In the 1960s and 1970s there was no doubt. A coup d'état was a coup d'état, especially when soldiers and armoured vehicles had previously been deployed. The methods and objectives were indisputable, and so were the consequences. In the face of a government to be overthrown as illegitimate or pro-communist, the corollary of the military putsch led almost inevitably to a military dictatorship.
Things have changed now, and in the metaverse in which we live there are coups to suit all tastes: street coups, hard coups and soft coups, self-coups, parliamentary coups and media coups, destitution processes, and so on. The casuistry could go on endlessly. In many of these cases the main victims are national and popular movements and the governments that represent them. Honduras (Mel Zelaya), Ecuador (Rafael Correa), Paraguay (Fernando Lugo), Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), Bolivia (Evo Morales), Argentina (Cristina Kirchner) and Peru (Pedro Castillo) are some of the cases that fall within these categories.
It is clear that spurious interests and the bloodstained hands of (Yankee) imperialism and the local oligarchies are behind these events. Hence the interest in what transpired recently in Peru, where, while many speak of a coup (or self-coup) resulting in the removal of President Castillo, there is no agreement on the identity of the victim, or even on who masterminded the events. Evidently, "ousting" a "neo-liberal" politician such as Pedro Pablo Kuczynski does not have the same significance as ousting a rural teacher of modest origins such as Castillo.
For many, his television address in the morning of December 7th announcing the dissolution of the Parliament was a self-coup. He then declared the temporary closure of the Congress and the establishment of an "exceptional emergency government", which would rule through decree laws. He even decided to implement a "nationwide curfew". His purpose went beyond that. His actions were aimed at achieving one of his main objectives after his arrival at the Casa de Pizarro: to convene a Constituent Assembly and draft a constitution in accordance with his political views.
Somehow along the lines of Alberto Fujimori in 1992, what Castillo did was to attack the constitutional order and the independence of powers. But unlike Castillo, Fujimori had the support of the military, the economic elites and a good deal of the public opinion. Castillo did not have the massive endorsement of his followers. In the demonstrations that followed his imprisonment, only hundreds or thousands of people demanded his release and the call for early elections.
Although the Congress was delegitimised in the eyes of public opinion and systematically sabotaged the Executive, Castillo sought an anti-democratic way out in order to save democracy. As Colombian President Gustavo Petro stated, "anti-democracy cannot be countered with anti-democracy", although at the same time he condemned his destitution, since due to his lowly origins (a teacher from the Sierra) "he was cornered from the first day", albeit "allowing himself to be led to a political and democratic suicide".
In contrast, many others see a full-scale operation of intimidation and destitution, a coup, a conspiracy against the legitimate representative of the people. This is the opinion of Morales, for whom "the hybrid war of the international right" staged in less than 48 hours "two coups against popular governments": the six-year prison sentence against Cristina Kirchner and the impeachment of Castillo. Therefore, the declaration of vacancy "was the outcome of an anti-democratic, political and media conspiracy aimed at persecuting, intimidating and undermining a popular, legally and legitimately elected government and eventually overthrowing it".
López Obrador also embraced the theory of the plot when he deemed it "regrettable that, in the interests of the economic and political elites, from the beginning of Pedro Castillo's legitimate presidency there was an atmosphere of confrontation and hostility against him to the point of leading him to make decisions that his adversaries used to remove him from office on the sui generis grounds of "moral incapacity". Nicolás Maduro spoke of "a parliamentary, political and judicial persecution beyond all limits".
Behind these multifarious theories about coups lies a profound lack of understanding, and in some cases a simple distortion of democracy and its rules. In Peru, the ousted president barely had 19 per cent popular support in the first round and in the second round he beat Keiko Fujimori by a slim margin of votes, although in some regions of the southern Andes he secured strong majorities. Moreover, he did not even have a majority in the Congress. Despite this, and even though he did not have sufficient political support, he tried to advance a maximalist programme by means of a far-reaching constitutional reform.
To this he added an erratic and inefficient administration, unlike the experiences of Chile, Colombia or Brazil, where alliances with the centre were established in order to strengthen governability. Gabriel Boric incorporated Democratic Socialism to his government. Petro forged a broad parliamentary coalition to ensure that his parliamentary initiatives were successfully passed. Finally, Lula won his election after repeated displays of pragmatism with Gerardo Alckmin as his vice-presidential nominee.
In Peru, the attempt to engage Verónika Mendoza's centre-left party in government responsibilities failed rapidly. The intransigence of Perú Libre, Vladimir Cerrón's party, which promoted Castillo's nomination, the president's inexperience and an incoherent and contradictory political management, rather than an orchestrated conspiracy of the elites, explain his failure and removal from office. There is no unanimity on what the outcome of the third and final motion of censure would have been had it not been for the attempt to dissolve the Congress. Some say that the necessary votes had not been secured, while others appeal to the gravity of the corruption allegations to consider it a done deal. However, Castillo's untimely response precipitated events, leaving no way out other than his prompt ousting from office.
Insisting on the theories of coup d'état, of actions to overthrow the government, or even of lawfare against popular or progressive governments is an attempt to tread a self-victimising path that leads nowhere. The same applies if political initiatives are confused with others of a violent nature or which appeal to the use of force. Thus, if everything is a coup d'état, even if the solutions provided for in the constitutions of their respective countries are invoked, then nothing is a coup d'état.
Carlos Malamud is Emeritus Professor of American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Spain) and Senior Researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano. He is a Corresponding Member of the Academy of History of Argentina. His latest book is: "El sueño de Bolívar y la manipulación bolivariana. Integración regional y falsificación de la historia en América Latina" (Alianza Editorial, 2021).