An escalated conflict, polarized sides, and country-wide chaos describe the current socio-political scene in Peru. Nearing almost two months of protests, and more than 60 deaths related to them (Agencias Lima, 2023), the unrest in the Andean country doesn’t seem to be near an end.
This is not the first time, in the last few years, Peru has faced a socio-political crisis. On the contrary, the constant fluctuations in the political environment have led instability to become the “new normal”, with a population tired of the indifference from the political class and the constant clashes between the executive and the legislative that do nothing but polarize the country.
Understanding the roots of the current social context in Peru requires an overview of the actual political panorama, as well as a more in-depth analysis of the structural causes behind the multiple demands from the population.
Five years, six presidents
Peru is referred to as one of the youngest democracies in the Americas (Pozzebon, 2023), having recently reinstalled a rule of democracy in 2001. Governance in the country has not always been ideal, with high dissatisfaction rates for most of the democratically elected governments and most recent presidents either being ousted from power before finishing their mandate or being prosecuted for corruption after leaving office.
This ongoing political crisis reached a new level of instability in 2018, when ex-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) resigned from the presidency while faced with an impeachment inquiry, after videos proving his involvement in acts of corruption surfaced. Ever since Peru has undergone a series of presidential changes. In the last five years, six different Presidents have taken office.
Following PPK, his vice-president, Martin Vizcarra assumed the presidency, lasting two years before being impeached due to corruption. Then came Manuel Merino, who only served for six days, being forced to step down due to the social unrest caused by his taking office. Francisco Sagasti, who followed, was the only president in the last five years who finish his term, even though it was a transitory period of eight months until he called for new elections, which were won by Pedro Castillo.
Castillo’s presidency was rocky from the beginning. During the final round of the elections, he ran against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, winning by a very small difference of 0,25% (Redacción EC, 2021). Furthermore, Castillo’s first weeks in office were tainted by multiple reports of meetings being conducted outside of the Government Palace with ex-politicians, businesspersons, and other characters investigated for acts of corruption (Rojas, 2021).
Plagued by a series of corruption scandals, the constant resignation and change of ministers, and a strong legislative opposition (1), it is not surprising that Castillo did not finish his term. On the 7th of December, when faced with an impeachment inquiry, the latest ex-president of Peru decided to unconstitutionally dissolve Congress (2) causing chaos across the country. Ultimately, his actions led to impeachment, followed by his attempt to flee the country, and his subsequent arrest which placed him in preventive detention.
Under these circumstances, Dina Boluarte, who had been elected along Castillo as his vice-president, swore into office, becoming the first female President of the country.
Where has it led us?
The impeachment of President Castillo unleashed a series of protests that began mostly in the south of the country but have since expanded nationwide. Recently, protestors from different regions mobilized to Lima in hopes to gain more political relevance through their presence in the capital, taking into account the centralized character of the country.
What began as a small movement from supporters of Castillo asking for Boluarte to be removed and the ex-president to be reinstalled, has since grown into large protests demanding new general elections, the dissolution of the Congress, and a new constitution. Furthermore, the violent response from the police has only increased the indignation towards the lack of respect for human rights, leading more people to join the demonstrations to resist the aforementioned violence.
It should be noted that both sides - the police and the protestors - have used violence towards their goals. From the side of the police, there have been multiple human rights violations, including the excessive use of force and arbitrary detentions (Amnesty International, 2023). On the other hand, there have been reports of attacks towards health personnel, police, and journalists; as well as indirect violence through the blockage of roads, which have prevented many ambulances and medical supplies from arriving at their destinations, causing the loss of lives (Human Rights Watch, 2022).
In response to the current social movements, Boluarte’s government has called for a national state of emergency, restricting certain civil rights, and has stated that she will not resign. Furthermore, she proposed to bring forward the general elections, scheduled for 2026, to 2024, a suggestion that was voted against by the Congress. despite the initiative of the President, the Congress has voted against bringing the general elections forward to 2024.to move up the elections from 2026 to 2024, a decision that needs to be ratified in a second voting round.
Inequality, identity and polarization
To the outsider, the sudden explosion of violence due to a constitutionally justified impeachment of one president might seem like an overreaction. However, there are multiple intertwined structural causes to it that need to be addressed in order to properly understand the situation, mainly: inequality, identity and polarization.
Peru is a very diverse country, however, this has historically led to certain groups receiving preferential treatment. In this sense, there is widespread social, economical and racial discrimination, which in turn has caused severe political exclusion, economic inequality, and systemic racism (McFarland, 2023). The past few years, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the cycles of political instability, have only deepened this situation.
