On 7 December 2022, a wave of protests erupted in various regions of Peru following the impeachment and subsequent arrest of elected President Pedro Castillo by the Peruvian Congress. These events were set in motion by Castillo’s attempt to dissolve the Congress and impose a new emergency government, which many have characterized as a coup attempt. However, the underlying political challenges faced in the country are far more complex and have been brewing for some time, as explored in an interview with Alcides Benavente Ponce, who is an economist and graduate in Latin American Studies, and co-founder of the Latin American Academic Cultural Centre (LAK). The protests, which have now lasted for over three months, have been marked by a staggering death toll of over 60 people. In many ways, the social unrest seen in Peru shares similarities with other social movements that have occurred in various Latin American countries in recent years and raises the question of political stability on the continent.

After the arrest of President Castillo, former Vice President Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency, with the intention of completing Castillo’s term till the year 2026. The public reaction to the change was split between those who supported Boularte and Castillo’s supporters, notably Indigenous and rural peoples, who came to Lima to protest the new government. These protestors demanded earlier elections, the resignation of Boularte with some even calling for the release of Castillo and the creation of a new constitution through a popular assembly. The current government has reacted to the protests with an alarming degree of violence which has resulted in the loss of over 60 lives, caused hundreds of injuries and led to the detention of several hundred individuals by law enforcement agencies. The additional lack of transparency and clear communication with the population has further aggravated the situation.

The democratic history of Peru has been turbulent. Since 2016, Peru has had six different presidents, indicating an unstable and challenging political climate. In 2021, Pedro Castillo narrowly defeated right-wing politician Keiko Fujimori, who is in control of Congress, in an election criticized by some for irregularities and potential fraud. Castillo, a former schoolteacher coming from a poor and rural area, faced challenges with gaining support from the wider population and certain segments of the elite political establishment. In recent years, Congress has made it almost impossible for the executive branch, including Castillo, to achieve significant progress on economic and social welfare issues. Furthermore, impeachment due to alleged “moral incapacity,” as was the case with Castillo, has been widely used by Congress to influence the executive branch. According to Benavente Ponce, the country’s democracy is at risk from systemic corruption as several presidents have faced allegations and others have been prosecuted on suspicions of the crime.

Benavente Ponce also states that, contrary to the political situation, Peru’s economy has thrived in the last decades thanks to strong mining and natural gas industries as well as foreign investments. It has become one of the strongest and fastest growing economies in Latin America. This “economic miracle,” as it is commonly known, dates to the 1990s and former dictator Alberto Fujimori‘s constitution. The constitution establishes the Peruvian Central Bank as an independent institution, hindering the government from market intervention and controlling prices. However, these practices are exploitative of the country’s natural resources and while the GDP rises and industry booms, the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. In Peru, the concentration of wealth is mainly seen in the coastal areas of the country surrounding its capital, leaving the population of rural areas, in which most of the inhabitants are indigenous, exposed to poverty and social exclusion. The country’s wealth has not been invested in infrastructure, health, or education to benefit the majority, and policymakers have instead focused on privatization, the promotion of the free-market economy and international trade, which are all short-term political interests. Important trading relationships include countries such as the USA and China, which raises the question of the economic and subsequent political interests these states might have regarding Peru’s political situation, as well as the general fear of left-wing populism in the region.

However, the Peruvian situation is not an isolated incident on the continent. In the past few years, Latin America has seen waves of protests and social mobilization. While the circumstances and causes for these are unique to each nation, the continent faces several common complex issues. Benavente Ponce states that the dissatisfaction of the population has grown, as decades of neoliberal policies have left most of the population without basic public services such as free healthcare or public education. Latin American countries, especially those affected by political unrest, are among the states with the least trust in its democratic institutions. If there is a general distrust in the genuine intentions of governments and institutions, democratic processes like elections and law-making are certainly hindered.

The ongoing crisis in Peru highlights the need for long-term solutions instead of stopgap measures. Whether it be in the form of a new constitution or reforms of the existing political system, structural changes are necessary to prevent similar situations from recurring in the future and undermining democracy within the nation. The fight against corruption, economic reforms to redistribute the country’s wealth more equally and political reform to increase trust in government institutions are essential. Although it remains uncertain whether the ongoing protests will achieve their objectives, they have the potential to serve as a catalyst for redirecting the nation towards a path of peaceful and sustainable democratic stability and progress.

Written by Laura Victoria Mendoza Velandia; Edited by Katharina Joó

Photo credit to: Diario Peru, Pixabay