialism, but also in terms of caste and class privileges stemming from an umbilical cord of a colonial nature.

From today's perspective, a deadlock has arisen. A president who refuses to resign despite the dozens of deaths, a congress that contemplates but does not approve early elections, and a rhetoric in the right-wing political elite and the Cold War-era media that seeks a war against an "internal enemy" that unleashed the upheaval. However, faced with the persistence of the mobilisation, the authoritarian coalition has begun to become divided over the political solution. While some extreme right-wingers are thinking of staying, others are already considering the possibility of leaving. On the other hand, the constituent demand continues to occupy the streets, though it is not yet clear what its future will be in relation to the established powers.

Meanwhile, the popular movement has been gravely undermined. There appears to be no leadership that could conduct it, not only as an interlocutor with the ruling powers, but also in the case of a change of government and a future constituent process.

For the moment, it is hard to be optimistic about the situation. One thing I can say is that a democratic solution must include a change of government, including the President and the Congress, as well as a clear path towards a constituent assembly that can guide Peru in a new direction, one that restores the hope of democracy and welfare for all Peruvians that has been denied for decades.

Nicolás Lynch is a Peruvian sociologist. He was Minister of Education and Peruvian Ambassador to Argentina.


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