The southern provinces of the country, where the protests were incubated, suffer particularly from this structural inequality, being among the poorest regions, with no adequate social or economic policies looking to aid this situation (D’Olmo, 2023). This lack of policies is translated into the maintenance of poor living conditions, with little to no investment in infrastructure, education or health in these areas. The inexistence of an appropriate policy agenda directed towards the population of these regions perpetuates the sentiment that “the system is rigged against them” (Jackson, 2023).
It is this sentiment, precisely, which inspires the demand for a new constitution, since some political actors have spread the idea that the policy issue is actually a legal issue, and that a change of the constitutional order would magically solve the issues of inequality in the country. For a sector of the population that has felt excluded by a political class that has, historically, come from and focused on the capital, this promise of change motivates them to challenge the status quo.
The systemic economic inequality and historical political exclusion have to be analyzed along with the component of identity that is in play to properly explain the outrage caused by the ousting of Castillo. For many, Castillo represented the sought change. As a native of a small Andean town, his electoral campaign focused mainly on the inequalities of the country and the systemic political exclusion, with a discourse that constantly referred to the Peruvian population as two different groups, the people from Lima, and the rest of the country.
Castillo was seen by the southern regions as someone who represented them and their culture, someone with whom they could identify with, and who promised them inclusion and change (McFarland, 2023). This created a sort of ideology people felt deeply committed to, which in turn allowed them to believe the discourse of Castillo: that he was not doing anything wrong but that he was instead a victim of political prosecution due to discrimination and was being prevented from governing by the elites, an idea that was reaffirmed inside this group by his impeachment (D’Olmo, 2023).
The indignation towards what was seen as an unjust treatment of someone from their in-group, along with decades of living in inequality, was only furthered by the strong polarization that characterizes the current Peruvian society (Gamarra, 2022). The current political discourses only perpetuate the idea of “us against the others”, each from their own interests and power groups.
Furthermore, the pre-existent division and past trauma from the internal armed conflicts keep coming back, with different sectors, including political actors, stigmatizing the protestors as “terrorists” or followers of the insurgent group Shining Path (Castro, 2023; McFarland, 2023). This is, sadly, a very present discourse in the capital whenever people, especially those who are from different regions, protest with ideas that are linked to a left-wing posture, even if it is just basic ideas such as human rights or equality.
In addition to these key points, two extra opportunity factors, which have not been largely discussed, should be considered in the analysis of the situation. Firstly, the gender issue: Since Peru is still very patriarchal and misogynistic, the fact that Boluarte is the first female President of the country, cannot be taken lightly when explaining the opposition she’s faced since the beginning, despite being part of the same political party and ideology as former President Castillo.
Secondly, the impact of foreign political actors: The Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales has been accused of provoking the protests, with the Peruvian authorities even having to prohibit his entrance to the country. Morales and some of his collaborators have been visiting the southern Peruvian regions trying to promote a “decolonization process” and inciting the people to demand a new constitution, clearly seeking to fulfill their own political interests along the way (Gamarra, 2022; D’Olmo, 2023).
Where to go from this?
As Steward (2005: 129) puts it: “Monopolization of political power by one group or another is often responsible for many of the other inequalities, and for violent reactions, because this appears the only way to change the system”. What is happening in Peru right now is the perfect example of this.
The southern regions, forgotten and excluded, were able to identify themselves with ex-President Castillo. The confluence of the multiple structural factors analyzed here, led to a situation where violence seemed like the only path towards change. On the other side, the current government is not helping the situation with the stigmatization of the protestors and the excessive force used by the police.
The current goal is clear: To achieve peace. But even if the protests die down, or if their demands are met, there will not be real peace unless a structural change is enacted. There is a latent need for the country to become decentralized, for the needs of the different regions that make up the country to be heard and for policies to be created and implemented in dialogue with them and attending to their real necessities. It is finally time for the political class to wake up and understand that Lima is not Peru, and that the political exclusion and empty political promises are not sustainable.
Cover photo courtesy of El Búho
(1) The role of the Congress should not be taken lightly, since part of the political crisis Peru is facing right now is due to the inability of the opposition to rule peacefully with the Executive, which has turned into a constant “playground fight” were both powers obstruct each other mutually, putting their own interests ahead of the common good.
(2) The Peruvian Constitution, following an attenuated presidential model, contains the dissolution of the Congress, i.e. its closure, as a check & balance mechanism, allowing the President to do so when the Congress has denied two motions of confidence. This prerequisite was not present in December 2022.
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