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Peru's Era of Instability
The Story of an Andean Nation's Constant Political Turmoil
“Caesar’s patience was exhausted, and in front of the senate he accused Marullus and his friends of laying an elaborate plot to misrepresent him as aiming at despotism, and concluded that they deserved death but that he would merely strip them of office and bar them from the senate-house. This episode particularly blackened him, as people thought he wanted the title, was responsible for these attempts to get it, and had become totally despotic…Anger was inflamed by the fact that he did not even wait for the expiry of their term of office.” - Appian [“The Civil Wars” II.108]
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As you can see in the above video, Peru has recently been in the grip of a great deal of turmoil. However, this goes far beyond normal street protests: the instability is systemic throughout the country’s political system. There have now been seven presidents in the last six years, four of those since 2020. The root of the problem is that Peru’s constitution allows both the unicameral legislature and the President to remove each other for spurious reasons. And they both do, or at least try to, all the time. From a political theory perspective, Peru is a case study of a poorly organized and failing commonwealth; I hope to write a different article about what is wrong with the country’s system from a theoretical perspective, which ranges from the need for agrarian and mineral rights reform to the improper balance of power between classes to the executive having the wrong powers and restrictions. For this piece, I will covering the history of the current political crisis.
In early December 2022, then-President, peasant leftist Pedro Castillo, was facing a third impeachment attempt from Congress, and instead decreed the dissolution of Congress, which proceeded to remove and imprison him, and replace him with the Vice President. Castillo’s supporters, predominantly lower class people of indigenous descent, took to the streets in large numbers, some calling for a constituent assembly. The new government, backed by the military, declared a police state to quell the protests. Things calmed down over the holidays, but as none of the problems social, economic, or political have been solved, you can be sure these internal divisions will flare up again and most likely get worse. It does not seem possible for anyone to govern Peru under the current system. While I oppose the Marxist politics of Castillo, I think that he identified real problems within Peru, and that further it is often better to let these things “shake out,” as the pro-Western oligarchy gives credibility to the threat presented to their power by his politics in their willingness to do anything to stop him; in many ways it reminds me of the US political class’s response to Trump, with the difference being that Castillo wanted to make fundamental changes to the Peruvian government and economy, whereas Trump mostly had poor decorum and offended the “expert” class with his disdain for them.
Like most countries in Latin America, Peru has many overlapping internal divisions. Most notably between white, mestizo, and indigenous, rich and poor, and urban and rural. As is common in in Latin America, Peru has a massive capitol, Lima, while much of the rest of the country is mountainous, inaccessible, and sparsely populated. Unlike many capitols in the region, Lima is at sea level, making it all the more different from the mountainous regions of the country. [By contrast, the large Peruvian city of Cusco is above 11,000 feet, whereas Colombia’s capital of Bogota is about 8,500 feet.] Economic power has always been concentrated in the capitol, while marginalized indigenous communities in the Andes survive on subsistence farming and mining. To get some idea of the social situation, imagine how mountain folk are viewed by city people in the US, but if they were much higher up, more remote, and indigenous. Further, Peru’s vast mineral wealth has always made it a target of international capital and extractivists, and with that has come persistent corruption. The unicameral legislature is widely seen as being controlled by pro-American oligarchs, with the Presidency being the only office which the masses can use to contest their power. However, as was said above, both the President and the Congress have the de jure power to remove each other with few restrictions.
Article 113 of the Peruvian Constitution, created under US-backed dictator Albert Fujimori in 1993 with the input and approval of the international financial system, gives the unicameral legislature the ability to remove a President for the ill-defined grounds of “moral-incapacity” if 2/3rds of the members vote to do so. This is in contrast to, for example, the United States where the lower house can impeach a President for cause, and then the upper house is responsible for holding a trial. The President can also dissolve the Congress for obstructionism.
In the 2016 the elite-educated former dual US citizen, Pedro Kucyznski narrowly won the Presidential election against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the imprisoned former President. His running mates were Martin Vizcarra and Mercedes Araoz; Peru has a first and second Vice President, who have no other duties but to be in the line of succession, as if they expected the kind of problems they’ve been facing. This current round of instability began on March, 23rd 2018 when Kucyznksi resigned in the wake of the “Maminavideos” bribery scandal, where he was filmed seeking to bribe Congressman to vote how he wished. Benjamin Norton, of the anti-imperialist website Multipolarista, explains this and Peru’s subsequent short-lived presidents in the article, “Why Peru has had 7 presidents in 6 years: Legacy of Fujimori dictatorship’s constitution,” from which I’ve sourced most of the following information.
