This one is kinda long, and full of intrigue.
As a Chilean, writing about Perú might be a tad inappropriate. Chileans have developed an institutionalized sense of superiority over Peruvians (and most of our neighbors) after three decades of political and economic success (until recently). You can also throw on top of that a history of annexing hundreds of thousands of miles of territory, followed by a century and a half of border disputes, all covered by pervasive racism and xenophobia against the hundreds of thousands of Peruvian migrants in Chile.
And though I might be a staunch, internationalist-socialist-proud-Latin-Americanist-Unificationist, I am aware of my biases, so be warned that I might be misrepresenting or omitting a lot of facts.
Perú’s perpetual undoing.
Perú faces the same issues all Latin American countries face: A vast and rich geography, that is still mostly used for extractive activities with little industrial development; thousands of years of history, resulting in a unique and vibrant mixture of cultures and ethnicities, including sizeable Indigenous, Black, and East Asian communities (which have all been appropriated and repackaged by the white elites for tourism purposes); and a decade and a half of outstanding economic growth and democratic stability (that has barely made a dent in the inequality, systemic racism and vast developmental gulf between urban and rural areas); Above all, Perú has always been the heart of Andean Latin America, the Imperial Seat, from the time of the Incas to the Colony and onwards.
So, is there something about the country’s current political crisis that makes it any different from other periods in Perú’s history?
There is a classic opening line in Spanish-language literature: “At what precise moment had Perú screwed itself up?” Now, we will completely ignore the author of that line and how he, during this crisis, has finished ruining his once hallowed reputation. We’ll use this quote just as a starting point. The last few years haven’t been kind to Perú. It’s not like there is such a thing as a great period. As Mapuche writer Pedro Cayuqueo puts it, things in Perú have been going downhill since the arrival of the Spaniards:
From 2017 onwards, Perú has been enmeshed in a continuous political crisis, as corruption scandals (generally circling the Obredecht case), inquests and cynical political ploys have led to a complete collapse of its political system, including the resignation of president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), the arrest of former president Alejandro Toledo in the USA, and the suicide of former president Alan García just as he was about to be arrested. García is perhaps the living stereotype of the corrupt, bombastic Latin American president, who fled the country and lived 9 years in exile after his first term to avoid prosecution.
He was elected for a second term in 2006.
Mutual institutional cancellation.
Throughout this crisis, scores of political figures have been prosecuted for corruption, all across Perú’s political spectrum … but mostly on the right. As one big name after another fell, we felt in Chile a healthy dose of envy and pride towards our northern brothers. We have been hit by our own series of corruption scandals, showing the extent of institutionalized, corporate interference in our political system, eroding the myth of Chile being the only non-corrupt country in Latin America. Meanwhile, Perú was locking up presidents and entire political cadres! Maybe, just maybe a Latin American country could overcome our perpetual cycles of corruption and stagnation through a painful but necessary process.
After PPK’s resignation, his vice-president — centrist Martín Vizcarra — was sworn in, pushing through a series of constitutional reforms that would target institutionalized corruption. They were approved, overwhelmingly, via referendum in 2018, but all efforts to put them into law were kneecapped by the Congress. Those parties more heavily implicated in the corruption scandals banded together, stonewalling the reforms. Ironically, most of these parties were right-wing, on what one would assume was Vizcarra’s bloc. Instead, he received the steadfast support of the left-wing bloc.
This led to a crisis in October 2019, as Vizcarra decided to dissolve the Congress (following Constitutional procedures) in order to call for snap elections. The opposition majority countered, declaring the presidential seat vacant. The whole thing fell apart as thousands of Peruvians marched in front of Congress in support of Vizcarra, or at the very least, in support of the reforms and against the Congress. A few hours later, the military announced they would stand by Vizcarra.
When is a Constitutional crisis a coup? Is there a coup when two representative branches of power collide, mutually cancel each other but one prevails? The opposition had delegitimized itself through corruption and stonewalling, while Vizcarra’s reforms enjoyed the support of more than 70% of Peruvians. And the military.
But we have seen this before in Latin American history, a single political figure, with broad executive powers, claiming legitimacy on the back of clear popular support. That never ends well. On the contrary, the Congressional majority had ignored sensible reforms, reforms that were supported by the vast majority of Peruvians, pushing the limits of constitutional procedures to their breaking point. I am always wary of sticking up for Latin American political leaders because they will disappoint you in some way or another. Vizcarra does have some credible corruption allegations against him. But I do believe he wasn’t vying for a power grab, and that he honestly wanted to reform Perú’s institutions, if only for self-preservation.
