What Is Going On in Peru?

What Is Going On in Peru?

On December 7th, then-President of Peru, Pedro Castillo, announced the start of a “government of exception”, the “dissolution of Congress” and the drafting of a new constitution. Less than two hours later, Congress declared the Presidency vacant, the Attorney General’s Office indicted Castillo for violating the Constitution and Castillo was detained by his own personal guard. In Peru, most sources and politicians condemned the move as a coup and distanced themselves from Castillo. Accumulated frustrations in long-excluded sectors of the population that saw in Castillo a like-minded rural campesino, however, have led to mass protests in his defence and against the Congress that ousted him. His sudden and renewed post-coup popularity has made some outlets both inside and outside Peru to change narratives. Particularly in the English-speaking world, popular sources specialised in Latin America, like Kawsachun News, Ben Norton, and even New Amauta have begun to instead refer to the situation as a coup against Castillo, in what, in my opinion, is a distortion of the facts. Likewise, in a truly unprecedented move, the governments of Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia have demanded that Castillo be reinstated, implicitly refusing to recognise Peru’s presidential succession.

When Castillo was elected, I wrote a post explaining both the significance and considerable democratic risks of his election. At the time, a year and a half ago, I advised that “[r]ecognising the momentousness of Castillo’s election should not make us complacent with regards to human rights and democracy” and I warned of “overly simplified” analyses from Global North actors that “reduc[ed] the Peruvian people’s agency and history to a footnote” in an otherwise Cold-War-centric US gaze of Latin American politics. Now that Castillo is no longer President of Peru, and having attempted a coup against Peruvian democracy, I think it is time for another Guide: How did we get here? What happened? And what happens next?

How Did We Get Here?

Let me take you back a few months to the very early days after Castillo’s election. As I said in my first Guide, written during this uncertain interregnum, it was important for the progressive and democratic left, both in Peru and abroad, to engage with Castillo and move him away from the influence of his party’s more authoritarian figures, like Vladimir Cerrón. At the time, the plan seemed to be working. Castillo needed an alliance with the more established progressive left to rule and to do so, he had rolled back his promises to de-activate the Constitutional Tribunal and the Ombudsman’s Office, signing a written commitment to leave office within five years and respect democracy and human rights.

This optimism would not last long. A month and a half after I first wrote my first Guide, Castillo was rumoured to swear in Roger Najar an ally of Cerrón accused of statutorily raping a 14 year-old girl at the age of 30, as his Prime Minister (a position similar to that of the US’s Chief of Staff). Peru’s progressive left, at the time competing for Castillo’s Premiership behind the scenes, turned to Twitter with the hashtag “Cabinet Without Aggressors”, trying to keep the Office of the Prime Minister away from the Cerronistas. Cerrón himself complained of a “woke conspiracy” [“conspiración caviar”, in Spanish] against him and his allies. Ultimately, Castillo decided not to appoint Najar as his Prime Minister, but instead to appoint another ally of Cerrón, Guido Bellido.

At the time, it was impossible to interpret this appointment as anything other than a clear message that Castillo would not lead a democratic and rights-based government. Bellido is a misogynist, homophobe and transphobe, prone to violence and authoritarianism. In 2019, speaking about gay men, Bellido said things like “the new man cannot be a f****t” and “work will make them men”. A video also emerged of Bellido seemingly defending the Shining Path, the group that killed an estimated 35,000 Peruvians, mostly impoverished Quechua campesinos, during Peru’s 1980-2000 armed conflict. This was such a terrible choice that many speculated it was part of a plan to force Congress to deny confidence to the Bellido cabinet. In Peru, if two cabinets cannot secure the confidence of Congress, then the President is constitutionally allowed to dissolve Congress and call for new elections. Losing the Bellido vote on purpose would put Castillo closer to removing his legislative opposition.

Despite the mountain of evidence that Castillo was planning to carry out an anti-rights government, allied to Cerrón’s authoritarian and socially conservative left, Peru’s progressive left decided to join his coalition. In a very cringe-worthy moment, Pedro Francke, the progressive’s newly appointed Minister of Economy, swore into his position – working for a declared homophobe and transphobe – wearing an LGBT inclusion pin.

From here on, Castillo’s presidency would be as chaotic as one could expect for someone being advised by an authoritarian like Bellido. Bellido was soon accused of harassing a Congresswoman who requested access to her father’s old office in Congress, with Bellido responding that she should not worry about her father and “get married already instead”. When she replied that she had already been “single, married, divorced and widowed” and would not allow that kind of language, Bellido allegedly responded “ah, so all you have left to do is get raped”.

