IS PERU VIABLE AS A COUNTRY?
By Efraín Gonzales de Olarte
The Peruvian political crisis, which has been ongoing for several years, had a point of inflection when the former president, Pedro Castillo, made an inexplicable attempt to become a dictator. On December 7, the inviability of Peru, both as a country and as a nation, was confirmed, since in the last 50 years, neither rightist nor leftist governments have managed to integrate Peruvians so that they feel part of a shared collective — of “our” country, and not, as is the case with the majority of the population, of an alien country: a country that belongs to the others. The result of this crisis is the division of Peru into at least two “Perus”.
Why would December 2022 be a moment of inflection in the history of this budding country? Never before had such a Peruvian come to power: a precariously educated, working-class man with a truly provincial origin — a small town in Cajamarca, one of the poorest regions in Peru. Pedro Castillo, the rural teacher, led the roster of a provincial “political party” with a confusing set of ideas, derived from an anachronistic Marxism, to win a national election. Up to that moment, all previous government leaders had come from political, corporate, military, or intellectual elites. In other words, they had come from socioeconomic sectors enjoying higher income and post-secondary levels of educational attainment (though not always from Lima, as was the case with A. Toledo, V. Paniagua, and J. Velasco), and had been endorsed by more-or-less organized political organizations — or had had the support of the armed forces as the foundation of their power.
In fact, the coming to power of the schoolteacher Pedro Castillo was the result of a profound crisis of political representation, characterized by the political atomization and the near disappearance of doctrinal parties, which is why Castillo was able to win a national election with just 18.9% of the votes in the first round, ultimately defeating Keiko Fujimori by 40,000 votes in the second round. It was almost a penalty shootout. In other words, Castillo came to power due to the convergence of a series of circumstances developing over the last nine years, and whose origins can be traced to much earlier events, such as the 1992 “self-coup” of Alberto Fujimori’s government and its aversion to political parties, and even further back in time, to the colonial heritage that split Peru in two: the colonialists and the colonized — a duality that changed only in terms of actors and names throughout Peruvian history, and which now makes a dramatic reappearance.
Obviously, coming to terms with the election of Castillo was not easy, especially for the urban and Limeño Peru, as it generated uncertainty for several reasons. On the one hand, he came in representation of a small provincial party whose owner and leader, Vladimir Cerrón, is a Cuban-educated physician who is being investigated by the authorities, and whose party, Perú Libre, had no plan of government, properly speaking, but a set of ideas written with the aid of some Marxism manual from the last century, which proposed changes that would lead Peru to become a communist/socialist country like Cuba. Incidentally, after 30 years of experience with neoliberalism, the proposals contained in Perú Libre’s ideology created panic in many sectors of the country. On the other hand, Pedro Castillo appeared rather like a cut-to-size guest to lead the party’s roster, given that Perú Libre had overmodest aspirations: obtaining a minimal number of votes to retain its political party status and, perhaps, one or two seats in congress. This caused Castillo’s electoral campaign to be characterized by a populist discourse in the most remote communities, unvisited by the other candidates, where he promised to solve all their local problems. This had two effects: (1) the places in greatest need (e.g., southern Peru, the poorest region in the country) voted for him; and (2) they saw him as a genuine representative (i.e., they felt identified with him, for he was like them).
Castillo’s coming to power further transparentized the great socioeconomic inequalities found in Peru, both in social sectors and in regions and municipalities, which translated into multiple requests for public spending and investment. It was obvious that a leftist government had to be, at the very least, of a redistributionist nature, but this was understood by neither Castillo nor Perú Libre, for they were not prepared to propose an economic and social policy of this cut: they had neither the ideas nor the “executives” to do so.
Things took a more anthropological turn. His social origin, combined with Perú Libre’s precarious organization and the judicial problems of its leader, led Castillo to govern based on his small social foundations, prioritizing his family, friends, and neighbors from Chota, his hometown, and some Cajamarquinos, friends of his family or neighbors, and the “executives” provided by Vladimir Cerrón. Obviously, the result was translated into a familial and Chotano cronyism, which led to a utilization of government resources for the benefit of his entourage — something that previous administrations had also done, but that, in this case, was too evident: they were too transparent in their acts of corruption, and the press, especially the conservative one, took care of keeping a close tally on these dealings, given their animosity towards Castillo since his success in the first electoral round.
