by Fiama Angeles and Fabiola Maza
Published in Spanish, 2 December 2020.
The political crisis in Peru is best illustrated by the fact that almost all its presidents and politicians during the last twenty years have been immersed in corruption allegations. The last elected president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned in 2018 for this reason. His vice president, Martín Vizcarra, was vacated by Congress last November 9th, also due to corruption allegations in a previous official position; the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, in charge of the government temporarily and also immersed in corruption, resigned in less than a week thanks to pressure exerted by the population. On November 17th, amid great social conflict and political anarchy, Francisco Sagasti was sworn in as president, less than five months before the presidential elections.
The recent political crisis in Peru has its roots in the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), in jail since 2009 and given temporary release from 2017 to 2019. The reconstruction of Peruvian democracy in a context plagued by corruption under Fujimori’s shadow has been Peru’s greatest political challenge for the last two decades. As a consequence of the persistent obstacle imposed by the Fujimori-party majority in Congress, in September 2019 then President Vizcarra, with great popular support, decided to dissolve the Congress and urgently called for parliamentary elections. The new Congress, however, once again brought together a corrupt and conservative political class that failed to channel popular demands.
Given the indications of corruption by Vizcarra in a previous political position, the Congress opted for the vacancy due to “moral incapacity”, a constitutional provision that was quite questioned from a political perspective. Approximately 88% of Peruvians were against the vacancy.1 Despite the signs of corruption, the Peruvian people prioritized political stability given the social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic, demanding that President Vizcarra be duly investigated once his term ends in July 2021.
On November 9th, Manuel Merino, a congressman also immersed in several corruption cases, assumed the presidency of Peru after vacating Vizcarra. The danger of his appointment, besides several controversial bills awaiting parliamentary approval, was the possibility of suspending the next elections and thus returning to a dictatorship. Nationwide, several groups and people (mostly youth and women) responded with protests that continued for the next two days. The government’s response was immediately connotated with brutal police repression that indiscriminately used tear gas, fired from pellets to marbles, and treated the protesters as criminals, despite them being peaceful.
Manuel Merino appointed a ministerial cabinet that further enraged the country. The ministers reflected an obsolete political class of conservative right-wing, with a position contrary to the Peruvian youth demanding a structural reform that allows greater social justice, a frontal fight against corruption, the reduction of economic inequalities, the representation of indigenous people, the recognition of the rights of the LGTBIQ+ population, etc. This political class, close to Fujimori, had also been against university reform implemented years ago, through which state control was exercised on the so-called “business universities” that profited at the expense of the education precariousness. Some demanded the end of the commodification of education, in addition to other public services that were privatized by Fujimori.
Given the brutal police repression, thousands of young people organized themselves to carry out a national march on Saturday, November 14th. The organization took place through social media, mainly Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. There was no leadership of a political party, workers union, nor organized collective. It was the youth, who without any prior experience in protests, decided to educate themselves into health brigades, bomb disposal, and free press. Law students and activist lawyers also organized themselves to distribute written habeas corpus and provide free legal support to those arbitrarily detained. Between Friday and Saturday, several help centers were set up. Dozens of k-popers flooded the social media accounts of the Congress and its hashtags with spam videos, just as their American peers did with Trump. With YouTube videos made by protesters in Hong Kong, young people were trained to defuse tear gas. Our Peruvian youth was armed with smartphones, skateboards, and bicycle helmets, yet motivated by the outrage of seeing their country once again on the verge of dictatorship. The crisis had awakened collective political solidarity directed towards a clear objective: the elimination of a corrupt and perverse system, and the recovery of a democratic state committed to equality and social justice.
On that historic Saturday, protests were held in almost every district of Lima and in every region of Peru, amid a still-looming pandemic. Those who did not come out to protest participated from home via cacerolazos (a well known form of protest that consists of people banging pots or pans to make noise) that resounded throughout Peru. Initially, no open-signal media reported what was happening in the protests. The only platform that provided information during those moments was Twitter, thanks to the protesters themselves. The images were heart-breaking. Desperate requests for ambulances (which there were none). Requests to the health brigade. Videos and live broadcasts where the police fired tear gas canisters directly at the bodies of young people who tried to protect themselves with cardboard signs. Pellet shots. People cornered by the police to later receive tear gas. Wounded people being helped on improvised stretchers. And dozens of notices of missing persons.
The results were two regrettable deaths, Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado. Two young men killed by multiple rounds of pellet shots. The National Human Rights Coordinator registered more than 200 people injured and tens of people who were missing for days. Faced with domestic pressure and from the international community, especially from the Organization of American States, the United Nations, Amnesty International, along with a great absence of diplomatic recognition, Manuel Merino resigned. After tense deliberations and negotiations in Congress and two days of anarchy, Francisco Sagasti was appointed as interim president. However, his appointment represents a temporary relief but not a solution. We Peruvians have one thing clear: there is still much work to be done.
The mobilizations and protests continue to demand justice for Inti, Bryan, the dozens of injured and detained in illegal conditions, and an urgent police reform. However, one request gaining momentum is also a referendum to decide a new Constitution. The current Constitution was issued in the authoritarian government of Fujimori, with serious doubts about its legitimacy and approval, in addition to the controversies raised by the weakening of political institutions and the economic regime. This Constitution has been put back into debate due to the recent ruling (or rather, the absence of) by the Constitutional Tribunal with regards to the figure of “moral incapacity” to declare presidential vacancy.The crisis has subsided, yet several structural problems still haunt the country. Inequality and corruption are perhaps our greatest monsters. The absence of representative and sustained political parties, a political class that is articulated according to personal economic interests, clientelism, and a very deplorable performance of the media. Nonetheless, after 200 years of Peru’s independence to be celebrated in 2021, the bicentennial generation, in reference to the important role of the youth, gives us a lot of hope and optimism. Their critical perspective, creativity and, above all, deep political solidarity has taught everyone a huge lesson: the heart of democracy is not in the laws but in the streets.
Fiama Angeles is a second-year MIA Student, a Peruvian economist focusing on trade and environment. Twitter: @fiamangeles / Instagram: @fiamangeles
Fabiola Maza is a second-year MIA student. Peruvian, lawyer, and feminist. Twitter: @fabiolamaza / Instagram: killyridols__
1 Survey conducted by IPSOS, published November 19th 2020. Source: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2020-11/la_crisis_politica_noviembre_2020.pdf