I was out on the streets of Lima on Thursday night. Again. I’ve grown up with the understanding that every once in a while we need to hit the streets to stop some form of rampant abuse from taking place, that democracy is not about votes but about vigilance. Peru was only able to snatch back its democracy twenty years ago from the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori, and ever since we’ve known that only our continued vigilance as citizens works as a backstop to the darkest forces in our politics. So we get used to this. We normalize it as the way things are.
But there was something different about Thursday night. It was by far the largest protest I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and the largest I’ve ever heard of. There were gatherings all over the city of Lima, and all over the entirety of the country. There were so many protests happening at the same time that they crossed each other walking in opposite directions along the main avenues. When the dust settles, I’d wager there were hundreds of thousands of people across the country who were out marching and chanting for several hours, despite us being the country with perhaps the single worst handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the entire world. The country was out in full force that night.
And so were the police. The crackdown on the protest was brutal, even though the protests have been peaceful almost in their entirety. These aren’t the usual suspects going on the streets to protest — these are young people, most of them under 25, these are families and the elderly, these are people who are probably going out to a protest for the first time in their lives. And still, police held nothing back, unleashing an onslaught of tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters, sending in mounted police and undercover agents (both of which are prohibited by law). There are reports of dozens wounded and arrested, many without due process. It has been one of the most brutal exercises of police brutality we’ve seen in twenty years. Social networks are flooded with videos from people boxed in parks and squares where police would stop them from evacuating while at the same time drowning them in tear gas. In many of those videos you can hear these people desperately pleading: “We can’t breathe.”
How the hell did this happen? I’m going to try and reconstruct the sequence of events over the last few days and their political significance to give people outside the country some additional context to what’s going on and what they may be seeing in the news. I might have to go into the details for some bits, so bear with me. But right now, we’re in a situation where we can no longer trust our institutions, nor can we rely on the media to denounce the abuse that’s going on, the parliamentary coup and the conservative counterreform we’re witnessing that’s trying to turn back the clock in our country two decades. The media are not only silent, but they’re quickly aligning themselves with the de facto government.
But there’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take it one step at a time.
Last Monday, the Peruvian Congress voted to oust President Martín Vizcarra from office by declaring his “permanent moral incapacity.” That’s when the protests started and have continued raging for over five consecutive days at the time I’m writing this. Congress has been trying to oust Vizcarra for months, this being their second attempt at doing so. And they’ve been eagerly looking for any legal grounds over which they could impeach him and throw him out of office, despite Vizcarra being perhaps the most popular president in our recent history and Congress being, well, exactly the opposite. During one of the hardest times our country has gone through in the entire history of the Republic, Vizcarra was perceived as trying his best to deal with the pandemic and the economy with a weak state apparatus in no way ready for this (at the time we first went into quarantine in March, Peru only had slightly over 100 ICU beds in a country of 32 million people) while Congress was seen as trying to block him every step of the way in a continued effort to score political points for itself right before the general election taking place in April next year.
Over the last few weeks, local media surfaced allegations of corruption against Vizcarra dating back to his tenure as Governor of Moquegua, a small region in southern Peru. While no official charges have been filed and the investigation is just beginning on the case, the early evidence and testimonies appear to be credible. This became the perfect excuse for Congress to introduce a new motion to vacate the presidency on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity”.
There are three problems with this. The first one is that it is not the role of Congress to prosecute the president over any potential crimes or felonies — that attribution belongs to the National Prosecutor’s office, an autonomous entity according to the Constitution. Prosecutors are already investigating the allegations and evaluating whether there’s merit to them, and Vizcarra has publicly declared his intent to fully collaborate with the investigations and to confront any charges brought to him as soon as he leaves office on July 29, 2020. So the first problem is that these remain at present only as allegations, and it is not an attribution of Congress to evaluate their merit.
