(Photo: Mac Brennan)
By Mac Brennan – Regular Contributor
Since early December, Peruvians have been protesting their government’s detention of former President Pedro Castillo. And by proxy, years of political subjugation. The opposition party, conservative party Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), detained the leftist Castillo alleging his attempts to dissolve Congress were illegal. Peruvians everywhere have been marching in Lima demanding the reforms Castillo promised. A more radical left also demands the state to be rebuilt as a plurinational state, rather than a centralised one. The conflict is the culmination of systemic classism and racism in Peru’s government and society. The move to plurinationality could theoretically remove the ethnic class system. The more centre-left argue those demands are unfeasible and believe incremental institutional reforms will be more accepted and thus more effective. Therefore, these protests exemplify the debate of whether or not a flawed system of government can be reformed, or if it must be removed and rebuilt.
The full historical context to Perú’s socio-economic prejudicial dynamic is very long and complex. To put it briefly, from the colonisation of Perú to today, there has been a rural/urban caste system. The capital of Lima was the centre for Spanish royalists during the wars for independence and today is the hub of the conservative movement. Indigenous Andeans and Peruvians, and the impoverished were forced to rural areas and legally have been recognized as second class citizens. The rural towns were left behind during Perú’s waves of development, with much of the population without running water, electricity, heating, and/or access to education. The government is a unicameral legislative system with an executive body controlled by a president. The Congreso de la República (Congress of the Republic) holds many different political parties with deep-seated ideological and personal divisions preventing long term progress. The conservatives almost always have control due to Perú’s centralization of political and economic power in Lima. The urban minority is able to control Congress because they are in one location, thus unifying their party, and their constituencies hold 90% of the country’s capital.
The last 40 years for Perú have been politically unstable, marked by corruption and violence. The 80’s are remembered for being the decade of domestic terrorism by the Shining Path, ending in almost 70,000 civilian deaths. From 1990-2000 it was under the conservative dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori. Not only did he rewrite the constitution to give more power to the president, he commanded the genocide of rural civillains to prevent a resurgency of the Shining Path. After his exile, there were 16 years of Presidents and Congressmen accused of corruption and bribery all associated with the Odebrecht Case. The chain of events leading to Castillo’s ascension to power started when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned due to association with Odebrecht, and his vice president Martin Vizcerra succeeded. Vizcerra took anti-corruption as his primary goal, but the Congressional opposition blocked all attempts at reform. The conservative opposition impeached Vizcerra twice on the basis of “moral incapacity” (akin to the archaic use of “mental r*tardation”) using falsified evidence of supposed corruption. The second impeachment ended his tenure after conservatives successfully convinced other representatives that Vizcerras legal dissolution of Congress in response to continued corruption, was actually illegal. Manuel Merino succeeded Vizcarra and left office six days later in response to waves of protests not unlike what is happening today. Francisco Sagasti then took office, and Perú would remain politically stable until Castillo’s election.
Pedro Castillo was elected in July 2021 as a “man of the people”. He ran as a member of Perú Libre, a foundationally Marxist party. He had no official political experience but had many years as a trade union leader. He ran a grassroots campaign to prevent the election of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of previous dictator Alberto Fujimori. He narrowly won, entirely supported by the majority rural-poor population. Castillo’s ascension to office was a win for the almost two-thirds of Perú’s population that live in objective poverty. He explicitly promised universal access to basic units of survival, education, and anti-corruption legislation. Unfortunately a combined 76 representatives and cabinet ministers left during his time in office. Reasons were due to ideological disagreement, alleged incompetence on Castillo’s part, and firing ministers for corruption. After almost 2 years of anti-corruption legislation being blocked by the leading opposition party, Fuerza Popular, Castillo attempted to dissolve Congress and hold a new round of elections. On 7 December, 2022 Castillo was detained by pro-Fuerza Popular police. Protests would erupt later that day.
The Current Day
As of February 20th protests are ongoing and violent. They manage to stay as intense as when they first began due to police brutality and the unpopularity of current president Dina Boluarte. Boluarte was Castillo’s vice president, and renounced her membership to Perú Libre for Independence when she took office. So far 60 protestors have been killed by government police or the military. These include both peaceful protestors and rioters. Fuerza Popular and Boluarte are trying to create a narrative that all protests are violent left-wing radicals intent on restructuring the government to take away the rights of Lima’s citizens. Journalists have been targeted and killed by riot police, and newscasters have been fired for speaking against the government. These protests are one of the only times in modern Peruvian history of inter-class solidarity. The streets of Lima are filled with Indigenous, rural-poor, and the urban upper-middle class.
The protestor’s demands have changed as time goes on. In the beginning, demands included a constituent assembly, indigenous people’s legal equality, and a snap general election. Currently the main demand of the centre-left protestors is to hold a snap general election. Boluarte first refused this demand, then moved them up from 2025, to January 2024. Journalists predict that protests will continue until a general election is called for immediately. The more radical left demands the end to centralization arguing that it is the only way to end the cycle of corruption that has plagued Peruvian politics. Both sides are voicing their anger through marches and building roadblocks to halt supply lines.
The Ideological Debate
The Peruvian protests are an example of the consequences when a government is not able to reform itself and cater to the needs of its citizens. The main ideological argument surrounding these demonstrations asks whether or not a flawed government can be reformed, or if it must be reconstructed. Castillo was on the side of reform, but not because he didn’t believe in reconstruction. His centrist rhetoric was pragmatic to prevent worsening tensions in Congress, but he believed that the constitution would have to be rewritten to end
the caste system. The majority of the protestors seem to advocate for reform also for the sake of pragmatism. Individual beliefs usually lie with the radical left; wanting a new economic and government structure that disseminates power to the rural regions. competence of Congress to address any of the inequalities raised. The rampant corruption in Fuerza Popular and other conservatives only fuels the calls for full dissolution.
The forced removal of Castillo from office dashed the hopes that voting in an ideally representative candidate would fix systematic problems. It is clear to Peruvians that the current system will uphold corruption, and centrist reforms are a bitter compromise. For real change to happen, such as the Indigenous to achieve legal equalities, the system as it stands must be abolished. A new constitution, a constituent assembly, and decentralisation would absolutely reorient power to rural populations. It might be possible for certain systems to adequately change with reform. Yet, Perú will most likely stand as an example of reconstruction as required for change, since reforms could not even assuage a corrupt foundation.