Peru's Nightmare: Three Months After Castillo
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On the 7th of December 2022, in a national broadcast, the then President of Peru, Pedro Castillo, took a sharp intake of breath and let his eyes, for a moment, flicker up towards the camera. He announced that he was dissolving congress. In the subsequent months, protests have erupted in Peru. Protests have, of late, rocked Colombia, Brazil and Chile too, but the situation in Peru stands out in the region as uniquely violent. Tempers have flared as civilian protestors clash with the police and army who have been deployed to disperse them. 60 people have died, a thousand more have been injured and one policeman was burned alive in his patrol car. Many protestors say they won’t stop until the current president, Dina Boularte, resigns and a new constitution is written. But how and why did Castillo’s words have such a tremendous and tragic effect?
Castillo’s actions on the 7th of December amounted to a coup. Channelling, in his words, the “demands of the citizenry”, he intended to close the democratically elected congress and rule by decree. This would allow him to write a new constitution and “reorganise” the judicial system (bring it under greater government control). On that day, Peruvians sat glued to the news. Would the left-wing populist Castillo set up a dictatorship in a country that only returned to free and fair elections in 2000?
The coup lasted 4 hours. After swift clarification from the military that Castillo did not have their support and the resignation of several of his own ministers, it was clear that the coup had no traction. Peru’s constitutional court rejected his actions and Castillo was both impeached by congress and arrested on charges of rebellion and conspiracy.
However, any sense of relief was painfully fleeting. Many of Castillo’s supporters believed the impeachment to be the real coup. They saw it as a power grab by Boularte and conspiring right-wing factions in congress. In outrage, they took to the streets with placards.
Castillo is a complex figure. As a working-class man of indigenous descent, born to illiterate parents, his rise to the top spot in government was deeply significant to the many Peruvians. For many, Castillo’s removal seems like yet another attempt to side-line indigenous and working-class voices.
They have good reason to feel ignored. Government apparatus, wealth and the media are all concentrated in the capital, Lima. The level of economic disparity alone speaks volumes. GDP per capita in the region of Puno- where over 90% of residents identify as ethnically indigenous and protests are most intense - is just a fifth that of Lima.
For many Castillo supporters, it was through his presidency that they finally got representation. It seems an insult and a failure of democracy that it was swiftly taken away from them by elites in a far-off congress that has never cared about them.
The perceived intrigue against Castillo should also be understood in the context of the acute distrust of and contempt for the Peruvian political system. Political instability in Peru has produced 6 presidents since 2016 and torn down five of them. Frequent impeachment attempts in congress and tit-for-tat legislative obstruction shows politicians to be corrupt, self-interested and engaging in petty rivalries. Meanwhile, the circus paralyses any efforts to address Peru’s urgent plight- in 2020, between 10 and 20% of Peruvians fell back into poverty due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. For many, Castillo’s fall was the final proof that the current system is broken.
Protestors exercise their democratic right to show their discontent. However, the worry is that for many these acts of disruption are not an attempt to engage in democracy, but to undermine and subvert it. In fact, commitment to Peru’s corrupt and unresponsive shade of democracy has been declining for a decade. Even before the protests, a poll in 2021 found that only 50% of Peruvians agreed that ‘despite having problems’ democracy ‘is the best form of government’. That is a level lower than anywhere else in Latin America except Honduras and Haiti.
Finally, a key factor to understand the bubbling anger behind these protests is the government’s response itself. The security forces have been accused of firing indiscriminately at protestors. In the worst day of violence on the 9th of January 18 people were killed, including a 15-year-old, a girl walking to the shops, and a medical student coming to the aid of an injured protestor.
Far from sight, in the remoteness of the Andes, many rural indigenous Peruvians feel that their lives are not valued at all. There is historic precedent. From 1980 to 2000, Peru experienced a ‘War against Terrorism’. In these years, a pernicious Marxist terrorist insurgency group, called the Shining Path (‘Sendero Luminoso’ in Spanish) was brutally crushed by the state with little regard for civilians caught in the crossfire. During the conflict, an estimated 69,000 Peruvians were killed or disappeared, three quarters of whom were rural Quechua-speaking Indigenous people.
Three months in, protests have enveloped, not just support of Castillo, but protest against racialized state violence, rural-urban inequality and democracy itself. President Boularte is trying to bring forward fresh elections to this year. Hopefully this will be enough to defuse the violence and avoid a revival of Peru’s nightmares: authoritarian governments and terrorism in the countryside.
Maps of Peru showing the positioning of the capital, Lima, on the coast, the Amazon Rainforest and the Andes mountain range.
You can find a video that gives an image of unrest from the Guardian here.