Peru’s Leftist Student Revival – Analysis


By Terra Stanley

In July, students, political activists, human rights workers, and average citizens in Lima, Peru, joined a march entitled “Ni indulto ni impunidad, asesinos a prisión,” or “No pardons or impunity, murderers to prison.” The event occurred just two weeks before the presidential inauguration of leftist Ollanta Humala Tasso. Humala’s victory has led countless activists across Peru to herald a new era of democracy, freedom of expression, and most of all victory over Fujimorismo.The march, initiated to protest the pardon of former president Alberto Fujimori, also commemorated the 19-year anniversary of the abduction and killings of a university professor and nine students at Lima’s Universidad Nacional de Educación Enrique Guzmán y Valle (better known as La Cantuta). Fujimori and his right-hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos, created the military death squad responsible for the massacre during Peru’s war on terrorism against the Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso (SL).

Violeta Talaverano Sánchez, an anthropology student at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, helped organize the event. She is one of a growing number of students working hard to strengthen the Limean youth’s political culture, which is struggling to make an impact only recently after an era of traumatic violence. University campuses, in particular, were one of the most dangerous locations for political activists.

The military occupation at San Marcos, a university known for its SL activities in the 1980s and 1990s, ended in 2000. At San Marcos the memory of violent conflicts among the youth, the military, and the police has caused many to abandon political activity. With hundreds of students arrested for supposed subversion at San Marcos, students who demand their rights today are called terrorists. In her fifth year at San Marcos, Talaverano believes university authorities, in addition to the larger society, discourage political behavior and look badly on those who act up. The bullet holes in the Department of Humanities ceiling are just one reminder of the cost of past political action.

Nearly 20 years after the painful events at La Cantuta and Barrios Altos, among others, and just 11 years after the San Marcos military occupation ended, student activists still “look bad,” Talaverano says. She refers to a political correctness that pervades university campuses throughout the country.

Just last June a student riot in central Peru left three people dead and 32 injured. They were protesting the creation of a new university in the region of Huancavelica, which would strain their own university’s budget. The media interpreted the protest as dangerous, rowdy, and unwarranted. According to Talaverano, this view stems from a social belief that political awareness “is only for the corrupt.” There’s a “scorn for the activist,” she explains.

Finding Their Voice

The first election of a leftist president since the 1980s has given an opportunity for student groups to reflect, recover, and more importantly, evolve. Talaverano is part of a new campus organization called Movimiento por el Poder Popular, or the People´s Power Movement, which seeks to empower students politically. The principal objective of the group is to provoke “the idea of the people’s power as a wager to construct a force that is truly born from the people and is presented as an alternative to hegemonic power.” But the name “Poder Popular” raises some eyebrows in the wider public. Talaverano laments: “They automatically hear that and think terrorist.” This image problem hinders youth political activity. “The rector says anyone demanding a right is a Sendero, and society says it too,” says Talaverano.

But Poder Popular is growing quickly, and leftist university collectives at other campuses like the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP) are also picking up steam — even in light of the negative stereotypes of student activists. PUCP’s shift is a result of the connection between student groups and political parties.

In the 1970s and 1980s, student groups were tied either directly or indirectly to national political parties, like the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance or the Partido Popular Cristiano, says Pedro Llanos, a sociology student at PUCP. These groups disappeared in the 1990s, and only within the past few years has the campus seen efforts to reconstruct political organizations. But unlike the groups of old, these new organizations are in the form of “collectives,” states Llanos, without any connection to a specific party.

Llanos was recently elected as secretary of culture and education for PUCP’s leftist collective Izquierda Universitaria (IU). His task is to strengthen the political culture and ties between leftists in the collective and other university students. IU is one of the campus’s more active collectives, planning street marches and other demonstrations. The group holds events with leftist professors and is planning discussions about the leftist view toward Humala’s first 100 days in office. IU spreads the word about many of its activities through its Facebook page, which has nearly 5,000 fans.

Eder Joáo Rojas Salinas and María Fernanda Vivanco Salazar are PUCP students and members of the collectives Coherencia Universitaria and Acción Crítica, respectively. Vivanco said Acción Crítica only became active at PUCP in 2007. The group works to bring issues of local and national significance onto campus, encourages debates about free trade agreements, the indigenous movement, and LGBTQ subjects. Vivanco explained how the collectives help elect student representatives to PUCP’s Student Federation in order to deal with issues including the role of private education, which is causing frustrations at PUCP.

Rojas believes his campus political culture is apathetic, but insists the collectives have become better organized in the past few years. “During the 1990s and the first five years of the 2000 decade, there didn’t exist university groups whose principal interest was political activity, and those that did exist lasted shortly…2005-2010 marked a new chapter in the consolidation of movements and students groups within the PUCP,” Rojas says. Groups of friends used to organize for a cause, but these cases rarely conceived a student movement, he says.

Memory of Sendero Luminoso

Both Rojas at PUCP and Talaverano at San Marcos have noticed a widespread lack of interest in politics among their peers. Large, spontaneous movements last only briefly. A student march in June 2009 addressing the Bagua conflict and the May 2011 activities in the “No a Keiko” campaigns failed to spur any sustained protest movement.

Rojas, explaining the difference between pre-Shining Path activism and today, says “The problem is that today there isn’t a common agenda among university activists.” Students may organize to demand better education, for example, but “the proposal is empty and only a few give that proposal content… outlets permitting students to provide a solid backing to common agendas almost don’t exist,” he explains.

