Peru is imploding

Castillo’s impeachment, mass protests and lethal repression

, by Rédaction, WEILL Caroline

The political crisis in Peru is getting worse by the day. Since 2016, instability has taken over this South American country: 6 presidents in 5 years, Congress dissolved twice, one institutional reform referendum, early elections, a coup in November 2020, an internal war between the President and the Congress… Ritimo summarized the situation in 2018, then in 2019, as well as during Merino’s coup in 2020.

President Castillo speaks on national TV, october 2021
Crédit : Présidence de la République du Pérou (CC BY 3.0)

In 2021, general elections led Pedro Castillo to presidential power. Castillo is a union leader, rural teacher, and member of the rondas campesinas (an andean indigenous organization that is quite powerful in the Cajamarca region, where Castillo is from). His victory triggered racist and classist reactions from the traditional political class, who attempted to invalidate the popular vote, claiming there had been electoral fraud. Not unlike Trump’s counter in the US to Biden’s victory, legal actions – and even a very questionable decision from within the National Election Jury, whose member was directly linked to corruption scandals – tried to invalidate votes from Andean, rural, and disenfranchised parts of the country.

These were the votes of people who felt represented by Castillo, by the way he talks, the way he behaves socially, and what he expresses. They especially identify with the onslaught of racism and classism he faces within the national political scene, as they themselves have experienced this on a daily basis in the last two hundred years since Peru became an independent Republic, after severing colonial relations. For over a month, the right and far-right wing mainstream media and political scene refused to recognize Castillo’s electoral victory. They challenged it every which way they could. He was eventually officially recognized as the legitimate president only one week before the day he had to assume office; and even then, the far-right never truly accepted him as president.

Therefore, racism and classism sit at the very heart of the conflict between President Castillo and the members of Congress (the only House in Peru’s legislative branch). Since the day Castillo took office on July 28th 2021, Congress has continuously tried to block any political initiative from Castillo’s administration, and have simultaneously tried to impeach him. As a result, not everyone across the country agrees on how his administration has performed. Some give more credit to the far-right obstruction that dominates Congress, while others claim Castillo was incompetent and politically inept. Others still, think he chose his counselors unwisely, or that he betrayed his Campaign promises in favor of the right…

The complex nature of these competing voices makes it difficult to summarize all of the different alliances and deals Castillo made during his year and a half he in power. First, there was the influence of the political party that led him to power, Peru Libre, whose provincial elite members claim strong Marxist & Leninist discourses mixed with corruption scandals. In addition, we saw the influence of the progressive, Lima-based and upper-class left. All in all, Castillo has been rather inconsistent and often seemed lost as to where he was headed. He doubtlessly made numerous mistakes, and changed his cabinet too regularly. It is a known fact that he had no previous knowledge of state management – and he inherited a very corrupt system of government to begin with. Even he could not escape various corruption scandals, which were clearly exploited and exaggerated by an opposition that for decades has proven to be quite corrupt itself.

Nevertheless, the Castillo administration implemented several public policies that have proven to be very progressive, but that were systematically made invisible. For instance, in the last year, he passed a bill to provide medical attention to local communities affected by heavy metal pollution from the mining industry; and canceled about forty mining projects, because they did not carry the required social license agreed upon by local communities. Furthermore, his administration did not criminalize protests and did not commit any police brutality, and he cut public funding for the typically over-reaching far-right wing media outlets, the same outlets that degraded him.

In the backdrop of these conflicts and tensions, this political crisis has drawn significant attention nationwide, and collective demands for structural reforms didn’t move forward as many people had originally hoped. This has led to growing pressure and increasing frustration throughout the country.

When eventually, this pressure exploded, quite suddenly, at noon on Wednesday, December 7th, 2022. It was a shock for everyone. Pedro Castillo, much to his own administration’s and close counselors’ surprise, announced on national TV that he would “temporarily dissolve Congress” and initiate a “Government of Exception” in which he would rule by decree while new parliamentary elections were held. He also announced a reorganization of the judicial system and called for a Constitutional Assembly to be held within nine months, all of which breaches the current constitutional order. This “self-coup” might as well have been a bomb.

Very shortly thereafter, commentators compared these events to Alberto Fujimori’s coup on April 5th, 1992; however, unlike Fujimori, Castillo possessed neither the military’s support nor that of the mainstream media. He essentially tried to strike a match with no oxygen, which meant immediate political suicide. Cabinet members resigned one after the other. Then a half an hour later, at 12.30pm, Congress voted to impeach Castillo for the third time, claiming “moral incapacity.” This time, the opposition won, and Castillo was impeached.

His vice-president Dina Boluarte, a lawyer and State Official, was sworn in as the new President at 3pm that same day. At this point, no one really knew what was going on: can a dissolved Congress impeach the President? And, on which side will state institutions, including the military, land? But very quickly, all parties allied with Congress. Defeated, Castillo head straight to the Mexican embassy for asylum, much like Bolivian president Evo Morales after his 2019 coup. However, his close-knit guards chose to take him to the police station instead, where he was arrested under the charges of rebellion and conspiracy.

After a year and a half of sustained tension and intense political instability, everything shifted abruptly in three hours, leaving the country in shock. Many people only heard of what had happened that night, after arriving back home. For many of us, this political suicide is still a mystery, which of course has sparked some pretty wild rumors, such as: “The president was drugged and doesn’t recall having said anything on TV,” or “he was threatened in order to make him do something unconstitutional, so Congress would have an excuse to impeach him.” For many others, it signals either a desperate gesture to try and get out of a political impasse, or a show of obedience to the collective demand to dissolve Congress.