The second problem is the constitutional basis for vacating the presidency — the clause on “permanent moral incapacity”. This funky bit of language in our 1993 Constitution dates back to the Constitution of 1839, when it was first introduced to describe a situation where the President would be cognitively unable to distinguish right from wrong. It being 1839, there was no language available to describe neurological, cognitive, psychiatric, or mental conditions that would preclude the president from doing so, resulting in the ambiguous description of “permanent moral incapacity” which has remained virtually unchanged in our Constitution ever since. Congress, however, has chosen to interpret that bit as giving it the power to declare the president immoral based on their behavior.
In a leap of constitutional fancy, Congress has decided allegations of probable corruption are enough to allege Vizcarra is immoral and therefore subject to being removed from office. That’s questionable in itself because it would completely upset the balance and distribution of power in the country — under this interpretation, Congress would have the right to oust any president it had 87 votes to consider immoral under any arbitrary definition, essentially putting Congress above the popular vote. So the constitutional argument is dubious at best.
(You might be wondering why I’m referring to the Constitution with dates attached. That’s because, depending on how you count, Peru has had twelve different constitutions over our almost 200 year-old history as a Republic. The currently valid Constitution dates back to 1993 and its legitimacy is contested because if came about as a result of the self-coup of Alberto Fujimori in 1992 when he unilaterally shut down Congress and concentrated all power in the presidency, later agreeing to the drafting of a new Constitution only as a result of international pressure. But that’s a story for another day).
The third problem is the agenda underwriting the coup. Most of the political parties who voted for ousting the president — Acción Popular, Fuerza Popular, Podemos Perú, Unión por el Perú, Somos Perú, Frente Amplio, FREPAP, and Acción por el Perú — are doing so because they’re removing the main obstacle for them to push through a regressive agenda of dismantling some of the key reforms Peru has been able to activate over the last couple decades: at the center of everything is the education reform, especially that related to universities. After higher education was opened up to unregulated private investment in the early nineties, a host of low quality private degree mills quickly popped up to capitalize on the dwindling reputation of public universities. Hundreds of thousands of young middle-class Peruvians opted for degrees from shady institutions, and have since found themselves in a lot of trouble turning that investment into good jobs. The higher education system in Peru operated as a massive rip off until a few years ago, when a supervising body, the SUNEDU was created to guarantee the quality of higher education. A lot of people made boatloads of money ripping off Peru’s youth, and suddenly a new entity came into play with the power to shut down their entire operations — which, luckily, it did.
At the center of the motivations for Monday’s parliamentary coup was the continuity of the SUNEDU, as some of the parties behind the ousting of Vizcarra are funded, led, and operated essentially as extensions of some of the institutions SUNEDU has either shut down or limited significantly. But it wasn’t the only point on the regressive agenda of the 105 members of Congress who voted against Vizcarra: in just four days after he was vacated from office, we’ve seen legislative bills quickly spring up dismantling various reforms that had slowly been inching forward in the country, including protections on the environment and against illegal mining, as well as an attack on the Constitutional Tribunal, the nation’s highest court dealing with constitutional matters.
There are even credible fears the parties in Congress might leverage the situation to cancel or push back the general election already on track to happen in April next year. Because Peru has recently eliminated parliamentary reelection, and this Congress has only been active since earlier this year (after Vizcarra was forced to dissolve the previous Congress appealing to provisions in the Constitution enabling him to do so when the executive is being systematically blocked by the legislative branch), the only way for the sitting members of Congress to extend their tenure would be to reschedule the elections. Vizcarra had already called for elections and preparations for them are already under way, but in this new scenario Congress and the new executive could block that citing the risk of a new wave of COVID-19 happening because of the election.
This all sounds insane, and I haven’t even gotten to the scary part yet.
Some additional backstory is necessary to understand everything going on right now. Vizcarra took over power after the resignation of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski a couple years ago, itself over allegations of corruption and wrongdoing during his time as Finance Minister several years back under a different administration. As Vice-president, Vizcarra took over as next in line of succession and under the general impression he would be basically dominated by Fuerza Popular, the latest reincarnation of the Fujimori-aligned forces who had majority control of Congress at the time. And then all of a sudden, he didn’t do that. He pushed back hard on the fujimoristas, doubled down on political and electoral reform and embraced the banner of anticorruption as his own, to everyone’s astonished surprise.
