After an attempted self-coup ending in the arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo in December, longstanding political and social tensions in Peru have resulted in popular unrest and a deadly government crackdown with no clear path to political compromise — or an end to the violence.
What started as outrage and grief surrounding Castillo’s arrest and the ascension of his vice president, Dina Boluarte, to the nation’s top office has morphed into protests across the South American nation that reflect the lack of political representation many Peruvians, especially those outside the capital of Lima, have felt for decades. That crisis of representation has been exacerbated in recent years both by the economic impact of the pandemic and lack of access to basic services like health care and quality education and has now boiled over.
Castillo, who remains in jail after his failed coup attempt, got his start in politics as a teachers union leader. Elected president in 2021, he was a powerful symbol for disenfranchised Peruvians: a man from the poor Andean region of Cajamarca and a political outsider in the sequestered world of Lima’s political elite. Peru’s recent political history, however — from the terror of the Shining Path insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s to the brutal dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, which nonetheless jump-started Peru’s economic engine, to the country’s post-2016 presidential chaos — has been one of instability even as Peru’s economic conditions improved due to its rich store of natural resources like copper.
All of these circumstances helped lead to the present crisis: protesters burning buildings, closing down highways, airports, and mines, and suffering violence at the hands of the police force; dozens dead and more injured; and a stagnant political class apparently unwilling and unable to respond to the political and economic demands of the Peruvian people.
The question of what comes next, though, doesn’t have a clear answer. Despite calls for new elections, Peru’s Congress on Saturday voted down a proposal to move elections to December 2023. A left-wing demand that such elections be accompanied by a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution — a relic of the Fujimori period that helped contribute to the present crisis by allowing the president to dissolve Congress and rule by decree — also failed, though polling now suggests that 69 percent of Peruvians would support such an effort.
At the heart of the crisis is Peru’s broken political system. According to Zaraí Toledo Orozco, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research (CIPR) at Tulane University, while there is a desire for change among broad swaths of the country, Peru’s “campesinos,” or rural poor, lack representation in a national political party that could fight for their priorities. Now, that social and political alienation, compounded by the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and ignited by Castillo’s ouster, has turned into a full-fledged conflagration.
Since taking power, Boluarte has imposed curfews in some cities and suspended some civil liberties like the rights to assembly and free movement within the country amid the ongoing unrest. As the situation has escalated, some Latin American political leaders, as well as Amnesty International, say Boluarte and Peruvian police forces have overstepped their bounds.
The end of Fujimori didn’t result in a vibrant Peruvian democracy
Over the course of its history, Peru has had periods of democracy interspersed with dictatorships and chaos; most famous among its strongmen is Fujimori, who came to power in 1990 as a populist leader and an outsider. He emerged “out of nowhere,” according to Max Cameron, professor of comparative Latin American politics at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Running against the “patrician” novelist Mario Vargas-Llosa, Fujimori “seemed more like a man of the people,” Cameron said. “He had sold some property and bought a tractor, and drove around in this tractor with a trailer behind it, called it the Fujimobile, drove around the shantytowns of Peru, gathering popular support.”
Fujimori was the first Peruvian leader to really reckon with the Shining Path, which started as a communist guerrilla organization in the 1970s. The group started in Ayacucho, a city in southern Peru, and recruited from Peru’s poor and Indigenous populations and was active in some of the areas that are now erupting in violent protest.
Fujimori’s government dealt with the Shining Path insurgency through a suspension of democracy and brutal state violence against those perceived as part of or sympathetic to the insurgency. At the same time, he privatized Peru’s mining concerns and introduced measures to reduce the nation’s debilitating inflation. Those measures, dubbed “Fujishock,” did turn around the economy, and the macroeconomic policies implemented at the time have until recently produced an economy that withstood political instability.
The country’s economic success and Fujimori’s willingness to take on the Shining Path earned him devoted political followers, to the extent that “Fujimorismo” and “anti-Fujimorismo” are still in popular use to describe political stances, and Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, is still a potent political force. As Verónica Hurtado, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia, explained to Vox, the legacy of Fujimori and the Shining Path insurgency survives, too, in the political polarization between the government and anyone who dares to criticize its policies.