On January 2020, Parliamentary elections were held, and the results were mixed (the seating allocation is proportional but not very representative). The right-wing opposition lost their majority, but Vizcarra was left without any party supporting him and no clear majority bloc. And then COVID hit.
Things that started well.
Perú’s government reacted remarkably fast, enacting stringent lockdowns and passing a stimulus package worth at least 12% of the country’s GDP, mostly in bonuses for poor families. Once again, we felt in Chile that healthy envy: while our right-wing government simply copied Boris Johnson herd immunity approach, we were forced to dip into our (privatized) pension funds after they only handed a few puny bonuses, for which most low-income people couldn’t qualify. Meanwhile, up north, a country that was three times poorer than us was actually going all in for its population.
It didn’t work. In a country where over 70% of the population works in the informal economy, you have to go out to make ends meet, with or without financial aid. With an underfunded and ill-prepared health system, it resulted in the worst death rate in the world, according to official figures: Close to 200,000 excess deaths, at least 0.3% of the population, or one in 170 people. The economy fell by at least 30%.
It was the perfect opportunity for Congress to try and remove Vizcarra again. They succeeded on November 2020, after a failed attempt earlier, leaving in place what basically amounted to an interim government until the presidential elections were held this year. Massive protests and riots followed, but police repression and the tides of Covid smothered them.
Other Trumps and other Ivankas.
Here we need to discuss the Fujimori family. In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, a far-right populist, succeeded Alan García as president of Perú, implementing a series of neoliberal reforms that did what neoliberal reforms do: Granted economic stability and growth while widening inequality. But his key campaign promise was to put an end to the Maoist Shining Path insurgency, up in the country’s vast and remote highlands. Now, what do you think happens when an authoritarian, far-right populist collides with a Maoist, terrorist paramilitary? What you saw in Syria between Assad and the Daesh: tens of thousands of innocents being massacred in the crossfire. In this case, the overwhelming majority of victims were poor, rural, and indigenous.
In addition to the massacres, Fujimori’s worst crimes were the targeted sterilizations of at least 200,000 indigenous women, many times forced. Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, that would amount to 25% of all indigenous women between 18 and 35 back then. You can actually see the dent in population pyramids.
In 1992, as Fujimori failed to pass through Congress a series of undemocratic, anti-terror laws, he dissolved it via a self-coup, ruling by decree, and implementing a new constitution that mostly stands to this day. His “success” against Shining Path and relative economic stability granted him reelection, and more importantly, the support of the Peruvian elite. But as his corruption and human rights abuses came to light, his popularity began to wane.
In 2000, after modifying the constitution to run a third term, he was reelected in a sham election. As protests and Congress opposition grew, Fujimori took advantage of a trip to Brunei and fled to Japan, where he would remain until 2005. In his stead, his daughter Keiko succeeded him. For all intents and purposes, she is Perú’s Ivanka.
In the following decades, Keiko and Fujimorist parties became a major political force, garnering support from a mixture of Lima’s middle class, the elites, and conservatives. She ran twice for president, in 2011 and 2016, losing each time by small margins. First, she lost to Ollanta Humala, a leftist that ended up becoming a centrist president (he’s also been arrested for corruption), and in 2016 to PPK. Her biggest success was in the 2016 elections, as her party gained a majority of seats in the midst of a growing crisis.
For what it’s worth, it’s important to mention that since 2000, elections in Perú have been transparent (as much as possible considering the size of it and isolation of some locations), and voter turnout has been remarkable, usually crossing 75% of the citizenry.
Though she was too young to have participated directly in the corruption and human rights abuses committed by her father, Keiko continued her Fujimori’s proud tradition of corruption and undermining democracy. Did I mention Rudy Giuliani was her consultant once? As you might imagine, she was deeply enmeshed in all these corruption scandals, being arrested on October 2018 and remanded in custody and released on bail on May 2020 as the trial dragged on. She wasted no time in returning to politics, gunning straight for a third presidential run, despite having pending charges.
An Americanized South American election.
General elections were held on the 11th of April. In total, there were 18 presidential candidates and over 20 party lists, resulting in a highly atomized and not very representative Congress. Only 4 presidential candidates garnered more than 10% of the vote, with Keiko going into the second round with 13.4% of the votes, trailing her opponent, rural school teacher Pedro Castillo, who got 18.9%.
Just like in 2011, she faced a left-wing candidate of indigenous and peasant extraction. But unlike Humala, who started his career as a military rebel and then as a politician, Castillo’s political background started as a regional political activist, and then as a leader of rural teacher’s unions. After leading a relatively successful teacher’s strike in 2017, his political credentials grew enough to run as president, representing Perú Libre, a relatively new leftist party.
