A version of this article was first published in Spanish by Otra Mirada.
Translated by Liza Schmidt
For three months, massive protests have been taking place in nearly every region of Peru. More than sixty people have died as a result of the repressive response by interim president Dina Boluarte’s government. The intensity and duration of these protests are unprecedented in the country’s history and, unlike other regional demonstrations, have a clear political agenda: they are calling for the president to resign, new elections to be held immediately, and a referendum to consult the public about convening a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.
The recent origin of the protests is ex-president Pedro Castillo’s failed coup on December 7. This was a desperate move by Castillo, who faced multiple accusations of corruption and threats of removal that had him cornered. The reaction was a counter-coup by the Right, which controls congress and had denied Castillo’s legitimacy since he took office, making daily attempts at his removal. His arrest and subsequent “preventive imprisonment” did not respect due process, particularly his right to a preliminary trial in congress. Furthermore, the counter-coup gave the Peruvian right political power in the executive branch that it had lacked for months, coopting Castillo’s vice president and unleashing deadly repression on protesters.
The Roots of the Crisis
This crisis does not originate entirely from Castillo’s presidency but has much earlier roots, which fall into three time periods. In the immediate term, it started with the Car Wash corruption scandals, which were first investigated in Brazil in 2014 and soon implicated high ranking officials and businesses across Latin America, including three former presidents of Peru. Investigations into the scandals are ongoing and contributed to the recent protests exploding before our eyes. In the medium term, the crisis builds on the neoliberal hegemony that was established by then-President Alberto Fujimori’s 1992 self-coup, which dissolved Congress and gave Fujimori complete control of public institutions, and the fraudulently approved 1993 Constitution, which expanded the president’s powers. The earliest roots can be traced to the fragile independence of 1821 and the ruling criollo state, which has reinvented itself throughout the years but maintained its grip on power.
Constant throughout these time frames, from the recent to the historic, is the existence of a crisis on three political levels: the government, the regime, and the state. In the last five years, Peru has had six presidents and three Congresses, clearly illustrating that changes in government officials have not led to a political solution. But the government’s incompetence has also led to a grave institutional deterioration. Peruvians have lost confidence not only in their rulers, but also in the legitimacy of their institutions. With the government and the regime lost, the state trembles.
This crisis, which spans time periods, shapes itself, as if it were an organic crisis. Thus, in its depth and convergence, structural problems can be seen that encompass the totality of the system.
Two Conflicting Furies
The protests grew out of a sense that popular will was being usurped. Beyond his serious shortcomings as a leader and the grave accusations of corruption against him, Castillo represented a social identity for an important sector of the population. He is a provincial teacher, a poor cholo like the majority of Peruvians. These similarities have had a greater impact than anyone anticipated. Many consider his successor Boluarte a traitor for not having resigned when Castillo was removed from office by the opposition, as she promised in her campaign.
The massive protests have been characterized by popular fury, which in turn has been met with brutal repression, revealing an apparent disconnect between the two sides. The movement has been mostly spontaneous, with some foreign intervention, but more episodic than permanent or centralized. The government has responded primarily in two ways, claiming the protesters are directed by terrorists that have unleashed a “war” against Peru and, simultaneously, saying that the protesters’ initial demands—about prices and services—were valid and should be addressed by the state. The reprehensible, and in some cases extreme, violent response has been targeted, and the provocations have only contributed to more violence. The government’s accusations against terrorists, which so far lack any evidence, are a common tactic of the Peruvian Right to discredit social protest. It is from this that the term “terruqueo” has emerged, in reference to falsely identifying anything related to protest with terrorism.
