By Colleen Scribner and Sonya Radetsky
When youth-led popular demonstrations broke out across Peru in response to President Martin Vizcarra’s ousting by Congress in November, it seemed like another unprecedented moment of 2020. Yet, while circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic helped shape the conditions for a civil uprising, the movement confronts underlying patterns established in the 1990s by Alberto Fujimori. To end these trends, a nonpartisan commission should review and revise Peru’s constitution. Meanwhile, governmental agencies tasked with fighting political crime must hold government and security sector officials accountable for self-serving, anti-democratic behavior.
One week, three presidents
Pushing an anti-graft platform, interim Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra proposed a referendum on parliamentary immunity in 2020. Congress subsequently impeached and ousted Vizcarra five months before his term expired, a move denounced by the public as a legislative coup. The coup’s organizer and then-president of the Peruvian Congress, Manuel Merino, replaced Vizcarra.
As news of the impeachment tore across the country, outraged youths took to social media and organized protests that began in the streets of Lima and spread to the provinces. Under normal circumstances, this move might not have been met with the same outrage. However, fatigue from years of political tit-for-tat, combined with economic hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic, amplified frustration with the government. Simultaneously, the lockdown increased biographical availability—freedom from constraints that increase the costs and risks of protest participation. “Past generations had already lost hope… But now everything is different. Everyone is saying, ‘They messed with the wrong generation,’” says Charlie de la Cruz, a protester and member of an anti-bomb brigade. This unique cluster of forces made these massive public demonstrations possible.
Merino’s presidency was short-lived. His government reacted with excessive force against largely peaceful demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of 24-year-old Inti Sotelo Camargo and 22-year-old Jack Bryan Pintado Sánchez. Amid international condemnation and demands by ever-growing numbers of protesters, Merino was forced to resign after only five days in office and was replaced by now-interim president Francisco Rafael Sagasti Hochhausler.
History as prologue
The current political crisis in Peru has its roots in Alberto Fujimori’s 1990s administration. Fujimori came to power on a populist platform, inheriting an economy decimated by inflation and a country plagued by leftist guerilla terrorism that crept ever closer to Lima. As he worked to address these concerns, Fujimori suffocated Peruvian democracy, bypassing the legislature and governing largely through executive decrees, before finally dissolving Congress in a “self-coup.” On the night of April 5, 1992, he called on the army to drive tanks through Lima to the steps of Congress, where they deployed tear gas against protesting senators before arresting members of the political opposition. In the aftermath, Fujimori rewrote the Peruvian constitution, which is still in effect today.
Though he was removed from office in 2000, his confrontational legacy of governance-by-force remains in the Peruvian collective memory. This trauma resurfaced with Merino’s deployment of militarized police into Lima’s streets and his alleged complicity in the disappearance of over 40 protestors.
These cycles of vicious political conflict have also enabled corruption to poison every aspect of Peruvian political life. Every former living president has been investigated or charged for corruption. As of 2018, 94% of all mayors were under investigation, and more than half of sitting congressional representatives have stood accused. For decades, Peruvians’ frustration has only grown as the executive and legislative branches purport to protect democratic values but instead focus on filling their coffers. “How is it possible that for so long we have allowed criminals to rule us?” asks Flavia Franco Rivera, founder of Colectas Peru. “And even worse, that the current constitution supports them, not us?”
What’s next for Peru in 2021
Apart from demands that Merino step down, constitutional reform has been the central focus of the protest movement. Within the current constitution, a great deal of power is concentrated in Congress, with very little accountability and a judiciary open to political pressure. The government should allow for a public review of the constitution by a nonpartisan commission of governmental and civil society actors to create a law of the land that serves its people, not its leaders. In particular, easily misused portions like the “moral incapacity” clause used to remove Vizcarra should be eliminated. Though this process would likely follow April 2021 elections, preparations should be underway now.
Peru’s leaders must also be held to account for their actions, including through ratifying ongoing efforts to eliminate congressional impunity. Members of Congress must be obliged to answer allegations against them and accept the consequences following due legal process.
Merinos’ short-lived government should also be investigated for its response to the protests. Sagasti has taken steps to convene a commission to improve police performance; this must include review of crowd-control and police accountability. To ensure police abuses do not go unchecked, both the 2020 “Police Protection Act” and a 2014 law that grants immunity to police who kill or injure in “fulfillment of their duty” should be revoked.
Looking ahead to 2021 elections, the most encouraging outcome of this political movement is the engagement of younger generations. “The informed vote will always be our best weapon against corruption,” Charlies explains. Young Peruvians intend to hold their government to account and play a substantive role in their country’s future. As Flavia says, “now I can tell you that Peru is awake.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.