Following Kucyznski, his protege Martin Vizcarra, of a wealthy industrialist family, took power. He was removed on November 9th, 2020, for “moral incapacity,” following allegations of corruption during his time as governor of Moquega. Earlier in Vizcarra’s term on September 30th, 2019, he sought to dissolve Congress, leading Congress to declare his suspension as President. His Vice President, Mercedes Aroaz, a neoliberal economist with graduate degrees from the University of Miami and ties to the US-led Organization of American States was named as President by Congress. However, Vizcarra had the backing of much of the public and the military, and Aroaz resigned her claim the next day without taking power, demonstrating the lack of a proper system for adjudicating this specific dispute between the President and Congress, which is inherent in the 1993 constitution.
Following the 2019 constitutional crisis, Vizcarra was left without a Vice President. The President of Congress, conservative Manuel Merino, aggressively pushed for the impeachment of Vizcarra with himself being next in line to the Presidency due to the lack of a Vice President. The impeachment was successful, but Merino was criticized for his blatant power grab, and resigned on November 15th 2020 in the wake of mass pro-Vizcarra protests, after ruling for five days.
At this point, no one with even a tangential relationship to winning the 2016 Presidential election was left. If you’re struggling to keep track, the elected President, First Vice President, Second Vice President, and President of Congress had all resigned or been removed from the Presidency since Kucyznski’s inauguration on July 28th, 2016. On November 16th, 2020 Sagastia Hochhausler was elected as the President of Congress, which due to vacancy made him the President of the country [and who doesn’t trust a Latin American with a German last name?] Sagastia Hochhausler is an industrial engineer with advanced degrees from elite American universities, and ties to the World Bank and World Economic Forum. He survived in office until July 2021, when the five year presidential term began by Kucyznski expired; he did not run for “re-election.”
The 2021 elections had a wide-open first round, where a political novice, the Marxist campesino school teacher and labor organizer Pedro Castillo came in first place with under 19%. He won narrowly in the runoff against far-right Keiko Fujimoro; the election provided one of many examples of how often both candidates in a Latin American election are outside of the “Overton Window” of the United States. Castillo’s main platform was “no poor people in a rich country,” with him supporting things like agrarian reform and redistributing some of the mineral wealth. He also supported calling a constitutional assembly, most of all to reform the economic laws of Peru’s constitution, which severely limit the government’s power to regulate businesses or partake in business activities.
Despite his electoral victory, Castillo did not enter with any sort of mandate to make sweeping, or even minor changes. One reason is that his party was a small minority in Congress, only holding 37 of 130 seats, with a single coalition partner with five seats. If anything, the bigger problem was that the people don’t have faith in the Presidency, and Congress has simply lost respect for both the office of the Presidency and the role of the voters in choosing the President. Writing for Americas Quarterly, Andrea Moncada reports,
“Ever since Martín Vizcarra was deposed from the presidency in 2020 on the grounds of “moral incapacity,” impeaching a president has become a viable option for many Peruvians. So much so that during the campaign, many voters unwilling to support Keiko Fujimori but still afraid of Castillo’s policies argued that it was better for him to be elected because he would be easier to remove from office. A line of reasoning that no doubt many elected parliamentarians already have in mind, considering that it only takes 52 votes in Congress to admit a motion to discuss the possibility of impeachment.”
The reminds me of the people who wanted to impeach Trump before he took office, except that removing Castillo was viable, and didn’t require cause. Castillo took office in June of 2021 and impeachment articles were first filed against him in October of that year, and voted on in December. However, plans were in motion from the very beginning, and a cabal of what you might call “the usual suspects” was formed. The website People’s Dispatch reports,
“From that [election] day on, still in disbelief, the Peruvian oligarchy declared war on Castillo. They made the next 18 months for the new president a period of great hostility as they sought to destabilize his government with a multi-pronged attack that included significant use of lawfare. With a call to “throw out communism,” plans were made by the oligarchy’s leading business group, the National Society of Industries, to make the country ungovernable under Castillo.
