Peru is going through a period of political crisis unprecedented since the restoration of democracy.
The uncontrollable shaking of the papers he was holding in his hands reflected Pedro Castillo's state of nervousness. The President of Peru was reading a speech to the nation from his office in the Casa de Pizarro with a trembling voice and a visibly numb face. He barely took his eyes off the pages, as if he did not know what he was about to say. His image appeared live on national television late on the morning of Wednesday 7 December. He was one step away from decreeing the dissolution of Congress, the appointment of an emergency government, the implementation of a nationwide curfew and an early election to set in motion a constituent process. In reality, what Pedro Castillo was announcing was clearly a self-coup d'état, yet another in the Andean country's recent history.
That same afternoon, the Congress was scheduled to vote on a third question of confidence to remove him from office, which was not likely to succeed. In fact, the previous two had not been successful, and not precisely because the president had a solid parliamentary majority behind him, but because his dismissal would bring with it "the call for early elections and the risk for the deputies, who cannot be re-elected, of losing their seats and, therefore, the income they continue to receive today, along with access to the budget and the important perks linked to their positions", write the researchers Carlos Malamud and Rogelio Núñez Castellano at the Elcano Royal Institute. Castillo, surrounded by corruption cases and at the head of a dysfunctional government, wanted to subdue the Parliament that had caused him so many headaches in his year and a half in office.
But no one responded to his orders. Neither the judiciary nor the armed forces closed ranks with Castillo. The president had opted for a coup without even having won the support of any of Peru's de facto powers. That is why, just three hours after appearing live on national television, barely holding the papers, the president was taken to the police station by members of his own team. More than a month has passed, and the former president has since been remanded in custody on charges of rebellion, conspiracy and abuse of power. He is also accused of leading a criminal organisation for allegedly defrauding the state in the awarding of public works. He faces 17 months in Barbadillo prison, a Lima jail where Peru's last living dictator, Alberto Fujimori, who, unlike Castillo, did not miss the mark and successfully executed a self-coup in 1992, is serving his sentence.
Congress finally held the session, but the president's words had irreversibly altered the country's political reality. The congressmen definitively dispelled the coup attempt and approved by majority vote the vacancy of Castillo for "permanent moral incapacity", a controversial constitutional clause that grants the legislature the power to remove the head of state from office. "The article of the Constitution is more than a century old, and in this century it has only been used three times," explains Jorge Montoya, a congressman from the far-right National Renewal party, in conversation with Atalayar. "The situation has led us to this type of scenario where the only way to get rid of a corrupt person is that. Although in the case of this president it has not been that; it has been the coup d'état he carried out". Montoya defends the law and believes that its permanence in the Constitution is justified, but qualifies that the crimes it covers should be specified.
Castillo's troubled departure put his vice-president and former ally of the Marxist-Leninist Peru Libre party, Dina Boluarte, on the ramp to succeed him. The former Minister of Development and Social Inclusion, one of 80 people paraded through Pedro Castillo's cabinet since July 2021, became Peru's sixth president in six years and the first woman to hold the post. She was not going to have it easy. She did not even have time to put on the presidential sash when demonstrations erupted in the south of the country calling for Castillo's immediate release and general elections. Boluarte, however, had in mind to run out the legislature and make it to 2026. She would not change his mind until the protests gained momentum, going so far as to propose an early election in 2024 that only Congress was happy with.
"The president has no reason to resign. The president has been the rightful constitutional successor. Incidentally, I have been the biggest critic of her. Before, I used to say that she had to leave the government so that she would never become president. But she did. And I respect the Constitution. And I respect the president now. We are giving her the necessary political support to keep her in office", insists Montoya, who says he does not recognise "any" of the protesters' demands as legitimate. The congressman answers Atalayar's questions from his office in the legislature. The portrait of Miguel Grau, the historic commander general of the Peruvian navy, hangs behind him. Grau, one of Peru's national heroes, today gives his name to one of the busiest avenues in Lima, which tens of thousands of demonstrators are currently walking along. They are not far from Congress, they are not far from Montoya. Only a few metres and a police contingent of 7,000 officers separate them.