After many years of partial demands, popular movements are now openly defying the power of the state and calling not just for immediate change in their representatives—presidential and congressional—but also the political charter that has given them legitimacy and underpinned neoliberal hegemony: the 1993 Constitution. Furthermore, the demonstrations have advanced. From being regional movements, they have spread to Lima where they are composed not only of delegations from the country’s interior but also by groups from the popular barrios of the capital. The demands of both sides fall repeatedly on deaf ears: “we want to negotiate,” repeats the government; “we want you to leave,” say the protesters. While the initial reaction to protests has been repressive, the government has held discussions about the protesters’ demands to move elections forward and create a constitutional assembly. After a week-long extension in hopes of reaching an agreement, Congress ended its session on February 17 without any progress. Although a new session will begin in March, experts think it unlikely that elections will be held this year.
The popular rage can be explained by three structural issues: the plundering of our natural resources, which has only deepened in the last 30 years; the exploitation of workers, evident in 80 percent of the economically active population with informal employment; and the resurgence of oligarchic abuse expressed in particular through rampant racism, especially now when the protesters are mostly Quechua or Aymara. It is no coincidence that the movement is concentrated in regions with gas deposits and in the mining corridor—from Huancavelica to Puno—which have been especially impacted by the neoliberal attack.
A Democratic Outcome
Under these conditions, the popular movement has become the main political actor in Peru and mobilization has become the great institution of democracy—a surprise for the elites who have always controlled nearly everything in this country. Faced with this new reality, the response from above has been fury. First the state of emergency, then curfews and deployments of the National Police unlike any from recent years. Similarly, the cruel and repressive response can be seen in the cases of the Ayacucho and Puno massacres, as well as the invasion of the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, an operation which seemed more designed to punish than restore order. In another sense, this fury is about how much the elites have to lose; not just public resources, discreetly managed via recycled patrimonialism, but also caste and class privileges, a legacy passed to them as if by colonial umbilical cord.
The situation has come to a standstill. The president refuses to resign despite dozens of deaths. Congress debated, but did not approve, moving elections forward. The rightwing political elite and news media promote a Cold War-like narrative blaming an “internal enemy” for triggering the political upheaval. But faced with protesters’ persistence, the authoritarian coalition is beginning to show divided opinions regarding a political settlement. While some on the extreme right are determined to stay, others are considering the possibility of leaving. The call for a new constitution, on the other hand, continues to dominate in the streets, but its future in relation to the constituted powers is not yet known.
Congressional discussions, which were very intense in the first two weeks of February, have come to nothing. Public opinion increasingly sees the majority of legislators, regardless of their political ideology, as holding onto the economic and political advantages of their positions, despite the fact that their popularity is in the single digits.
On the other hand, the popular movement has identified a serious weakness: it lacks the direction and leadership needed to drive change, not just as the current voice of power, but in the event of a change of government and future constituent process. A Comando Unitario de Lucha (Struggle Command Unit) has emerged, but it does not seem to have—at least for the moment—much backing or clout. Around mid-February, the protest movement appears to have taken a pause that, due to the diversity of protests, could be either temporary or final.
Regardless, just like in other critical junctures of Peruvian history, the memory of this event will endure. This is due to the magnitude of this popular response that has definitively brought to the scene the poorest sectors of society, which have not expressed themselves in other moments of crisis. This popular, campesino, Quechua, and Aymara mobilization that has repeatedly made its presence known—as much in the most important regional capitals of the southern Andes as in Lima—has changed the face of protest. The challenges that this popular movement issued to the elitist and exclusive model that has long ruled Peru will not be easy to ignore.
For now, it is difficult to be optimistic about the situation. Undeniably, a democratic outcome must include changing the government, including the president and congress, as well as clearing a path for a constituent assembly that can take Peru in a new direction.
Nicholás Lynch is currently a senior lecturer at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, as well as former Minister of Education (2001-02), Ambassador of Peru in Argentina (2011-12), Dean of the College of Sociologists of Peru, and the Director of the School of Sociology for Universidad San Marcos. His published works include: Los jóvenes rojos de San Marcos (1990), La transición conservadora, Una tragedia sin héroes (1999), El Pensamiento Arcaico en la Educación Peruana (2004), ¿Qué es ser de izquierda? (2005), Los últimos de la clase (2006) and El argumento democrático sobre América Latina (2009).