As a matter of fact, in early December of 2022, the President’s approval rating according to public opinion rose to 30%, whereas the Congress’ approval rating was only 6%. There’s no escaping the fact that sitting Congress members are widely involved in high profile corruption scandals, in addition to maintaining a transparently racist and classist position. Whatever the reason for Castillo’s action on December 7th, his impeachment has been presented in the mainstream media as an overwhelming victory for the right-wing majority Congress, as well as the neoliberal and racist oligarchy it represents. The way Castillo was impeached and arrested, the humiliation he underwent, and the victory cries from within the oligarchic and corrupt right-wing posing as the “saviors of Peruvian democracy,” was a terrible blow for the rural poor who had voted for Castillo in 2021.

These are the people who swiftly mobilized to protest Castillo’s impeachment, and declared their Andean region in a state of insurrection. First, the southern Pan-American highway was blocked in the city of Ica, followed by minor road blocks as soon as Thursday December 8th during the day, and in many different regions. A majority of social organizations issued public statements; and quickly all claims came together demanding 1) the dissolution of Congress (#QueSeVayanTodos, “let’s throw them all out”), 2) a call for general elections as soon as possible, and 3) the implementation of a constitutional assembly.

Let us not forget that the current Constitution was imposed by Fujimori’s authoritarian regime, and Fujimori is now behind bars under severe charges of corruption and crimes against humanity his severe mandates and military repression. Over the years since his incarceration, this Constitution has been regularly modified according to the interests of the Fujimorista right wing majority, and has only just started receiving public pushback after Chile rejected its own Pinochet-era Constitution during the 2019 riots.

So now, working class citizens demand the end of political and judiciary persecution against Castillo, as well as his restoration to the presidency. Looking beyond the concrete evaluation of his public policies and government actions in the last year and a half, it is clear that people marching in favor of Castillo do so because he has become a symbol surpassing the mere institutional debate. Here’s what’s at stake in these road blocks and demonstrations: the power struggle between a Congress that embodies the (far)right wing, the corrupt oligarchy, the racist elite concentrated in the capital (Lima), and President Castillo, who represents the Andean, rural, poor population who suffer racist humiliation and discrimination on a daily basis. Their marching for Castillo, in this context, is a way to assert their dignity and a voice that has to be heard, it’s a voice of the historically marginalized, humiliated, and exploited.

From Friday, December 9th and onward, the violence has only escalated. In the province of Andahuaylas, in the Andean south (the first to declare the state of insurrection state-wide), protesters were met with heavy-handed police brutality as they tried to invade the local airport. As a result, three under-age residents died, after which people burned down the police station. Meanwhile, in the city of Arequipa, protesters invaded the Gloria milk factory, which is one of Peru’s main economic conglomerates, and the department of Ayacucho declared itself in a state of permanent rebellion. The Regional Government of Puno followed suit, and backed the popular demands. In Lima and Cusco, local TV facilities were burned down, as well as Judiciary offices.

In response, new president Dina Boluarte announced that general elections would be held in April 2024… 18 months away, and also declared a state of emergency in the conflict’s major hotspots. This is a huge blow for the protesters, only further feeding their anger. The police brutality and military repression then intensified by the hour, and the number deaths at the hands of police started to grow. The working-class rejection of Dina Boluarte is massive; she has clearly made deals with the Fujimorista right, evidenced in the composition of her newly appointed government and cabinet members. The ensuing bloody repression makes everyone chant “Dina Asesina” (Dina the Murderer).

In most Andean regions, and especially in the South, civil society has declared itself in permanent agitation, and until their demands are met, has called for a general strike with continuous road blockages throughout the country. Organizers have chartered buses from rural areas towards Lima and major cities nationwide, where the marches are more visible and effective. Financial solidarity networks have started to come together to support the “ollas communes,” or food banks, that will feed the farmers and other rural community members mobilized in the cities, as well as the victims of police brutality and their families.

By December 14th, seven people had died, and that same day the government announced that the state of emergency will be now be nationwide for 30 days. This means the army will take over the conflict management, and it also means the suspension of several key civil rights, such as the right to gather, to go out freely, and the respect for private & home life, etc.

On December 15th, the total number of deaths rises to twenty-one, this time the heart of the conflict is in the Andean region of Ayacucho, which is now the region that mourns the greatest loss of life. Subsequently, the government has imposed a lockdown in the most agitated regions, and Castillo was sentenced to 18 months of preventive detention. This adds even more fuel to the rural population’s collective rage that flows into the major cities.

On December 16th, military repression causes the death of three more people, and more than a hundred other are injured in the jungle of the region of Junin.

Meanwhile, the Lima-based mainstream media discusses gastronomy and other trivial topics. This is the very same media that once celebrated protests against Castillo in the capital city, and now in this context, claims protesters are terrorists and linked to the Shining Path movement. This has been a very common technique used in the past few decades to invalidate any dissenting social movement – and so, to be labeled as terrorists once more only makes the collective indignation worse.

The situation is quite serious and the crisis runs deep. We are looking at two hundred years of a “creole” Republic, born out of the colonization process and systemic exclusion, and thirty years of savage neoliberalism imposed by an illegitimate Constitution, stemming from a dictatorial regime. This ultimately culminated in the past six years of intense and continuous political continuous crisis.

These events are more about a structural problem than about the defense of any one President. There is a severe power struggle between the historically dominant and dominated, the exploiters and the exploited. It is about the structural and foundational racism in a country born from colonial trauma, and it is hard to fathom any immediate solution to this deadly conflict. Unless, as Béjar states, we witness a unification of the Peruvian left with credible leadership and a strong government program, leading the way for profound reforms. But this horizon is still very, very far away.