Vizcarra was unexpected. He was explicitly not part of the white, old-school Lima elites Kuczsynki came from and provided balance with the rest of the country (who are predominantly not white, old-school Lima elites) for his presidential formula. A civil engineer by training, Vizcarra came to prominence after a rather successful tenure as governor of Moquegua (the very same tenure that has now come into question over corruption allegations). The fujimoristas, who were still scorned from their narrow defeat in the 2016 presidential elections, began waging war on Vizcarra leveraging their control of Congress and abusing their capacity to vote no confidence on the members of his cabinet. Vizcarra went so far as to disband Congress within the Constitution. Congress was so impopular, there were crowds out on the streets celebrating the dissolution of Congress as a triumph for democracy (I would know, since I was there).
While Vizcarra has not been the greatest of presidents, during his unexpected government he has reliably sided with important reforms and defended them against the attacks of both the prior and the present Congress, and this stoic defense has garnered him immense popularity. But: it has come at the extreme displeasure, on the one hand, of the sectors represented in Congress I was mentioning above; and, on the other hand, of those very much white, old-school Lima elites who see him as a traitor.
Because Vizcarra has no second vice-president (another fun story for another day), the next person in the line of succession for the presidency was Manuel Merino, a congress member from the Acción Popular party representing Tumbes, a region in the north of Peru, who was elected with only 5,271 votes. Merino is understood to have been plotting for weeks with various political forces in Congress to oust Vizcarra and take over the presidency for himself, negotiating various points of this regressive agenda in exchange for their support.
Merino is not a smart man, and he’s quickly demonstrated he’s in way over his head. Protests against his de facto takeover the presidency started even while Congress was voting against Vizcarra, before Merino has even been sworn in, and they haven’t stopped since. On Tuesday, the protests became even more massive as Merino hastily declared himself president and relocated himself to the presidential palace, only to remain in silence for the rest of the day. The protests going on around downtown Lima continued to grow in size, and the police responded with completely undue brutality. Banner and even Peruvian flags were seized from protesters and tear gas was used indiscriminately against a population who was exercising their constitutional right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. Rubber bullets were fired at close range. Merino remained in complete silence, and word started going around that he was finding it impossible to assemble a new cabinet in the face of his illegitimate takeover of the presidency and the ensuing violence and brutality being exercised by police against the protests.
Merino had promised a cabinet that would be broadly representative of all Peruvians and all political forces, but Peruvians were out on the streets clamoring against him. On Wednesday we got a better sense for his understanding of “broad representation” when he appointed Ántero Flores-Aráoz as his cabinet chief. Flores-Aráoz is one of the more salient faces from those white, old-school Lima elites who regarded Vizcarra as something of a traitor. A long-time career politician who’s hesitated to position himself on the wrong side of history, whether that is LGBTIQ+ right, indigenous rights, or just generally rights. He had a rather shameful run for president back in 2016 on a platform that could be characterized as proto-fascist, and which will go down in history for his attempt to connect to young voters by recording himself to the tune of a poorly-written reggaetón song that is so bad, it should never be forgotten. Incidentally, this nickname has earned him the nickname “gato fiero”, or fierce cat, which bears absolutely no compliment in any way.
Flores-Aráoz set out to build a cabinet for Merino which has turned out to be a collection of the most regressive, reactionary characters one could possibly have imagined. As has been pointed out by multiple journalists and analysts, Flores-Aráoz’s cabinet is composed of a host of conservatives who would’ve never been able to get to power through regular elections. It is only through a parliamentary coup that the door has opened for them to quickly seize power and being systematically dismantling any meaningful reforms we might have seen over the last few years, such as higher education reform, the inclusion of gender issues in the public education curriculum, the fight against public corruption in big-profile cases such as Lavajato, protections for the environment and against powerful lobbying groups, the advancement of human rights causes and protections, and the list goes on and on.