Throughout his two months as Prime Minister, Bellido would constantly clash with Castillo, as Bellido tried to carry out more radical reforms than Castillo’s alliance with the progressive left would allow. After several more disagreements and scandals, Castillo removed Bellido and appointed Mirtha Vásquez, a well-respected member of Peru’s progressive forces, as his new Prime Minister. The damage, however, had been done. Increasingly, key figures of Castillo’s government were credibly accused “selling” positions in the public bureaucracy and access to public works projects. At one point, prosecutors found a stack of twenty thousand dollars in the bathroom of his general secretary.

This chaos and corruption were a gift for Peru’s reactionary (and racist) right-wing opposition, which dominates Congress. From the very beginning, they had refused to accept Castillo’s victory, fabricating conspiracy theories of electoral fraud, and continuously seeking to remove Castillo under a constitutional rule stating that the Presidency can be declared vacant if the President is “morally incapable of ruling”. In his year and a half in office, Castillo faced three “vacancy” procedures.

Especially at the beginning, these procedures tended to use spurious arguments with insufficient evidence. At one point, Castillo faced a vacancy procedure for saying that he would consider a referendum on whether Peru should cede land to Bolivia to grant it access to the Pacific Ocean – which according to Congress, amounted to the impeachable charge of “treason” (an absurd proposition, of course). At the same time, as corruption accusations started to accumulate, a debate emerged as to when exactly is the threshold for “moral incapacity” met. Most agreed that this institution is applicable in cases of gross violations of the constitution, including coup d’états or evidence of flagrant acts of corruption (this is actually how Peru’s former corrupt autocrat, Alberto Fujimori, was removed from power), but there was disagreement on whether it could be triggered by a large amount of ongoing criminal investigations into accusations of corruption. The main problem is that, under Peru’s constitution, the President cannot be indicted for the commission of crimes during his term, so the “vacancy” mechanism becomes the only element of control. If “vacancy procedures” require a judicial decision for its trigger, then, in a very Trumpian déjà vu, a Peruvian President would be allowed to shoot someone in the middle of the street without any risk of impeachment or removal.       

In any case, these accusations of corruption were serious and credible enough to force the resignation of Prime Minister Vásquez, in January 2022. In her letter of resignation, she justified her decision on a series of “moments of crisis, some caused by opposition groups with a clear intention of removing the President [clara intención golpista, in the original Spanish], and by other issues, related, regrettably, to possible acts of corruption or irregularities committed by high-ranking officers of this administration”. Her resignation brought about the ultimate break of the progressive-authoritarian alliance that had sustained Castillo’s President until then. But, again, the damage had already been done.  Vasquez’ replacements included Héctor Valer, who resigned four days later amidst credible accusations of domestic violence, and Aníbal Torres, who frequently made international news for his repeated praising of Adolf Hitler.   

2022 was a year of constant crisis in Peru. Accusations of corruption were rampant and clashes with Congress were frequent. Increasingly, as well, Castillo sought to obstruct investigations against him, eventually leading prosecutors to indict him on grounds of leading a criminal organisation dedicated to influence peddling at the heart of the government. This indictment, however, could not move forward, given the constitutional limitations described above. Suspiciously, several people with close ties to Castillo went on the run, fleeing criminal investigations of corruption against them, with Castillo being accused of aiding them in their escape. It is at this point in time that we get to the recent past, and Castillo’s coup.

What Happened?

As I noted above, in Peru, a President can lawfully dissolve Congress and call for new congressional elections if two Prime Ministers lose a vote of confidence in Congress. Usually, Peruvian presidents have benefited from large congressional majorities and so usually survived votes of confidence. Since 2016, traditional political parties have collapsed and Presidents have had to rule with congressional minorities. This not only means that they are more prone to losing votes of confidence, but that there is always the risk that a sufficiently big opposition bloc will form and vote for declaring the Presidency vacant on specious “moral incapacity” grounds. In other words, Peruvian politics became a duel between two enemies, each with a silver bullet in their gun – Congresses sought to remove “morally incapable” presidents, while Presidents sought to dissolve opposition congresses through a double non-confidence vote. This is, in fact, how then-President, Martín Vizcarra, was able to survive in September 2019: he demanded a vote of confidence on the issue of constitutional justice reform. When Congress ignored his request, he argued that it had “implicitly” denied him a second vote of confidence and dissolved it.

Implicit denial of confidence (“denegación fáctica” in Spanish) was a new phenomenon for Peruvian politics. There were no regulations and no precedents for a Congress simply ignoring a President’s request for a vote. At the time, it was a practical solution for a complex crisis that took advantage of lack of regulation and the Congress’ own lack of popularity. Predictably, this did not go very well with Members of Congress. After a new Congress was elected, they made sure nobody could replicate Vizcarra’s move and passed Law 31355 in October 2021 regulating votes of confidence, limiting them to general policy issues, not the repeal or approval of specific bills for constitutional reform, and requiring an express negative vote. This law was upheld by Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal.