In October 2021, recordings were released that revealed that since June 2021, this group of industrialists, along with other members of Peru’s elite and leaders of the right-wing opposition parties, had been planning a series of actions including financing protests and strikes. Groups of former military personnel, allied with far-right politicians like Fujimori, began to openly call for the violent overthrow of Castillo, threatening government officials and left-leaning journalists.”
It is clear that Congress and other power structures within the country had no intention of respecting the “will of the people.” At the same time, Castillo had under 1/5th public support in the first round. It appears impossible for anyone to gain a mandate to rule Peru in it’s current form, though those with notable public support are not doing any better than anyone else at holding power. Still, Castillo’s had around two to three times the support rate of the Congress trying to impeach him, a number that is much less impressive than it sounds when you find out that Congress has an approval rate that runs around 10%, which means Castillo’s approval ratings were still underwater at every point past the first days of his Presidency.
“As if” by design, Castillo’s entire Presidency was marked by chaos. Part of this was the fault of his status as a political neophyte who could not have thought he had any chance of winning when he announced his campaign. Peru was also facing a variety of problems. The political instability, of course, but also the tyranny and increased poverty caused by Peru’s genuinely insane covid response, which left the country with some of the worst death numbers despite Vizcarra completely cancelling freedom. As someone who doesn’t believe in covid statistics or the integrity of the Peruvian government, I’m prone to believe that a person or group found it advantageous to record the numbers as being really high. Regardless of if the numbers are accurate, facing miserable and grinding lockdowns with only negative reported results was surely destabilizing. However, rhe bigger issue than anything else going on in the country was that experienced and entrenched interests were relentlessly opposed to Castillo, his politics, and his social class.
Under attack from the beginning, Castillo did not find it possible to form a stable cabinet. In fact, he went through a record breaking four cabinets in the first six months in office. He appointed 78 ministers in the 495 days he was in office. Castillo was also the first President to be investigated by federal prosecutors while in office. He is accused of running a “criminal network” from the Department of Transportation, and had to fire his Interior Secretary after a task force was formed to track down his “fugitive allies,” which included his nephew. Though unions, which he is closely associated with, often have corruption problems, it is difficult to believe that this political newcomer from a party that had not been in power could possibly have these kinds of connections to political corruption.
Activist Daniela Ortiz explained that its common in Peru to go as far as baselessly accusing people of terrorism, a practice known as “terruqueo” in Peru, which is widely accepted by the corporate media. This has been going on since the ‘90s, when the government was at war with a radical communist terrorist group known as “Shining Path,” and though the government’s excessively violent response is one reason Fujimori remains in prison, saying the wrong thing about the conflict leads to serious political consequences. For example, Castillo’s Foreign Minister Hector Bejar, a left-wing academic, was removed after just over 15 days for saying the Navy started the terrorism in 1974- a statement he made in 2020, well before being appointed. That was the pretense anyway, he was also critical of the Lima Group, one of those coalitions of nations which come together to isolate, or “help,” a disfavored country, in this case, Venezuela. Francisco Dominguez, writing for the website Public Reading Rooms argues that the oligarch-controlled Congress went so hard against Castillo because he wasn’t a threat so they could use him to send a message to the public,
“This would explain the paradox that right-wing hostility to president Castillo, unlike other left governments in Latin America, was not waged because Castillo was undertaking any radical government action. In fact, opposition to his government was so blindingly intense that almost every initiative, no matter how trivial or uncontroversial, was met with ferocious rejection by Peru’s right-wing dominated Congress…In the absence of government mobilization of the masses, the oligarchy knew Castillo represented no threat, thus their intense hostility was to treat his government as an abhorrent abnormality sending a message to the nation that it should never have happened and that would never recur.”
This yet again reminds me of the Democrats and Trump, where every little thing, even federally deregulating drainage ditches was portrayed as radical and dangerous. They wanted us to believe that California, the most over-regulated place in the world, could not manage that on its own, and this would be doomsday for the environment and our whole nation. There was a clear message of punishing the public for our insolence, and I clearly perceived that the Democrats, media, and other entrenched interests were intentionally making our lives as miserable as possible under Trump. The oligarchic interests did this under Castillo in Peru with greater effect.
