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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Undoing Peru's democracy


Silence speaks volumes. The self-coup in December of 2022, the allegations and suspicions circulating among politicians and common people alike, the inauguration of an unelected president, the protests that surged soon after, and the tears shed for the lives taken during brutal police repression. All these events tell the story of a crumbling democracy. Yet, as opposed to other struggles in the world that elicit global support and recognition, it is a fight Peruvians are mostly facing alone. No public outcry for solidarity on social media, no open condemnation - Western media outlets and the Western public choose their battles. Some, so it seems, are simply not at the forefront of people’s minds. Do not get me wrong on this, it is not that the Western media did not catch up on reporting on unfolding events but more about the lack of attention and scrutiny given by the public. The incidents in Peru did not catch the eye of social media activists and did not spark the same passion for justice as other civil movements. Perhaps because of Peru’s arguably small role in international politics, perhaps because political turmoil in South America is not uncommon. I would not be surprised if any of you, dear readers, had not heard about happenings in Peru, and my point is not to blame you. There is only so much attention we can pay to global news, only so much care we can extend to strangers, and focusing on the most devastating fires first may be the only way to make the world a better place one step at a time. Nevertheless, I want to bring your attention to the fire that is burning in Peru at the moment. One that is being stoked by the state’s unwillingness to listen to its people and attempt to silence voices of resistance. 


By definition, a democracy is meant to ensure the rule of the people. Initially, the demonstrations demanding new elections and resignation of the new President, Dina Boluarte, began peacefully. Being met with an unproportionally brutal response from security forces, some have turned violent, culminating in the Puno massacre. In total, 60 protesters have been murdered, thousands injured, and dozens unjustly detained. Still, an unelected president remains in power, and Peru’s democracy can no longer say to represent its people. Dina Boluarte, only has 8% support among Peruvians; her government is neither legitimate nor wanted. That is why Peru is no longer listed as a democracy in the Democracy Index of The Economist but has been classified as a hybrid regime instead. This is a hard hit for a country that only 24 years ago celebrated its transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy. But no surprise given its history of instability, corruption, and silencing of the people. 


For as long as I can remember, Peru has struggled politically. While I was too young to feel the consequences of the Fujimori regime and understand what it took to rebuild Peru’s democracy after a decade of authoritarian terror, I do know the stories my parents, especially my father, have told me. Now, living so far away from my birth country and extended family, it is difficult to remain up to date, and the lack of reporting by mainstream news outlets about Peru and South America in general makes it even more challenging to stay informed. Nevertheless, I often find myself being asked what is going on in Peru by friends or new acquaintances. My answer tends to be short; “a lot”, I say, or “it’s bad at the moment.” For some reason, any conversation seems too short to provide insight into Peru’s complicated history with democracy and social justice. And to be completely honest, most times, I do not feel reasonably well informed to give an account anyways. Apart from having left the country when I was five years old, I do not regularly read Peruvian news or talk to my family, who, I must admit, leans towards the right. The occasional visit since 2003 has not been enough to paint a full picture or even count as an experience of the situation. Most of my knowledge stems from family anecdotes and self-motivated research I did for university papers. Although better than nothing, academic articles are not flash news - they often are not recent enough to address unfolding events. What is happening in Peru is not really on my radar in my daily life because it is not salient in European news or my social media. 


Maybe there is also a little bit of shame involved in speaking about Peruvian politics. As a student specialising in social and climate injustice, Peru represents an interesting case study for perpetuating both. There is not much good to say about past and present governments, and progress has been frustratingly slow. And who really likes to recount numerous human rights violations and political breakdowns happening in their country? Politically, there is nothing to be proud of. I cannot speak of these events without a nagging feeling of disappointment mixed with sadness. Especially, since the consequences have deeply divided my own family.


Regardless, although selectively mediated by my family, it is impossible not to hear the news every now and then - especially when disruptive events are taking place. This was the case on December 7, 2022. At 18:10 Central European Time (CET), only a few hours after the first Peruvian newspapers had published their first articles on the topic, I received a WhatsApp message from my mother. “Se armó la gorda [all hell broke loose]”, she wrote, with a link to a news article by El Comercio, a Peruvian newspaper. “I don’t know where the country is going to end up”, she added. I shared that sentiment. The article reported on President Castillo’s self-coup, declaring the dissolution of Congress and state of emergency. At that time, I could not yet find any articles by European outlets. All I had was Peruvian newspapers and my mother’s messages. Castillo gave his speech on television, to the surprise of most of the nation, shortly before Congress had planned to assemble for a scheduled impeachment vote against the President on corruption charges. 


At first, Castillo’s self-coup was met with fear. It reminded a lot of people, including my mother, of how the authoritarian Fujimori regime had started. My mother was eagerly awaiting Castillo’s arrest and the reopening of Congress. At 21:08 CET, she messaged me that he had been detained. I felt relieved too, and wrote: “That didn’t take long.” By the end of the same day, his vice president, Dina Boluarte, was sworn in. The self-coup was undoubtedly unconstitutional, and Castillo was rightfully ousted from power. However, the story is not black and white and many complex events led to the President’s demise. On December 8, 2022, my mother texted me again: “It seems like it was planned…a trap.” A claim difficult to verify and, at that point in time, supported only by a few voice messages distributed via WhatsApp by a Peruvian journalist. People took their anger to  the streets all over the country, and it was rumoured that Congress had set up Castillo, a belief still held by many Peruvians. The stability that should have followed the establishment of a new government, after taking down a corrupt one, never set in. Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the protests or better said, lack thereof, prevails. 