The crisis that led to Castillo’s coup started in November 2022, when he requested a vote of confidence over the modification of a specific law, directly and purposefully violating Law 31355. Congress, therefore, dismissed his request and did not vote the motion. Castillo again responded by requesting another unlawful vote of confidence, this time over a different law, also in contradiction to the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling. Congress, once again, dismissed the motion without a vote. This time, however, on November 24, Castillo’s Prime Minister acted as if confidence had been “implicitly denied” and resigned. Given the recent legal reforms in Peru, this was clearly a red flag. Castillo was trying to fabricate a loss of confidence that could not exist.

In the silver-bullet duel of Peruvian politics, Congress responded on December 1st, by filing a third vacancy motion against Castillo, claiming (not without reason) that he had dismantled public administration and filled key positions in his government through corrupt deals (“copamiento clientelista” in the original Spanish), as well as the “increasingly evident links with serious acts of corruption”. Whether this is constitutionally sufficient to trigger vacancy procedures, however, as I said above, remains controversial.

To oust Castillo, Congress needed 87 votes. On December 1st, the motion had 67. Over the weekend, as opposition Members of Congress sought more votes, Castillo’s Minister of Defence suddenly resigned. Off-the-record chatter seemed to indicate that the reason for this was that Castillo had asked him to consult with the joint chiefs of staff to see if they would support an unlawful dissolution of Congress. By December 7th, on the day of the vote, Congress had failed to secure sufficient votes to oust Castillo. That same day, however, news outlets reported that Salatiel Marrufo, former Chief of Staff at the Minister of Housing, had signed a plea bargain confirming that he gave S/60.000.00 a month, for a period of eight months, (about US$15,000.00) to Pedro Castillo’s sister, and that Castillo himself was aware of the transaction, as a result of a bribe paid by a construction company in exchange for favourable treatment.

That morning, after the revelations, Castillo went on national TV and announced he was closing Congress, without waiting for a second vote of confidence, and establishing a “government of exception”. This was, in Castillo’s own terms, unambiguously, a coup. He would intervene the Judicial Branch, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the District Attorney’s Office, abrogate the Constitution, and call for new congressional elections, that would also serve as a new constituent assembly.

As noted in the introduction, Castillo’s plans were extremely poorly planned. He did not have the support of the armed forces or of the police – in fact, not even of his own security guards. Congress moved quickly to declare his presidency vacant, now without any doubt as to its constitutionality: staging a coup is a clear cause of “moral incapacity” under Peruvian constitutional practice. Thereafter, the District Attorney’s office indicted him on counts of rebellion and abuse of authority and he was promptly arrested. He has since been in preventive detention, with his lawyers and defenders either claiming he was drugged and/or pressured into committing the coup or that he did not really commit a coup because nobody listened to his orders.

What Happens Now?

As I said in my initial Guide, Castillo’s election was enormously significant for a very large part of Peru’s population, particularly indigenous people and people of indigenous descent in the impoverished regions of the Southern Andes. As I put it back then, “the colonial entity known as Peru was born out of white supremacy”. It was built on a system of colonial oppression where Europeanness was deemed superior to and more civilised than indigeneity. “The history of how Peru, the colony, became Peru, the Republic, is the romanticised story of how one group of white people (the Criollos) overthrew another (the Peninsulares) in the name of (at least supposedly) freedom”. It is not a history of indigenous emancipation, but white Latin Americans declaring independence from White Europeans, while keeping indigenous people oppressed.

The Peruvian republic, in fact, sustained a system of feudal exploitation of indigenous people until as late as 1968. Most indigenous people could not actually vote until 1979, because only those able to read and write (in Spanish) had the right to vote. With this background, Castillo’s rise to power was incredibly significant for indigenous people and people of indigenous descent. It was the first time they felt heard; that someone that could understand where they came from would have power.

Of course, in practice, Castillo has done little for indigenous people. In fact, indigenous organisations recently condemned Castillo’s government for trying to weaken bilingual (indigenous-Spanish) education in Peru. According to his government’s regulations, new teachers assigned to indigenous areas would not need to be proficient in indigenous languages. Similarly, Castillo’s government was unable to respond to the challenges arising out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which caused scarcity of fertilisers in Peru. Because the government was unable to secure additional sources of urea, pressure on crops cultivated by indigenous people increased, risking famine in the country. The damage is compounded when indigenous communities are already dealing with an unprecedented drought and the death of hundreds of thousands of their llamas and alpacas.   

Despite these failings, Castillo’s removal has been a harsh blow to take for these sectors of society, that have taken to the streets en masse, protesting what they see as a “win” for an unpopular, right-wing, White, Criollo Congress over an indigenous President. In general, these spontaneous protests demanded that Castillo be reinstated and a call for new elections. Others demanded a closure of Congress and calling for a new constitution.