But perhaps what’s most salient against the de facto government of Merino, Flores-Aráoz, and their ultraconservative cabinet is the extent and gravity of the police brutality we’ve seen in the streets over the last few days. The de facto government is actively cracking down on protests with undue violence, with undercover police officers infiltrating marches and instigating violence and the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets. There is abundant evidence of brutality on the general population, on journalists covering the protests, and even on the volunteer medical brigades who have been assisting the wounded while clearly identifying themselves as support teams. The regime is trying to send an unambiguous message to the population that their rights will not be respected and that they will continue to escalate the violence if people continue to protest.
This is no minor protest. As I write this, the second large-scale national protest is about to get started, and thousands of people will hit the streets despite significant risk of personal harm. The regime simply cannot bring itself to understand why or how this is happening — as representatives of old-school ways of doing politics, they keep looking for responsibility across political parties and groups, and they keep chasing shadows and denouncing some non-existent left-wing conspiracy of some sort. But the protests are already completely somewhere else: they’re self-organizing through social networks like Twitter, Instagram, and increasingly TikTok. Groups are quickly coming together and sharing information and resources without any sort of central coordination. Merino, Flores-Aráoz and their cabinet have no idea what’s going on, and they’re befuddled by how much energy is brewing up so quickly.
But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily winning. Police brutality is rampant, and just in the last few hours Flores-Aráoz has appeared openly speaking to police, congratulating them on their efforts and declaring himself their protector. Local media have quickly aligned with the new regime and are underplaying the protests, or openly blaming the protesters for vandalism and trying to side public opinion against them. Institutions are quickly being taken over by the counterreform, with members from the most conservative groups in our societies assuming public positions and dismantling any semblance of reform that might have taken place. Just in the last couple days, the regime has attempted to fire one of the nation’s chief prosecutors in order to perpetuate itself in power, and the executive board of the national TV and radio stations have resigned in protest over attempts to control their editorial line. We’re witnessing a full-blown authoritarian takeover of the State apparatus that is going virtually unchallenged. There is no balance of power, and fundamental rights are being threatened as people protest what’s going on.
The protests are helping, though. The sheer amount of people out on the streets all over the country, not only marching and chanting but participating in all sorts of activism — media makers, writers, graphic designers, coders, video producers, dancers, musicians, all sorts of activism has begun to sprung up — has helped block the most glaring forms of abuse that were about to take place. Merino has been forced to publicly state that his regime will respect the law when it comes to higher education (but, of course, Congress can change that law still). So there are hints of progress and hope.
Yet for those of us who’re going out on the streets, there’s little recourse for us to turn to. Institutions are being snatched away. Political parties are complicit. The media have turned their backs on us. Which is why I’m writing this. International pressure has been extremely important over the last few days. The UN, the OAS, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, amongst multiple other entities have expressed their concern about the situation in Peru. Merino’s regime has received virtually no recognition from the international community, including the US and the UK who’ve also expressed concerns over the upcoming elections in April. This pressure has made it hard for Merino to assemble a cabinet, and it is making it increasingly difficult for his supporters to continue denying the evidence of police brutality, repression and abuse. Local media aren’t showing it, but information and evidence is plentiful on social networks. We need this information to get out there, and for international pressure to continue to mount.
I’ve hastily written this up because a lot of people I know have been asking me about what’s going on in Peru. I’m sure there are plenty of omissions or imprecisions, and there’s most assuredly a lot of personal interpretation about what’s going on and how I’ve chosen to describe things. Over the next few hours I’ll try to continue updating this post with more detail and texture, but as you can see, there’s a lot of backstory to elaborate in order to fully understand what’s going on right now. If you can, please share this with your own networks and people you know so we can bring more attention to what’s going on in Peru. Because we literally can’t breathe right now — they’re suffocating us with tear gas, trying to break us with rubber bullets and batons, trying to scare us and our families through the media. It feels like time has been turned back, like the last twenty years never happened.
But it’s also different, and there are hundreds of people who’re finding their own ways, their own new ways to express what they think and what they feel. The protest on Thursday was certainly the largest I’ve ever seen in my life, but the energy we’re seeing on all social networks is truly astounding. These are young people who are going to fight for democracy, to make a claim for their future.
We can’t breathe right now. But that’s not going to stop us.