The protests began in December with images of blocked roads in the southern provinces of Cajamarca, Apurímac, Lambayeque and Puno, impoverished rural regions with a majority Quechua and Aymara population, the main indigenous groups of the Andean highlands, who say they feel marginalised by what they describe as Lima's extractive elites. Castillo, a schoolteacher from Cajamarca, gained his strength in precisely these regions. His followers claim that the coup d'état was not his doing, but that it was carried out by a corrupt Congress. These demands are gaining strength. In recent weeks, the marches have continued to grow in size, variety and scope despite the state of emergency decreed by the Boluarte government. So much so that the demonstrators managed to paralyse entire economic sectors, and some of them set out to - and succeeded in - occupying the airports of Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, Puno and Cuzco, its cultural centre. The most violent set fire to public buildings, kidnapped and mortally wounded police officers. One officer was burned alive in Puno.
The security forces have not been left behind and have responded disproportionately, firing live ammunition at peaceful demonstrators, according to several human rights groups and numerous eyewitness accounts. Violent clashes between police and protesters have left more than 50 people dead, most of them civilians, with bullet wounds scattered across their bodies. Some of Boluarte's ministers even resigned over the police's repressive drift. One of them was the Minister of Labour, Eduardo García Birimisa. The Public Prosecutor's Office is investigating the current president and her Prime Minister, Alberto Otárola, for alleged crimes of "genocide, aggravated homicide and grievous bodily harm". These serious accusations have not forced the resignation of Boluarte, who reaffirms almost daily her decision to stay in power.
The current president is indebted to Congress. Only the legislature can sustain a mandate that is falling apart. Boluarte's most critical sectors underline her lack of legitimacy and denounce the fact that she is acting under the dictates of a House whose popularity is even lower than Pedro Castillo's, which was below 20%. Montoya, whose party is at the ideological antipodes of Boluarte, explains to Atalayar that "as things stand, the best thing to do is to maintain the stability of the cabinet and the current president. To solve this crisis, we simply need to be firm, prosecute all the perpetrators of violence who have committed crimes, there are acts of terrorism, and calm the country down". Boluarte also has the support of the right.
The deadly actions of the security forces in Peru have provoked a cascade of reactions at the regional level. Criticism from the governments of Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina has recently been joined by that of Chile. President Gabriel Boric said in the plenary session of the CELAC summit in Buenos Aires that "we cannot be indifferent when today, in our sister Republic of Peru, with the government under the command of Dina Boluarte, people who go out to march, to demand what they consider just, end up being shot by those who should be defending them". The new government's response has been to tighten diplomatic relations with its neighbours to the maximum, accusing them of wanting to destabilise the country. For the time being, it has decided to withdraw its ambassador to Honduras. Xiomara Castro's government does not recognise Boluarte's government.
Three out of four Peruvians disapproved of Castillo's governance. During his time in the House of Pizarro, the former president was unable to push through reforms. Moreover, there was not even a clear agenda, a coherent roadmap, in sight. Castillo's government was chaos. He dismissed a minister every six days because of the successive scandals in which they were involved, including five Prime ministers. This was compounded by countless corruption cases for which he was under investigation. An extensive criminal record for which he will have to answer in court in the coming months, now stripped of the immunity from prosecution granted by the presidency. However, Castillo's administration is not the origin of Peru's constitutional crisis, but rather a traumatic outcome.