Carlos Contreras, a historian at PUCP, fondly remembers the 1970s, when all leftists took to the streets without any worries. But in the 1980s, with the uprising of SL and MRTA, “there was a big division in the Peruvian youth,” he states. Contreras added that the middle and upper classes abandoned university political activity because “they thought it was playing with fire.

An essay by Sandro Venturo Schultz indicates that SL threatened universities with the same “sectarian and dogmatic practices that were applied to popular organizations in the countryside and the city, and the student reaction was withdrawal.” Other leftist groups that weren’t participating in the armed struggle “engaged themselves in a fight to the death for control of the Student Federation and the only thing they achieved was repel even more potential representatives,” the essay continues. The Student Federation of Peru today still struggles to gain its past legitimacy.

Contreras taught at San Marcos during the 1980s and remembers the extremely tense political environment. The police and military frequently raided universities in the early 1990s, Contreras says, and everyone was suspicious of each other: “Everyone thought a university activist was a Sendero,” he recollects.

Contempt for Politics

But wariness of activism is not just present at universities. Distrust for politics also plagues the public at large. Peruvians, in comparison to other citizens in Latin America, are the least satisfied with democracy, according to recent polls from Latinobarómetro.

A report from April 2011 called “Press Release: Peru 1995-2010” explains that, “the evolution of support for democracy in Peru has been more volatile than in the region.” Support for democracy fell in 2005 to 40 percent, but bounced back to 55 percent in 2006, “the best economic year of the recent period,” and the year that marked the presidential election of Alan García. Between 2006 and 2008, the rate declined again to 45 percent, but in 2010 it again rebounded, reaching 61 percent. But the report states that support for democracy isn’t caused by economic growth, but rather how the fruit of that growth is distributed. It continues, “countries need development and economic growth in order to consolidate democracy but it doesn’t just depend on that, but rather on how political deeds create a perception of justice.”

Mere support for democratic government isn’t the whole story, however. In 2010, only 28 percent of Peruvians reported being “satisfied” with their democracy.

Peru ranks as the Latin American country with least confidence in democratic institutions. Moreover, Peruvians have one of the lowest levels of confidence in society, which registered only 14 percent of the population in 2010. This percentage barely differs with the rate in 1996, when 13 percent agreed with the statement: “One can trust in the majority of people.”

These polls show that across Latin America, economic growth rates have a positive correlation with satisfaction in democracy. But the opposite is revealed in Peru, which “indicates that economic growth alone isn’t capable of consolidating democracy,” the report continues.

Llanos claims three factors contribute to this dilemma. Due to economic inequality, many people are forced into informal work. These people have no certainty about the future, Llanos declares, and they prefer politicians that bring them “individual solutions rather than a solution for the public sphere.” Second, the repressive politics of Fujimori’s government in the 1990s created a societal mistrust of politics. And finally, Llanos believes that many young people that participated in politics encountered frustration and “didn’t see the changes that they yearned for, not through the armed route nor through the electoral route.”

The youth especially are vulnerable to becoming disheartened after facing political disappointment. Some small leftist student organizations have gained strength in the past few years, and they hope to compel a wider sector of indifferent youth to help fight for social and political reform. If Humala doesn’t cumplir (carry out his promises) student apathy will likely deepen and leftist organizations will have to jump another hurdle. “Fujimori and Garcia didn’t cumplir to democratize the country…maybe Humala can,” says Cesar Germaná, a sociology professor at San Marcos, and “students are very sensitive to the carrying out of electoral promises.”

Symbolism of Humala’s Election

Many student activists hesitate to completely trust completely President Humala, but they generally concede his election represents a chance for genuine change. “Now is the time to demand,” pleads Talaverano, “great opportunities for change are here.”

At PUCP, Vivanco walks by the campus’s monument to students like Ernesto Castillo who were killed in the early 1990s. She expresses the fear she had for another Fujimori in the presidency, “Keiko [Fujimori] would have had the same cabinet…now [with Gana Peru, Humala’s party] there are more possibilities to get closer to government.” Vivanco looks forward to a government that will listen to the youth’s demands, and to “a police that won’t throw us out of public spaces when we protest,” she laughs.

Only time will tell if Vivanco’s expectations are fulfilled. Rojas refers specifically to page 57 of the Plan of Government of Gana Peru, highlighting its ambiguity in respect to freedom of expression. Humala has publically promised that he will respect this. Rojas indicates, without reservation, that Keiko definitely would have limited expression on campuses.

The Leftist Comeback?

At Humala’s June 5 victory party in Lima’s Plaza 2 de Mayo, one graduate student at San Marcos, referring to leftist political activity, joyfully yelled above the celebrations, “We used to not be able to meet like this!” At Humala’s inauguration, leftist groups — many including Peru’s youth — once again rejoiced in their opportunity to take the streets of Peru and voice their support.

Terrorism and military takeovers of universities crippled political student movements, and even today this fear, along with politicians’ broken promises, are a lofty barriers for young activists.

Similar memories across Latin American have hushed youth activists — for now. But recent large mobilizations in Chile against the Pinochet-era educational system, along with solidarity movements of support in Peru and Argentina, indeed prove that “Estudiantes unidos jamás serán vencidos” — “students united will never be defeated” — a chant increasing in volume and popularity these days.

Humala’s election is perhaps a signal of a leftist comeback in Peru. Many students hope he will defend freedom of expression so that all student organizations across the spectrum can — and will want to — actively participate in politics.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Terra Stanley is a senior at Wellesley College studying Political Science and Latin American Studies. She spent the summer freelancing from Lima, Peru.


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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