The biggest problem is that, due to the priority given to his entourage and the nearly absolute lack of direction in its economic and social policies, Castillo’s government was a chain of blunders (e.g., in the election of both its ministers and other officials) that caused the weakening of the government’s actions, which brought a sense of unprecedented precariousness. The fact that he had 80 ministers in his first year and a half in office gives us an idea of how improvised this administration was. It was not a leftist government — it was an incompetent government.
Paradoxically, said precariousness and instability did not affect the performance of the Peruvian economy, for it has been over 25 years since the economic cycle gained its independence from the political one. This clearly favored Castillo, as — despite not having clear policies and showing a tortuous management of the public apparatus — the Peruvian economy continued to grow, and inflation remained under control (except, obviously, during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic). Curiously enough, said outcomes stem from the primary-exporter and service economy model (primario-exportador y de servicios, PESER) inherited from Fujimorismo, as well as the autonomy of the Central Reserve Bank (Banco Central de Reserva, BCR) and the regulatory bodies — all of which Castillo promised to eliminate during his electoral campaign.
Another aspect of the former president, by no means insignificant, were his limited communication and dialogue skills with the media; these were made evident in that pitiful CNN interview in January 2022, after which his counselors advised him not to face the press, and to establish other channels of communication to contact the population. It was for that purpose that the decentralized cabinets were established — and their audiences carefully chosen, obviously based on their affinity towards the president — providing Castillo with a platform from which, true to his syndicalist style of a “permanent candidate,” he continued promising to solve the population’s problems, knowing perfectly well it would not be possible for his administration to do so. In the best populist style, and driven by his ineptitude, he became a demagogue, feeding false hope to his voters. Most importantly, it was thanks to these platforms that Castillo started to create a strand of opinion in the populations of the provinces — that of being a president who was close to the problems of “the people” — and managed to convey the idea that Congress, the right, and the conservative media were not letting him govern. This is how he created an opinion that favored him, based on him being a leader of the people, one of them, who was not allowed to govern by the greater powers. His incompetence and the poor human capital of his various cabinets were hidden behind his transformation into the victim of a system that could not stand the fact that a provincial teacher of underprivileged origin had been elected president of Peru. The most important social effect was that his government caused the polarization of society, to the extreme of generating a growing socioeconomic dualism.
Nevertheless, said transformation went hand in hand with reports and investigations on a series of acts of corruption involving Castillo, his family, his entourage, and some of his ministers. Further evidence of this is that some of his relatives and former officials, who were being investigated by the Attorney’s Office, have either fled the country or gone into hiding. For this reason, there are those who think that the objective of the “coup” was to stop all the investigations related to corruption that the Public Ministry had started against him — this is why, in his address to the nation, not only did Castillo dissolve Congress, but also stated his intention to intervene in the Attorney’s Office and the Judicial Branch; in addition, he asked one of his aides to arrest the Attorney General of the nation who started the aforementioned investigation against him. The truth is he was not only incompetent as a president, but he was also incompetent when it came to managing the corruption he promoted and staging the coup.
After his attempted coup and his aspiration to become a dictator in the style of Maduro or Ortega, it was not surprising that a third of the population felt identified with Castillo and demanded he be reinstated, on the idea that he had been a victim. For his supporters, corruption was barely a venial sin that, in addition, remained to be proved — one like themselves had not been allowed to govern.
The next episode was the assumption of the government by Vice-President Dina Boluarte, which was accompanied by two circumstances that ended up confusing a significant portion of the population. The first one is that, upon violating the Constitution by announcing his coup, Pedro Castillo became automatically disqualified to continue to govern; as a result, Congress had the obligation to invite the vice-president to assume the presidency, in accordance with the Constitution. The second one is that — in an unnecessary act, given that Castillo was no longer president after having violated the Constitution — Congress passed a vacancy motion, in a rather theatrical fashion, to impeach the president on the grounds of “moral incapacity,” with 103 votes in favor out of the 130 possible votes. The interpretation of these events caused a significant portion of the population — especially from regions outside of Lima — to believe that Castillo had been removed by Congress, and that Dina Boluarte had been favored by his removal and was, consequently, a traitor. The truth is that a narrative was created based on the role of Congress — which was in constant confrontation with Castillo throughout his administration — as the cause of Castillo’s downfall, with Dina Boluarte as its accomplice. In her inauguration speech as president, she did not clarify why she had assumed the presidency according to the Constitution and did not distance herself from the Congress’s decision to impeach Castillo — though Congress had evidently taken advantage of the coup to finally find grounds for the impeachment (as unnecessary as it was, institutionally speaking).