Analysts recognise the beginning of the current political crisis with the rise to power of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after the 2016 elections, which opened a period of deep hostility between the presidency and Congress. The legislature controlled by Keiko Fujimori's Fuerza Popular, the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, obstructed the government of a weak Kuczynski, who ended up resigning in 2018 in the midst of a judicial investigation into his involvement in the high-profile Odebrecht case. Vice-President Martín Vizcarra took the reins and launched a melee against Congress from which he emerged victorious. In 2019, Vizcarra invoked the controversial article 134 of the Constitution to justify suspending Parliament, a move similar to Castillo's, but with alternative methods. The constitutional ambiguity gives incumbent presidents leeway to dissolve Congress if it has censured or denied confidence to at least two Councils of Ministers. Vizcarra stuck to these terms and, unlike the leftist leader, managed to win the backing of the Constitutional Court. Congress, however, would end up hitting him back a year later by approving his impeachment.
Now, some of the demonstrators flooding the streets of Lima and other parts of the country are demanding a constituent assembly to push through a new constitutional framework. They are doing so partly to challenge its undemocratic origins, but above all because the current constitution fosters institutional fracture. The Magna Carta, drafted by autocrat Alberto Fujimori in 1993, allows the legislature to dismiss presidents by a two-thirds majority without defining a specific cause. The Constitution also makes the legislative elections coincide with the first round of the presidential elections, and not with the second round, as is customary. As a result, presidents never assume power with a parliamentary majority. This leads to a clash of powers, as has been the case for some time now, especially under the Castillo presidency. No one knows who really holds power, the Congress or the president.
Asked about the viability of the constituent process that many Peruvians are calling for, Montoya insists that the current Constitution has elements within itself that allow it to be reformed. "It has been reformed more than 50 times since it was drafted. We have more than 60 bills to be discussed and dealt with during the course of the government. The ultra-conservative congressman denounces that the real intention of the organisers of the marches is to change the economic regime and turn Peru into a collectivist regime. "That is the point that cannot be discussed and that should not be put to a referendum, because people do not know, do not know, and it could end up being a wrong vote," he argues.
Congress is far from being a functional institution. The old party system has been pulverised after the disappearance of the traditional parties. In its place, a dozen diverse political forces share the 130 seats without even coming close to a majority. In fact, the party that catapulted Pedro Castillo to the presidency, Peru Libre, won only 15 seats in the House in the last elections. The former president tried to govern without a legislative base. In addition to an atomised Congress, there are members who act solely and exclusively according to their own interests. Many of them are under investigation for corruption. That is why they cling to office, because if they are removed they lose their immunity from prosecution. And they can only serve one term as congressmen.
"It is not the system that has caused this crisis," says Montoya, who cast doubt on the electoral process that brought Pedro Castillo to the Pizarro House despite the fact that the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones and the Oficial Nacional de Proceso Electorales found no irregularities. "In any case, this system is going to be reformed to avoid this confrontation [between Congress and the president]. We are removing the question of confidence from the cabinet to avoid these problems from the beginning. We're making these reforms, which are really unnecessary, but which sound good to the people that they're being made".
In December, when the marches began in the south of the country, protesters demanded Castillo's release. Some went further and called for his reinstatement. But a month and a half later it does not look as if they will be satisfied with that. An inestimable part of Peruvian society considers that the return to democracy has not succeeded in narrowing the enormous inequality gap that divides Peru; on the contrary. There are still underlying socio-economic differences between the small elite that pulls the strings in Lima and the vast rural areas of the country. Moreover, the wounds inflicted in the 1980s and 1990s by the terrorist attacks of the Shining Path, the Maoist insurgency that some accuse of being behind the protests, and the fierce state-led counter-insurgency campaign remain open.
Dina Boluarte agreed, in collusion with Congress, to bring forward general elections to April 2024, two years ahead of schedule. But it is unlikely that the government will be able to hold on much longer to an unsustainable situation that many recognise as illegitimate. If the widespread chaos continues in the coming weeks, Congress is likely to define a new electoral calendar. However, many authoritative voices are not confident that elections will resolve the crisis plaguing Peru. "What will be left of the country by then?", they ask.
Coordinator Americas: José Antonio Sierra