Though Castillo perhaps lacked the competent staff and the experience to keep corruption out of his administration, the immediacy and breadth of the accusations against him makes it clear to me that they were out to destroy him in any way possible, and that most of these accusations have little credibility. Unfortunately for Castillo, being as obstructed as he was, he wasn’t able to improve anything in the country or implement any of his agenda, leaving many of his supporters feeling betrayed. And so, with little political or popular support, Congress made its third impeachment attempt in early December, except this time Castillo wasn’t having it.
Castillo dissolved the Congress, something he is legally entitled to do in the case of “obstructionism.” However, the Congress which now was no longer legally sitting, voted to remove him from power. In what is surely a remarkable coincidence, the US Ambassador, former CIA agent Lisa Kenna, met with the Defense Minister the day before, and put the weight of the US government, and thus Peru’s military, behind the Congress. Since there is no process for resolving this specific dispute, power goes to whoever already has power. Castillo was arrested before he was able to gain asylum in the Mexican embassy. Currently, Castillo has been sentenced to an 18 month “preventative” jail sentence while Peru’s new government decides what to do with him.
The new President- that’s seven since 2016 now- Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s First Vice President, is the first female President of Peru and the first Quecha speaker [a widespread indigenous language] to hold the office. She is a devoted Marxist, though, it is alleged that she teamed up with right wing forces to take power. However, she was the only person who could take power under the veneer of Peru’s ridiculous constitution, so there wasn’t another legal choice. It seems entirely possible that Congress does this twice more until the President of Congress again becomes the President of Peru.
International reaction was mixed and mostly partisan. Both sides are saying the other attempted a coup, though both were acting within the framework of the constitution. The US and aligned states welcomed Boluarte’s appointment. Most states were more circumspect, calling the situation unfortunate. Many blamed the country’s right for bringing things to this situation, while also condemning Castillo’s anti-democratic decision to dissolve Congress. Of major leaders, Mexico’s leftist President Obrador went the farthest in supporting Castillo, while maintaining the country’s policy of non-intervention, he wrote on Twitter,
“Non-intervention and self-determination is a fundamental principle of our foreign policy. That is what we stick to in the case of what happened in Peru.
We consider it unfortunate that, due to the interests of the economic and political elites, from the beginning of Pedro Castillo's legitimate presidency, an environment of confrontation and hostility was maintained against him until it led him to make decisions that have served his adversaries to carry out his dismissal”
This, combined with Obrador’s willingness to provide political asylum, a tradition in Mexico dating back to at least Trotsky, was too much for Peru’s new government. They accused Mexico of interfering in their internal affairs, and Mexico’s ambassador was expelled from the country. This might not seem like a big deal to Americans, but Mexico is the largest economy in Latin America and well respected for its even-handed approach to international relations- so even-handed, in fact, they are not retaliating. Peru’s new government making Mexico’s ambassador persona non grata is not a trivial matter within the context of Latin American foreign policy.
Massive protests against the new government broke out in mid-December. One protestors cited by The New York Times stated that he would stay there until Castillo is reinstated or “until civil war begins.”
As protests escalated, the new government declared a police state and suspended most civil rights.
For the time being, the heavy hand of the state seems to have quelled the protests. The new government is considering moving elections forward. Castillo is in jail awaiting “rebellion” charges for attempting to exercise a legal power of the Presidency. Six generals have been arrested for “graft,” in association with Castillo’s reign. Though all of the structural problems in Peru will surely remain, the new government hopes to buy off the public with $1.6 billion in spending. They must be getting their advice from the Western leadership class, if militarily attacking and buying off problems are the only two things they can think of.
I don’t know what the future of Peru holds, but it seems clear that no one is in a position to fix their problems. It is my view they do need a constituent assembly in one form or the other, because Peru’s constitution in its current form was always and will always be doomed to fail. The powers don’t balance each other and corporations are free of government control in an improper way; political power in Peru comes down to who foreign governments, corporations, and most of all, the military, support. Unfortunately, it does not appear there is the political or popular support to substantially change the constitution. I imagine things get worse before they get better, as there is no reason to believe that Boluarte can buck the trend and last as President, especially having been placed by people who drastically oppose her ideology. I feel quite bad for the people of Peru, so freshly off such harsh covid lockdowns and now again under martial law with no say in the government. As their political system stands, the only options are constant instability or a strongman, and it doesn’t appear any would-be strongman is in a position to seize power. Time will tell.
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