The protests that ensued after Castillo’s arrest and the violence that still persists have their right and reasons for some but have no grounds for others. Peru’s conservatives mostly welcomed Castillo’s removal from office since the left-wing candidate’s electoral base mainly consisted of poor, indigenous people from the South-Andean region. The struggles of the latter had long been ignored, leading them to vote for the populist outsider of grassroot origins, hoping for improvement. Yet, instead of turning the ship around and redressing the plight of Peru’s most vulnerable, invisible populations, Castillo was met with the same bigotry they had experienced for decades before. His impoverished past as a farmer and rural school teacher, his traditional vestments and indigenous rituals, and his Andean accent were openly ridiculed and weaponized against him by Lima’s white and wealthy elite. Racism and discrimination, in addition to the immense pressure exerted by Lima’s elite, which made it almost impossible for Castillo’s government to rule, may have ultimately driven the Castillo regime to become corrupt. It is no excuse, and I do not mean to defend Castillo, since his actions were undoubtedly unlawful. Even though Castillo was elected by the people to represent them, he miserably failed to do so on all fronts. Indigenous voices and opinions have been repressed for decades, and their plight for representation and justice remains unheard. People´s high hopes for Castillo as a supposedly true man of the people were crushed, leaving once again the bitter aftertaste of a failed democracy. His ousting from power and the taking over of Congress however, are the last straw. Enough is enough. The people are calling for Boluarte’s resignation and new elections, a call that has been met with unjustified violence from police and military forces in an attempt to silence the people. Once again, this violence exerted by the state has led to a quick escalation of upheaval, especially in rural provinces, where all, except for one of the victims were murdered. 


The families of the people murdered during the protests are still seeking justice. On February 15, 2022, my father forwarded me a heartbreaking and powerful song born out of a collaboration among Peruvian artists. He added: “You have to watch this video. For me, it has been very emotional.” This video sparked my interest in the events unfolding in Peru. Admittedly, I had not been aware of the consequences of Castillo’s ousting from power before. The artists commemorate the victims, some as young as fifteen years, and demand the establishment of a real democracy. The demands come against the backdrop of continuous discrimination and systemic oppression of rural populations in Peru. Unsurprisingly, farmers have been the first ones to take their feelings in support of Castillo and in opposition to Boluarte’s regime to the streets. The unproportional aggression and right-wing rhetoric employed by Boluarte, including calling the protesters terrorist and derogatory names, in the following days motivated more people, among others, university students and the Human Rights Movement, to join the protests. Ever since, the protests have become more radical and have mobilised thousands of people to travel to the capital Lima. The Peruvian press has also been caught in the crossfire and journalists have experienced unwarranted aggression from police forces. Furthermore, dozens of people were detained arbitrarily. The state’s violent response represents a threat to democracy, additionally to the lack of accountability and legitimacy of the new government, since the people’s right to protest is undermined. The state is taking actions that are undoing Peru’s democracy.


I have to add that from my safe home in the Netherlands, it was impossible to judge the severity of the circumstances and piece together contradictory sources of information. Even more so, since news from Peru do not blow up and are rarely the main topic of conversation everywhere. I am aware that it is a salient topic for me since my family is affected, but even I would not have conducted further research if it were not for WhatsApp. Peru’s invisibility, along with many other countries that share similar or worse struggles, reveals a general tendency to highlight causes that have direct international consequences for the West. Predominantly international parties who supply the West with important resources like gas in the case of Israel and Russia or who are perceived to represent a threat to Western power, like China and North Korea, make it all over the news. Little attention is given to Peru’s troubles that could be considered “average” compared to other nations. It appears more like the media’s (and public’s) thirst for sensationalization is not quenched by the frequency of Peru’s political breakdowns and its eternally stable instability. Every issue is “just another one,” adding to a country that never had a perfect democracy anyway. This mindset however, is undermining efforts of collective liberation and reveals a bias towards classifying some struggles as more important than others. Hence, the silence needs to be broken. 


Yes, when you know what to look for, you can find published news articles and information online. But I find this approach dangerous when it comes to political events, since it allows us to hyperfocus on causes that we are bombarded with on our social media feeds or in the news. Others are drowned in a sea of headlines. We fish out the most sensational incidents and quickly forget about the rest. Once public interest is lost, it is difficult to bring issues back into the spotlight. Hence, I wrote this article to bring awareness to the selective highlighting of news in the media. We need to critically question why some causes take all the spotlight and remember that just because nobody is talking about them (anymore), most of them have not yet been resolved.  


If you would like to support the right to protest and freedom of speech in Peru, this list by Amnesty International is a good starting point. You can also support the families of the victims murdered during the protests in seeking justice here. If you know Spanish and are interested in supporting and learning about indigenous activism in Peru, I recommend you to follow Coordinadora 14N and Chola Contravisual on Instagram.

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