After former President Castillo was put in custody, protests started to become generalized in the whole country, reaching unwanted levels of violence, with civilian casualties caused by police and army fire, but also police casualties brought about in the most brutal ways. The demands are as follows: (1) that Congress be closed; (2) that the current president, Dina Boluarte, step down; (3) that new elections be called; and (4) that a referendum be included to create a constituent assembly for the drafting of a new constitution.
The image portrayed by Castillo through his style of government was believed by a portion of the population with very little information, an extremely low capacity for discernment in political matters, and a high level of feelings of basic identification (i.e., support for their neighbors and relatives — or, in this case, for someone like themselves, who had promised the moon and the stars, but was unable to keep his promises because “they did not let him govern”). Never mind the fact that Castillo received money to promote officers or to appoint people to certain positions, as all previous administrations would have done the same, and, in the eyes of his supporters, this was not the cause of his impeachment by Congress. In addition, a significant portion of those demanding immediate elections and a new constitution have not even read the current one, which is why their stance has nothing to do with the rules governing Peruvian democracy, but with the incompetence of what they call the “political class” (as well as that of Congress) and the government’s neglect of the regions. In other words, what is worth analyzing are the social and economic outcomes of the political and economic system, and these have been rather scarce in the more popular areas and in the poorest regions.
Located in southern Peru, Puno, Apurimac, Cusco, and Arequipa are the regions with the largest number of protests and road blockades, which are the mechanism used to paralyze all activity; these, however, are spontaneous mobilizations of rural communities, combined with agitators from radical left groups and illegal sectors (e.g., drug trafficking, illegal mining and logging, and contraband), which do not come from a known organization with visible leadership. These mobilizations are a wave of discontent triggered in the protesters not only by the removal of a president like themselves, but above all by the poor performance of public institutions (e.g., health, education, utilities, and infrastructure) and by the poverty, underemployment, and informality in which the majority of people live.
Informality in Peru — characterized by the fact that 70% of the population is employed informally and generates only 20% of the gross domestic product — is an underlying problem from an economic, social, and political standpoint: it is the backdrop of the current crisis. From an economic standpoint, informality is synonymous with low productivity and, consequently, low income and precarious employment (i.e., poverty and the absence of a better future). From a social standpoint, as it does not foster stable work and production relationships, informality does not create the necessary social fabric for progress in a society (i.e., it is not possible to form guilds, unions, and associations having common interests — those with informal employment are on their own). From a political standpoint, the government does not manage to integrate those with informal employment so that they may enjoy the benefits of social security and retirement pensions — but above all, these people have no reason to organize themselves politically, and they will obviously vote for whomever offers them something or looks like them. As the Peruvian government apparatus is small, following the structural adjustment of the 1990s, it is unable to reduce inequality and provide more opportunities for the large majority of people. Informality is the latest form of the aforementioned duality and lack of socioeconomic integration in Peru.
From this perspective, the current protests are, in reality, a wake-up call given by people demanding a government that takes care of them and integrates them. Informality is the best route to social segregation. For these reasons, these protest mobilizations have no interlocutors with whom the government could dialogue to reach an agreement, thus the political settlement is fairly uncertain, and Peru may well be at the brink of social collapse or anomie, or at the gates of a military coup.
The current crisis has exacerbated the fragmentation of Peruvian society, which translates into: (1) the growing confrontation between Lima and the rest of the country, which decentralization has not managed to assuage; (2) the labor and economic informality stemming from the inability of the Peruvian development model (primary-exporter and service economy) to integrate those with informal employment; and (3) an inefficient and relatively small government apparatus, evidently incompetent when it comes to solving differences of an economic, social, and cultural nature. Ultimately, Castillo’s administration and his coup have unveiled the precariousness of Peru as a country.
It is evident that the settlement of the current political and social crisis in Peru, after Castillo’s coup, is not to be righted in the short term (and, perhaps, not even in the medium term), given the complexity of Peru’s predicaments — a fragmented society in social, regional, and cultural terms, overwhelming socioeconomic inequality, informality, political atomization, an economic model unable to create enough “decent” employment, a small and inefficient government apparatus corroded by corruption, and a dual education system unable to promote social equalization. These are problems requiring a sort of refounding of the country.
In the short term, three possible scenarios are expected: (1) a transitional government that manages to swiftly call an election; (2) a military coup; or (3) social anomie (i.e., the current situation as a futureless way of social survival). Given these problems, Peru does not seem to be viable as a country, unless a social or political miracle occurs — as former President Manuel Prado once said about our country’s inner workings, the problem will either solve itself or remain unsolved. On this occasion, no settlement mechanisms seem to exist.
Lima, January 2023