Right-leaning critics of the protesters have referred to them as terrorists, evoking the deep national trauma of the Shining Path insurgency of the ’80s and ’90s. Maoist insurgents killed an estimated 31,000 Peruvians, and their actions are still evoked in the Peruvian concept of terruqueo, as Simeon Tegel wrote in the Washington Post. Terruqueo, or smearing opponents by falsely accusing them of terrorism, has bubbled up in the recent protests on the part of the government, providing a degree of impunity for the use of excessive force against demonstrators.
That kind of political polarization, combined with the social polarization and stratification that dominates Peruvian society, has helped create a political system without real political parties — at least not ones that have real ideologies, experts told Vox. Political power is concentrated in Lima, with little connection to the cities and regions where mayors and local organizations, and to a lesser extent regional governors, are expected to respond to the needs of ordinary people rather than the central government.
According to Toledo Orozco, Peru is an “empty democracy.” Political parties exist, but only to field candidates for office rather than as organizations with ideals, policy platforms, and infrastructure. That system has created a politics uninterested in change or accountability, but it also helped bring Castillo to power.
“The party of Castillo” — Peru Libre — “has never been in government, they don’t have the experience, so if you think that Castillo represents the left in Peru, the left has never been in power,” Moisés Arce, a professor of Latin American social sciences at Tulane University, told Vox during an interview earlier this month. “So they don’t have professionals, a workforce, that could be capable of creating or producing a good government.”
Peru’s presidential chaos stretches back to 2016
Since 2016, no Peruvian president has finished their term, and it’s unlikely that Boluarte will complete the remainder of Castillo’s, which is set to end in 2026. Boluarte has proposed new elections in 2024, two years ahead of schedule, and Congress gave preliminary approval to that change last month, although protesters demand new elections for both the presidency and the legislature as soon as possible. Boluarte has insisted that she doesn’t want to stay in office and that she is only fulfilling her constitutional duty by staying in power.
But she has managed to cobble together support from the several small right-wing parties that together hold the majority — another point of anger for the protesters who see her as moving toward the right despite being elected as a leftist. However, the legislature approved her government earlier this month, a significant vote of confidence despite the unrest.
Castillo in particular fit into the pattern of post-2016 instability, largely due to his enmity with Peru’s Congress. That body has been at odds with the presidency since the surprise win of former finance minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski — popularly known as PPK — over Keiko Fujimori in that year’s presidential contest. The younger Fujimori, though, retained influence and power in Congress, and her party and its allies stymied Kuczynski as he tried to institute a cabinet and implement policy. Congress also wielded its impeachment authority with zest, creating a pattern of animosity between the legislative body and the executive office that has continued through Castillo’s tenure, as have corruption scandals like the one that helped bring down PPK.
According to Hurtado, Castillo didn’t have the tools, experience, infrastructure, and know-how to successfully implement his campaign promises; however, it’s also true, Hurtado said, that Congress and Peru’s political establishment stymied him because it didn’t approve of his win — a common complaint among Castillo supporters.
“The use of impeachment so easily by Congress also frustrates people,” Hurtado said, “because before 2016, it’s not like we had that great policy implementation ... but there was an understanding, I believe, that even the most unpopular president could get stuff done. There were some major reforms; you could observe the country was trying to expand the presence of the state, there were major social programs being implemented. Since 2016, it just seems that very little has changed, and what was in place has deteriorated.”
That’s part of why the protesters’ call to dissolve Congress resonates so strongly; recent polling from the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos put Congress’s approval rating at 7 percent and found that 74 percent of those surveyed would approve of dissolving the current Congress. But the fear in a relatively new and unstable democracy, particularly one in which an elected president previously dissolved Congress and instituted a dictatorship, is that the absence of such a body would create an even deeper crisis.
The question of where Peru can possibly go from here doesn’t have a satisfying answer, experts told Vox, because there’s no real desire or mechanism on the part of the state to engage with the protesters other than through violence. And the protesters, despite their material and political demands, don’t have an overarching organization, an umbrella under which they can unite and pursue a dialogue with the government.
For there to be any hope of Peru moving past its current disfunction, Toledo Orozco said, “We need to take the conflict, the conflictive issues, out of bullets and back to politics.” But without a leader, organization, or even a clear and consolidated list of demands, the protests remain fractured and without a clear line of communication with the government. And as Boluarte’s government continues to resort to violence to address the protests, observers say the capacity for compromise diminishes.
“The core of this conflict is that democracy does not only need economic growth,” Toledo Orozco said. “It needs to come with parties that address the needs, the demands of the masses. Democracies that do not address issues of representation, do not include the needs of the poorest, end up paying the price.”