For many years, Peruvians have endured political crises repeatedly. Few presidents have been able to serve full terms and even if they do, they may end up in jail for corruption – the fate of six of the last 10 presidents.
In the 20th century, elected presidents faced military coups. Today, those have given way to parliamentary coups: impeachment and removal from office. What might be a normal state of tension between executive and legislative branches in Peru today is toxic. There was a week in November 2020 when Peru had three presidents. The last of these presided through the electoral period that saw Pedro Castillo, a teacher from rural Peru, triumph narrowly over Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former dictator, on June 6, 2020.
More than 40 days after Castillo’s arrest and replacement by his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, about 50 people have been killed in protests and more than 600 injured, including 30 injured just yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 19).
The protesters demand (with some variations): that Boluarte resign; that new congressional elections be held; that a constituent assembly be chosen to draft a new constitution; new presidential elections before the end of this year; and release of Castillo from prison.
The fury right now is that Castillo was elected by the rural poor – farmers, workers, Indigenous peoples – and in this latest conflict, they feel their vote is not respected by racist, urban elites. It may be that Castillo erred in trying to suspend congress on Dec. 7, but its summary impeachment (no trial) was at least as illegal. In his defence, Castillo’s move came after 18 months of confrontation: he was never allowed to lead. It’s the system that’s broken.
The outcome is consistent with 520 years of colonialism and keeping those of Indigenous ancestry out of the halls of power. During the election campaign, Castillo had said it was “a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between master and slave.” That is what is playing out on the streets and at the roadblocks today.
The Latin American ecumenical news agency ALC Noticias spoke with several Peruvian church leaders.
We have arrived at social collapse, said Rev. Rafael Goto, a Methodist minister in Lima long active in human rights causes. “The crisis in which Peru is living shows us again the discrimination and contempt faced by those who are most impoverished. Once again, it seems that two different ways of looking at society are at play. On one side, that of political power, the historic colonial and oppressive mentalities are revived. On the other side, the excluded population continues to resist so as to break the chain of marginalisation, invisibility, and contempt.”
Rev. Luzmila Quezada, a Wesleyan minister, teacher and leader in the women’s movement, warned that Peru is reaching a point where “dehumanization” is apparent. “This crisis challenges us to connect with the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Andean South who have suffered for centuries from the exclusion and social stigmatization of a racist and fascist elite that only cares about material goods and forgets the maximum and urgent value of human life: who is our neighbour in this country?”
Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who worked for 26 years in the Puno diocese in southeast Peru (where some of the most extreme repression occurred), has returned to his native Argentina after his bishop ordered him to resign as parish priest in the city of Juliaca. In response to violence in Juliaca on Jan. 9, Fr. Luis Humberto Béjar had demanded Boluarte’s resignation.
Later, he told reporters that he made the call because he believes that peace can only be achieved with her resignation. “I do not regret saying what I said, and I would say it 50 times more. In three hours, if I am not wrong, they killed 17 people, and one more died of wounds later.” A policeman was also killed in Juliaca that day.
A Quechua Indigenous woman whom I know in the Andean highlands sent a note to say that she and others are doing what they can to support the protests, but that it is difficult knowing that most of the victims of the violence are Quechua.
“Our leaders are threatened,” she wrote. “There are no lawyers who will defend them. Everyone is afraid because the army and police are acting on behalf of the congress and Dina [Boluarte]. We have returned to the time of [Alberto] Fujimori [dictator in the 90s].”