I have doubts about Pedro Castillo. I am in awe of his trajectory and I’ll be damned if I’m not glad a teacher is now a president. Yet he represents the authoritarian, sexist, and deeply conservative Left that is still predominant in most of Latin America. His support of Venezuela’s regime is worrying, though again, there are much more democratic leftist figures in the region that also support it, a persistent willful blindness on our side. However, an insightful counterpoint made the rounds among Perú’s progressive left: Updating his quote from 2011, political scientist Steven Levitsky said on Peruvian TV that “we have even more doubts about Castillo, but even more evidence against Keiko.” The experience showed that, worst-case scenario, Castillo could — like Humala before him — become yet another neoliberal technocrat, perhaps less corrupt. And a full Venezuelan-style dictatorship wouldn’t hold in a country as fragmented and mostly right-wing leaning as Perú. Middle-case scenario, he could become someone like Chile’s Ricardo Lagos, the first Socialist president since Allende, who later became a *”socialist”* and the darling of the business elite.
Predictably, the establishment media began a smearing campaign against Castillo. The lowest point came on May 23, when an attack on the sierra killed 18 people, apparently at the hands of a guerrilla associated with Shining Path. Explicitly or underhandedly, the right-wing media tried to pin it on Castillo, even though in his youth in the late ’80s and ’90s, he participated in the Ronda Campesina, self-defense rural patrols that fought against Shining Path. But hey, wherever you are in Latin American’s left, you will always have to answer for what the worst of the left does.
Nevertheless, these doubts garnered Keiko a huge deal of support, as the lesser of two evils, including people that should know better. As the votes were tallied, nearly half of her second-round votes came from the capital region, where close to a third of the country lives. Meanwhile, Castillo’s votes came from rural and urban areas of the country, mostly in the sierra, the mountainous region covering most of Perú, winning some provinces by over 80%. In the first 24 hours, the results were neck and neck, with differences of under a thousand votes. But as the results from isolated places came in throughout the week, the trend was clear, Castillo was winning, maintaining a 50.1% lead.
That’s when Keiko started pulling a book straight from Trump, a book that was written many years ago by other Latin American politicians. In the following weeks, as the final batches of votes were slowly tallied and recounted, she kicked off the Big Lie, claiming the election had been stolen. I mean, it’s not like that was unprecedented in Perú’s history; her father pulled that sh*t in 2000. Yeah, everything was unfounded: International observers ratified the election as transparent, including the Organization of American States, the US government’s big stick. Keiko and Perú’s far-right countered with Twitter disinformation, as usual, as proven by the thread below (in Spanish):
Keiko y su pack completo trumpista/Atlas Network: Amenaza de golpe, acusaciones de fraude sin prueba, campaña de odio y mentiras y tras analizar los más de 100.000 tuits con #FraudeEnMesa vi miles de fakes, cuentas falsas, bots y tuits con el mismo error #FraundeEnMesa que fue TT pic.twitter.com/iPjrK2elfv— Julián Macías Tovar (@JulianMaciasT) June 9, 2021
You saw all of this earlier this year: A white elite trying to undermine an election and have the vote of ethnic minorities discounted through gross manipulations of the legal system. In their private and not-so-private forums, Lima’s elite let their racist trap wide open. For comparison’s sake, the difference between racism in Perú and racism in Chile is not unlike the one between Southerners and Northerners in the US, respectively. Tensions have only grown as retired members of the military called for an intervention to prevent Castillo from taking office (they were reprimanded by the interim president, but that won’t make a difference). None of this has really subsided as of today.
Keiko failed, once again, leaving her free to face corruption charges. Perú’s electoral board ratified Pedro Castillo last Monday as the elected President, to be sworn this Wednesday. Castillo faces a daunting task: On the one hand, he will constantly have to assuage the powers that be that he will not go full Venezuela, with a literal military threat against him. On the other, he doesn’t have a clear majority, either in the popular vote or in Congress, which will compel him to tread lightly. Fujimorism hasn’t gone away and the political system remains broken. And then there’s inequality and rampant poverty. His promise is complex — no more poor people in a rich country. He has also promised a constitutional assembly, perhaps the key requirement to start transforming Perú.
Sincerely, I hope he succeeds, if only a third of the way. Latin American history teaches you to always, always temper even the lowest of expectations, but also that you have to force hope in somehow. At the very least, I hope this becomes a chance for Perú’s Left to grow and evolve. In particular, Perú’s left has a pending debt towards gender equality that needs to be addressed sooner than later by them and only them.
Header Image Source: Getty Images