These demands represent a constitutional challenge. Closing Congress and reinstating Castillo is a constitutional impossibility, as it would mean giving effect to Castillo’s coup. Congress cannot be summarily closed and Castillo’s Presidency has been declared vacant. There is no going back, nor should we. Calling for early elections is feasible, and in fact, the one demand that the current government, led by Castillo’s former Vice-President, Dina Boluarte (Peru’s first ever female president, by the way!) has acceded to. The problem is that in Peru, Presidential terms last five years; a modification of this rule requires a constitutional amendment. Modifying the constitution needs two votes in two separate sessions of Congress and then, after that, legal and practical requirements demand at least 9 months to organise an election. This means that the earliest that elections can happen is in January 2024, much too late for the protestors, that demand changes now.

Another option is for President Boluarte to resign. Presidential succession would then fall in the Chairman of Congress, who would need to call upon new elections. The problem is, the current President of Congress is José Williams Zapata, a hardliner retired General accused of human rights violations during Peru’s armed conflict and ties to Peru’s reactionary right – hardly something that the protesters will accept. Recently, Peru Libre, Vladimir Cerrón’s party, has tried to unsuccessfully censure Williams Zapata’s chairmanship, in order to secure it for itself. While this would be accepted by the protesters, it would also place the Presidency in the hands of the same authoritarians that doomed Castillo’s government to begin with.

Short term solutions are, therefore, not easy to find. One mid to long-term solution that would satisfy the protestors is the start of a constituent process, similar to the one that recently failed in Chile. The problem, again, is that unlike Chile there is a lack of legitimate actors on both the left and the right to carry it to fruition. There is no Peruvian Boric. Most of Peru’s left has either backed Bellido’s anti-rights agenda or backed Castillo’s coup. Most of Peru’s right is reactionary and authoritarian. Moreover, established and democratic political parties are basically non-existent. Under current electoral rules, a Chile-style constituent assembly would likely be entirely dominated by conservative and authoritarian forces, both on the left and right, that would not deliver the kind of reforms the country needs. In fact, most of Peru’s Congresses in the past twenty years have consistently leaned right and authoritarian. In the words of Peruvian professor of political science, Rodrigo Barnechea, “[t]he question is no longer about the kind of government we want but about whether the country can be governed at all”.

What Do We Do?

Given this bleak outlook, it is important we simultaneously recognise the urgency of the current moment of crisis and accept that Peru’s problems cannot be solved overnight. My opinion is that what the protestors most want is for things to change, both in terms of politics and in terms of what kind of relationship they want with the state. As for the latter, Peru is a country where most people are on their own on most social issues. If you need healthcare, the public sector is underfunded and of poor quality. In fact, infamously, in 2010 doctors at a public hospital amputated a person’s wrong leg. If you need security, the police will not help you – in fact, they may actually rob you (or, right now, if you are protesting, kill you). So on and so forth. As for the former, Peruvian politics needs to stop being a duel of two silver bullets. It needs to become a system that enables the government to work for the people and fundamentally change the relationship that the Criollo republic has with indigenous communities and people of indigenous descent.

To accomplish all this in more successful ways than a constituent assembly, my personal position is that Peru needs to start a process of “cabildos abiertos” – open consultations where civil society and political actors can present and discuss constitutional reform proposals. This was actually how the Chilean constitutional process started in 2016. The benefit of this system over a complete rewrite through a Chile-style constituent assembly is that it protects the existing rights and institutions of Peruvian democracy from our authoritarian and antirights politicians. Current protections would remain as a base from which to build on, not part of the old state that needs to be abandoned. A constitution with less rights or less democratic checks and balances, in the image of Cerrón and Bellido or the Fujimorista right, would be impossible. Once the contours of the debate have been established, a constitutional reform bill can be drafted (whether by assembly or not) and ratified via referendum – a mechanism similar to the one used by Argentina in its 1994 Constitutional Reform.

Given that no elections would need to be held in the short term, a process of “cabildos abiertos” would have the advantage of speed on its side as well. People would be able to vent their grievances in a matter of weeks, not months. It would also be a clear statement that the government is seeking to change the dynamics of its neocolonial and white supremacist state structures for the benefit of those who have been excluded by it.

Alas, for now, “cabildos abiertos” is not really a mainstream position in Peru and I honesty do not know what the future holds. I only hope that we can find mechanisms to address the social injustices of our long colonial history, while protecting the vulnerable democracy we have been able to construct in our short post-Fujimori history. In order to do this, it is important that those engaging with this crisis, especially in the Global North, avoid facile narratives. Peru’s politics and history are complex and full of nuance. So was Castillo’s presidency. Please, treat it as such and wish us luck!

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International Human Rights Law, Latin & South America
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