Would early elections in Peru be a sufficient formula to get out of the crisis? | Paolo Aguilar, EFE
What is happening in Peru? The question of difficult answers
Two months after the self-coup and subsequent dismissal of Pedro Castillo, we take stock of what has happened and what are the possible solutions to the critical moment this country is going through.
Since December 7, 2022, when the ousted president Pedro Castillo announced the dissolution of the Peruvian Congress, while this body was debating an impeachment trial against him for multiple allegations of corruption and inability to govern, it has been difficult to keep track of what is happening in this country so close to Colombia, from where we write this newsletter.
Answering the question of what is happening in Peru is not simple. Some speak of political crisis or the imposition of a police state, while others choose to call it social upheaval or street violence. Without a consensus on the expression that best describes the situation and many views on the same country, there are some facts:
The impeachment trial against Castillo moved forward that December 7, and the Peruvian Parliament declared Castillo “morally unfit” to hold office. The then vice-president, Dina Boluarte, who that same day accused the president of attempting a coup d’état with her statements earlier in the day, assuming the presidency. Castillo was arrested for rebellion and, a day later, on the 8th, he was sent to house arrest in the same prison where former president Alberto Fujimori remains. By that time, Peru was already fragmented: in the streets, at airports, in tourist sites, and on social networks, people were demonstrating in favor or against Castillo’s dismissal.
Two months after those circumstances, stability persists in Peru, with some novelties. The use of violence during the days of protest (by police and demonstrators) has already left 66 dead, according to the latest report of the Ombudsman’s Office, while the feeling of paralysis and risks for democracy has led some actors, including sectors of the demonstrations, to suggest the opening of a constituent assembly and to bring forward the presidential elections in that country, estimated for April 2024. However, and after several discussions in Congress, the proposals have not been approved and Boluarte remains the president of Peru.
Although the causes that led the country to its current moment are multiple, and even difficult to define, it is still not clear who is leading the protests, who are using violence, and what is the best way out to achieve some political and social stability, we leave some ideas that may shed light amid this twilight.
To understand the current situation in Peru, we must go back to the presidential elections of 2021. The scenario was one of the traditional parties on the verge of extinction and the emergence of new political movements that represented very diverse and not very binding interests. Pedro Castillo, a schoolteacher and union leader from the Cajamarca region, built a discourse that mobilized peasants and indigenous people. He referred to the historical debts of the State with this population and its representation in the government of faraway Lima. His strategy caught on so well that this leftist outsider ended up beating the highly-voted Keiko Fujimori in her third attempt to become president of Peru.
According to Katya Salazar, Peruvian and director of the Due Process Foundation (DPLF), although in those elections there were 17 candidates and the vote was deeply divided, hatred for Fujimorism (representing the right) reappeared and the south of Peru, the poorest and most abandoned region of the country, identified with the trade unionist and gave him their support. In the most progressive sectors some believed in the possibilities of a good government of Castillo, however, says Salazar, the inexperience, the omissions, the nepotism, the corruption cases, and the clear incapacity to manage a country became unbearable for Peru that in the last five years had already dismissed two presidents (Martin Vizcarra and Manuel Merino).
But the crisis goes beyond Castillo and the historical discrimination of the State towards the poorest areas of that nation. Simen Tegel, a British journalist based in Peru, wrote a text for Foreign Policy magazine in which he says that the real origin of it all lies in “rampant corruption, which – with a handful of exceptions – has metastasized in almost all public institutions”. According to the article, this phenomenon, seen, for example, in the diversion of public funds to fight inequalities or in the appointment of officials who are ill-suited to deal with structural problems, has exacerbated racism, poverty, and inequality in a very significant way in the regions that are protesting today. In fact, in the latest edition of the AmericasBarometer (2021), Peru had the highest level of perception of political corruption in the region: 88% of people believe that more than half of politicians are corrupt.
The mobilizations that framed this process in Peru have been particularly violent. According to the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee, which brings together human rights organizations in that country, “the response of the Peruvian State has been of a brutality unprecedented in the history of democracy in the country in the present century”. In their latest report, they denounce that the police and military forces have incurred arbitrary use of force, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, violations of due process, criminalization of citizens who are not committing crimes, as well as surveillance, threats, and aggressions against rights defenders and journalists. Meanwhile, according to his report, the government has gone too far in the application of states of emergency to violate human rights through the use of police force.
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Regarding this situation, David Lovatón, Peruvian and director of DPLF’s Center for Research, Training, and Legal Advice, highlights a serious event that occurred on Saturday, January 21, after the so-called “Lima Takeover”, when demonstrators, mainly from the south of the country, gathered in the capital to echo their demands before their nation and the world. However, while some people took refuge in the public university of San Marcos (some versions say that it was taken the day before), the police forces “entered the campus, took it over in blood and fire and arrested dozens of people who had not committed any crime”.
Meanwhile, the Peruvian media Ojo Público compiled reports from the Ministry of the Interior and found that during the first two months of protests, 743 people were arrested, and only 27 were convicted for acts of vandalism. The same media was able to access the necropsies and ballistic reports of those who have died during the demonstrations and has been able to corroborate that during these days there has been using of weapons of war (rifles) and other lethal weapons (pistols) by the forces of law and order.
Behind the face of police violence, there are also others. Katya Salazar affirms that it is worrying that in the analyses and among public opinion a narrative centered on attacks by the police force is privileged when it is a fact that there have also been dozens of deaths and injuries in that institution. “The police in Peru is very unequal: in the regions, its members have no way to protect themselves. How do you demand that these people, in these conditions, respect international standards? But these are the same people who are protesting today in the same area,” says the DPLF director, adding that the narrative must be broadened to reach a deeper understanding and spotlight other very important structural problems.
Now, about the days of protest, Lovatón mentions that four are the demands of the demonstrators, most of them followers of Castillo: the resignation of Boluarte, a new board of directors in Congress, the advancement of elections, and a constituent assembly. However, in the background, what has been raised is Lima (represented by the government in power) versus the rest of the country: “the indigenous, the peasant, the middle class of the Andean cities that when they go to the capital is a serrano”.
The way out
Would early elections in Peru be a sufficient formula to get out of the crisis? For Katya Salazar, it is not, because today the country lacks visible leadership figures with the skills and experience to improve the outlook. The current president, who is by logical order after Castillo’s dismissal, had a good start: she speaks Quechua in a country that is both racist and multicultural, she had the support of the international community and surrounded herself with technocrats, but along the way, strongly supported by the armed forces and the parliamentary right, she lost her legitimacy with some sectors of the protests, which by the way also lack clear leaders.
In an interview granted to journalist Nelly Luna, Peruvian historian José Luis Rénique mentions that, if we compare his country with what has happened in others, “Peru is sowing worse hells”, since the problems that triggered this crisis are structural and do not seem to have a solution soon: “The new government, the new Congress, will probably have the same or worse characteristics than what we have had so far and the political conflict will return. If we do not understand that the problem is to develop a different behavior in the erupting country in which we live, we will continue repeating what we have done in these two miserable months, two months that have cost us so many lives and so much anguish”.
That is why the cohesion of the Peruvian civil society and academia can be important if we look at the multiple aspects of the problem that the country is experiencing today: from the structural to the latest events. The international community will also be key. The call for a mission of international organizations to visit and report on what is happening in Peru could provide more clarity, as could a call from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to convene a GIEI (Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts) to do similar work, something that, according to Salazar, would be very valuable for Peru, since the Peruvian Prosecutor’s Office is already under a lot of pressure and has the little internal capacity to investigate.